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How is intuitive defined in terms of UI? Are there any studies about what objective and measurable qualities make a user interface intuitive? What design principles, patterns, or approaches are most likely to produce a UI that is considered intuitive?

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2 Answers

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Good question. Wikipedia lists intuition as "thoughts and preferences that come to mind quickly and without much reflection" - so basically, saying a UI is intuitive is like saying it exhibits several positive attributes: it's memorable, discoverable, easy to learn, familiar, matches expectation, and so forth. But let's not take my word for it. Let's refer to the experts!

  • Jef Raskin wrote the definitive article about intuitive interfaces in 1994. In it, he inspects several quotes discussing intuitive interfaces or intuition, and remarks on what they implied. "When the tools had been learned, [...] they became intuitive. This is a strong clue as to the meaning of 'intuitive'," he says about the author of a a review he read (and then proceeds to reference Star Trek IV). Later, he concludes that "'intuitive' in [a certain] context is an almost exact synonym of 'familiar'". And finally, he arrives at a definition: "Intuitive = uses readily transferred, existing skills."

  • Jared Spool also wrote about intuitive interfaces in an article in 2005 called "What makes a design seem 'intuitive'?". One interesting thing he points out is that "interfaces can’t be intuitive, since they are the behavior side of programs and programs can’t intuit anything. When someone is asking for an intuitive interface, what they are really asking for is an interface that they, themselves, can intuit easily." Afterwards, he introduces the concept of the Knowledge Gap, which is the difference between what the user knows and what the user needs to know in order to understand how to use the software:

    The Knowledge Gap

    An intuitive interface, he argues, will bridge that gap. He identifies two separate conditions for intuitive interfaces. In the first case, the knowledge gap doesn't exist because the user already possesses all the knowledge required to use the interface. In the second case, the user doesn't notice the knowledge gap since the software is training them to use it.

    Finally, he suggests what is needed to design an intuitive interface: "What do users already know and what do they need to know? To build intuitive interfaces, answering these two questions is critical." For the first, he recommends field studies and for the second, he recommends usability testing.

  • In psychology, the Exposure effect "is a phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them". This phenomenon was first researched in 1876 by Gustav Fechner and likely has a large impact on how people perceive interfaces from a familiarity standpoint, which affects how they intuit them.

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+1 for the knowledge gap wisdom. What do users already know and what do they need to know? –  neoneye Sep 3 '10 at 21:13
Almost every piece of software I learn to use is based on prior experience with seemingly unrelated software. It's when that software goes against an apparent "norm" that Google gets a visit! –  Nick Bedford May 19 '11 at 22:29
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I'm worried that perhaps your question is flawed. You are looking for a general answer like, "the faceted search pattern is always going to be more intuitive than the search suggestions pattern," but any answer like that would ignore the most crucial factor: audience. Intuition, and therefore intuitiveness, is a human thing, not a design thing. In a sense, therein lies your answer. It helps to think about it like this:

alt text

The one thing that has been proven over and over to increase the likelihood of landing in that middle area is data. Understanding your audience allows you to identify the patterns, principles, and approaches that are most likely to match your users' mental model.

There are lots of ways to get this information, but observing your audience using a possible design, and asking them questions about their experience seems to have a very high return for the amount of time invested. If you are earlier in the design process, it can also be very helpful to look at what your audience considers substitutes, and see what patterns and approaches they are currently being exposed to (and identify the problems with the current approach).

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The picture could be a bit bigger. ;) –  Glen Lipka Sep 3 '10 at 20:20
Upvoted. Also, I didn't feel like messing with Omnigraffle's output. –  jasonrr Sep 3 '10 at 22:19
Two words: Balsamiq. –  Glen Lipka Sep 8 '10 at 0:50
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