Why ‘Intuitive’ Interface Is A Myth

Was the mouse “intuitive” before you learned to use it? Probably not. So intuition alone shouldn’t drive UI.

We toss around the term “intuitive” a lot when it comes to user interface. We think of Apple products, and the way they redefined PCs and smartphones through systems that “just worked.”

But Timoni West, a designer at Foursquare, makes an interesting argument. Sometimes, these so-called intuitive gestures are a poor substitute for a clearly explained alternative. Her advice:

… don’t feel like every single action you design right now, in this Wild West time of interaction design, has to be completely intuitive. There are things we think are intuitive now that we learned using tutorials decades ago. Andrei Herasimchuk pulled up a great old Apple tutorial on how to use a mouse. Do you remember those? Probably not, even if you’re above a certain age, and your kids or siblings (or maybe even you) have likely never seen them. They learned how to use a mouse by watching people instead. People don’t come out of the womb knowing how to use a mouse—they do learn it, at some point—but once the information is out there they can learn so seamlessly it doesn’t matter.

In other words, don’t strive above all else to make your interface intuitive, just make it very easy to learn. This piece got me thinking: Pinch-to-zoom is the epitome of what most of us would call an intuitive gesture in 2013. But would you have figured it out having never heard the term?

Seriously, would you have picked up an iPhone with Google Maps loaded and thought to yourself, "I can pinch this glass screen to enlarge the whole image"? Of course not. Nothing in real life--from newspaper print to a magnifying glass--works like that. But it’s amazing because it simply feels fantastic, requiring minimal effort while provoking a response from the interface that is perfectly predictable. And once you go through the motions, you’ll never forget them again.

Picking your nose is intuitive. Much like Kleenex, pinch-to-zoom is intuitive only in retrospect.

Read more here.

[Hat tip: Matt Buchanan]

[Image: Pinch to Zoom via Shutterstock/Illustration: Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design]

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  • Jose Vigil

    Good Point Mark. Something reasonable after too much speaking. 

    Agree with you. that interfaces are not intuitive and non-intuitive but easy or difficult to learn. The current UI and interface design paradigm is sometimes asking too much say using a software reaching each corner without even knowing it, to my eyes that mission is impossible and ends up being an interface challenge than rather accomplishing the original mission. Trap many developers are falling into. 
    I am myself researching deeply on gestures and hope to come up with it on a product I would like to share with you if you please agree. 


  • Roman Maximyuk

    Although I agree, and I need arguments for how mouse is not intuitive compare to finger input. I think that mouse is quite intuitive, because you touch it and something moves on the screen. Clicking is another thing of course, but I don't think it is that hard to deduce for yourself what your actions correspond with what events on the screen.

  • Philip Illum Thonbo

    just asked my 4 year old son if he knew how to zoom on my Android tablet... he never used it before, he only knows ipads. .. but he did as expected - i asked him where he knew.. and he said i just know... interresting how it seems so natural...

  • Philip Illum Thonbo

    have you testede any of these theorys on 3 year old kids ? gestures and touch is under their skin by the first time they see it in action unlike eye hand cordination with mice and even harder using a keyboard... kids gets ipads in schools from the first grade, and ipads are slowly making their way into the kindergarden... so kids do learn touch faster than we think and it sticks as common intuition from day one...

  • Hans

    I think one must also take into account that, even with new and intuitive interfaces, you are still stuck with the burden of invalidating peoples preconceptions, habits and expectations.

    Also, I wonder if "intuitive interface" is being confused with "natural interface"?

  • tgc0703

    Edwin Guthrie, a psychologist, bucked the trend of the behaviorists back in the day and called this, 'one-trial' learning' but this type of single instance learned behavior has also been called eidetic learning (sort of like eidetic memory) or even idiomatic learning.   What you're experiencing is same simple stimulus-response that is pervasive and, arguably, necessary for human behavior.  Intuition almost has a predictive nature to it, that only serves when form and logic can be singularly adapted, without loss, to an equal but orthogonal problem.   The outcome is thought to be 'unconscious' when in fact (or theory) we have applied similar principles to a new problem almost instantly.  Seemingly, 'without thinking...'   Intuition is not idiomatic learning, as you characterize, and there are many research papers about this topic.  

  • Philip Illum Thonbo

    please feed me more knowlegde, i crawe what you talk about - you have a website or Twitter profiler?

  • Martin Douglas Hendry

    Intuitive and conventional interactions. Semiotics as a frame of understanding can come in handy here. 

  • Martin Douglas Hendry

    Intuition and conventions; interaction. Semiotics as a frame of understanding can come in handy here. 

  • André Åström

    I don't believe that peoples way of thinking intuitive is the problem of not daring to be inventive. In my opinion be intuitive means both doing stuff that works and stuff that is easily learned.

  • Simon

    I did my PhD on Intuitive interaction, and familiarity is most definitely the basis for intuition. Intuition is the result of prior knowledge telling us what to do in a given situation. Some of this knowledge is from image schemas, which is knowledge we gain from interacting with the world (up is more, down is less), and this knowledge is non-cultural. Then there is cultural knowledge, i.e. clockwise rotation, and reading left to write for western languages. The knowledge we rely upon most is person knowledge that we have gained from our own experiences with technology. The most important time period is the first 25ish years. Like much of human behaviour, behaviour around technology is *generally* defined by what people grew up around. Naturally people have the ability to learn and adapted, and the easier something is to learn, the easier it is for them to adopt, get better and, and the become intuitive with.

    iOS is intuitive not because it's based on things we already know, it's intuitive because it's highly learnable. You learn to pinch to zoom once, and then you know it. After that it's intuitive.

  • Robert

    Do you have a link or at least a title for your thesis? Or a last name? ;) I'd like to learn more.

  • Ledges

    There are no buttons on an iPhone, therefore its intuitive to play with it and discover pinch to zoom. I didn't know what it was called nor had I seen anyone do it when I picked up and pinched to zoom.

  • Lucas Franco Colusso

    The guy is not saying that intuition is a myth. I think that this article's title is quite sensationalist. Everybody who has studied a little further on hci or interactionist theories or moreover human thinking and acting, knows that yes, there are some movements which produce predictable outcomes.
    Keywords for googling:- embodied interaction- image schemas- conceptual metaphors

  • PhineasJW

    Aza Raskin once described pinch-to-zoom as "familiar, not intuitive", which I think is spot on.  

  • Jack

    The intuition needed for pinch to zoom doesn't necessarily come from 'zooming in' to see things. It comes from enlarging things, plenty of things can be enlarged by stretching. Clothing, rubber bands, pizza bases. You could also think about it from a discovery point of view, opening and closing things are the same action (sort of anyway) as pinching and zooming. 

    If someone asks you to describe how big an apple is would you tell them the direct dimensions? Draw a diagram? Or simple holding out your fingers/hands and say "this big".

  • Pete Iorns

     Pinch to Zoom certainly is intuitive.

    But as Jack points out the response is closer to touch-to-stretch. It is cetainly an
    intuitive response once the simple action of touching the screen and
    pushing the image around is discovered. - "When I touch the screen the
    image moves with my finger. It moves as if
    the image is physical and under my control. If i push the sides
    outwards, away from each other, I can get a better look an the center. I
    delve inwards."

    The throwaway comment at the end of the article
    "Picking your nose is intuitive" is actually on-the-money, but in the
    opposite way the writer intended. If your nose is blocked or you feel
    something in there our intuitive repsonse is to stick a finger in there
    to feel it and remove it. The intuition initially develops from
    learning, as a baby, that when you touch something with your hand, you
    feel it; you can manipulate it. Next you discover that you can touch and
    feel you own self, and manipulate things around or on it. This leads to
    picking the nose as an intuitive response.

    Once a groundwork or base for response is there, intuition is the extension of those repsonses within the same environment.