Everyone knows the famous quote (by Bruce Ediger or Steve Jobs, I'm not sure):

The only "intuitive" interface is the nipple. After that it's all learned.

It's an amusing gem, but is it really practically true? Is the term "intuitive" still useful in terms of interfaces?

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    I suspect that's the sort of quote that can only have been made by a man. – Matt Goddard May 13 '10 at 12:01
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    Did you just write this question so you could type the word "nipple"? – Tom Auger May 3 '11 at 18:48
  • I would replace "nipple" with "touchscreen". – ONOZ Aug 8 '12 at 14:28
  • That's an old adage that some find rings true to them. It was coined before touch interfaces and before the current UX revolution. As long as we keep innovating, there's no end in sight. In a way we're just scratching the surface with usable metrics in interface design. We're even further back in interface design that utilizes all our senses. – Chris Aug 21 '12 at 7:02
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    It's more likely that the statement is wrong; plenty of babies have difficulty learning to breastfeed. – eykanal Aug 21 '12 at 14:03

13 Answers 13

up vote 35 down vote

This quote is cute, often cited, and actually simply wrong. Even the nipple (as a feeding ‘device’) is learned – just ask some midwives and dry-nurses how many young mothers struggle with teaching(sic!) their newborns how to drink.

Taking this into account, one should rather reconsider the concept of ‘intuitive’. See e.g. Glen's and Michael's answers.

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    Your answer would have 100+ votes if there were more mothers on here. My wife wants to create a ux.se account just to vote this one up. – Luke Charde Aug 8 '12 at 22:22
  • Amen. Whoever thought that quote up obviously hasn't spent much time with newborns. – abeger Aug 21 '12 at 16:43
  • Any father whose child was breastfed should be voting this up too. – Bevan Aug 23 '12 at 0:49
  • There's some evidence that 'face recognition' however is 'intuitive' - ie hardwired in from birth. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Face_perception – PhillipW Aug 25 '12 at 12:31
  • Not only that nipple sucking is learned, look at the user. Sucking is basically all they can do. So it's only a matter of matching a tool (nipple) to the only action the user can do (sucking) thus making it "intuitive". – AsafBO Dec 11 '12 at 12:00

“Intuitive” (technically, it should be “intuitable”) means the user can use the UI without having to consciously stop and figure the UI out. Learned habituated responses are performed without conscious thought, so intuitive includes more than instincts.

Intuitive is desirable because the less the user has to think about the UI, the more they can focus on the task and complete it quickly without error. Like “user-friendly” and “simple,” it’s a term laypeople understand well, but among us UX professionals, it’s too broad to be useful in most of our own communications. The following more specific UI features constitute intuitive:

  • Affordances. UI elements have a natural shape and position that communicates the expected interaction. Nipples fall into this category.

  • Clear Labels. UI elements have short clear labels that communicate in the user’s own language.

  • Organization. Similar and related items are proximal to each other in the UI.

  • Compatibility. Positions and directions of motions are consistent with UI responses. For example, to move my pointer from my left to right monitor, I slew off the right side of my left monitor.

  • Feedback. The effects of user actions are immediately apparent where the user is focusing attention.

  • Appropriate metaphors. The UI makes explicit associations to physical and cultural analogues and the UI behavior is consistent with that analogue.

  • External consistency. Given one thing in your UI and another thing outside your UI that the user knows well, if the two things appear the same then they have the same meaning; if they have the same meaning, then they should appear the same.

The last one might be arguably called the “grandfather” feature of all that is intuitive, where the other features are corollaries of it. This implies that designing to be intuitive primarily means leveraging user learning and experience (although it also includes leveraging human instincts). Thus, how intuitive your UI is depends on your users, and the experience and knowledge they bring to it.

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    "Appropriate metaphors" indeed! 50% of the mammal population's nipples don't do much of anything. Hrmph. – danlefree May 14 '10 at 1:18
  • Thanks a lot, Michael! The last paragraph of your answer really made me think about user's previous experience. To gain an experience you have to learn something somehow. So there should be some interfaces that require learning to use (for some things or tasks which are new for the user). But could such interfaces be intuitive? – Kostya May 14 '10 at 12:41
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    Yes, anything new requires learning, but intuitive is relative: learning is easier (more “intuitive”) if it is linked to prior learning. For example, users new to blogging need to understand transitioning their content from private to public access. In labeling the button for this, we exploit their existing knowledge. We label it Publish, applying a metaphor from magazine knowledge, or Post, applying a metaphor from bulletin board experience. These are more intuitive labels than, say, “downgrade security attribute value” even though the latter is more technically correct. – Michael Zuschlag May 24 '10 at 11:51
  • @Kostya If the task is new to the user - e.g. filling out a tax return form for the first time - it can take a lot of learning. Separating "UI knowledge" and "domain knowledge" can be useful. The UI can help - be more "intuitive" or "learnable" - by a) reusing standard UI conventions for standard operations like "save" or "undo" so the user doesn't need to relearn things they already know from elsewhere, b) reusing standard "domain" concepts and terms, so if the user is told that "this deduction goes in attachment X" they can easily find it in the UI, and c) provide examples. – j-g-faustus May 2 '11 at 16:57
  • +1 for intuitable and also for pointing out that what is intuitable is often based on previous learning. A Mac may be easy(ier) to use for someone new to computers, but can be frustrating to a lifetime Windows user. – Joshua Drake Aug 21 '12 at 14:01

It's a cute quote, but not entirely accurate. The human body is intuitive. How do you use your eyes? How do you digest food? How do you use your brain to learn?

Intuition: The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition.

We use alot of labels to describe how easy a system is to understand and learn. Obvious or invisible intgerfaces are close cousins to intuitive. I would describe obvious as an interface that seemingly has no other possible interpretation of how to use it. Like a door with a flat plate should be pushed (not pulled). It's obvious because there really is no other choice. Invisible is an automatic light that turns on when you enter a room. Nothing to think about at all. Just being there is enough.

To me intuitive (in the common usage) is an interface that gives you enough hints to make it easy to learn via muddling. In other words, it doesn't make you do anything seemingly unnatural. All the of the gestures are ones you might guess if you just tried to use it. An iPhone is very much like that. It mimics the 3D world.

I try to make my systems intuitive by thinking of all the ways someone might guess how to use it and making all of those gestures work. When people guess and they are right, they call it intuitive.

Lastly, regarding the nipple...it has many more uses than milk. I wonder which use he had in mind. ;)

  • I love your answer,but the Apple hint was a spoiler for me. A button (not marked as home) on the bottom that closes applications??? How intuitive can that be...Yet, let this not become a flair on a company. Once again: good writing. – Charis May 13 '10 at 21:29
  • Glen, thanks for a detailed answer! The thing that attracts my attention is your idea of "thinking of all the ways someone might guess how to use it and making all of those gestures work". Is it really possible to think about all ways? We all know that sometimes users can do such things that you can't even imagine :) And what if some of the ways would be conflicting? Is it always possible to create really intuitive solution for a given task? – Kostya May 14 '10 at 12:32
  • Charis, I agree the iPod is totally unnatural in many ways. I was specifically thinking about the touch gestures like swiping and shaking. Like flicking a list is very natural. I wasn't clear though. Kostya, You can guess 90% of the time. Listen for support calls for the long tail. This blog post helps: commadot.com/the-big-five-of-interaction-design – Glen Lipka May 16 '10 at 6:08
  • Your own body is intuitive to you, but the quote deals with interfaces rather than bodily actions, and could presumably mean: "The only intuitive interface is the [human-human] nipple[-mouth interface]...". You are right about that the nipple isn't the only intuitive interface: genital-genital interface could be another global example and "obscene gesture"-human interface could be a culture-limited example (see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obscene_gestures). I like your thoughts, but just the first examples were a bit faulty in this context. – Jari Keinänen Jan 3 '11 at 15:37

For an infant, the nipple is not an intuitive interface. Children do not see a nipple and understand how to use it; it is a physical reflex called the Sucking or Rooting Reflex that is a series of motor motions an infant will perform if anything is near it's mouth. That's why infants will suck on your finger as readily as a nipple, and why they will suck on a nipple even when their eyes are closed.

Infants don't see the nipple and immediately understand how to use it; their brains have simply been hardwired to perform those actions. They perform other odd actions like "walking" their feet when they're held off the ground. You'd hardly call that "intuitive"; it's just stuff their bodies do.

Now, after a child begins to lose these primitive reflexes, they still "know" how to use a nipple. How? The knowledge has been reinforced. I see this round thing, I suck on it, I get yummy milk. The knowledge is even generalized to other, similar stimuli. It can take some work to do this; for example training a baby to use a bottle. But the association between suck -> food is still strong.

Now that's a pretty complicated learning process. Surely you can't say it's intuitive to suck on a nipple, right? Well, no, the nipple is still intuitive. The fact of the matter is learning and intuition are not mutually exclusive.

As beings with brains and minds, we learn. It is not always a conscious process; in fact it is almost always an unconscious process.

While this statement is pithy and cute, it fundamentally misinterprets both learning and intuition. I strongly encourage all of you to have more respect for psychology and the brain than to reduce it to pithy, inaccurate and harmful phrases like this. Learning is not "bad". Learning is what our brains do.

Let's get on track and understand Intuition as a psychological term. From Wikipedia:

In more-recent psychology, intuition can encompass the ability to know valid solutions to problems and decision making. For example, the recognition primed decision (RPD) model explains how people can make relatively fast decisions without having to compare options. Gary Klein found that under time pressure, high stakes, and changing parameters, experts used their base of experience to identify similar situations and intuitively choose feasible solutions.

Intuition isn't doing without learning; it's doing without thinking. You grab your mouse and you move it right; that's intuiton. If you had to sit there and think "Hm, I want this arrow to move right. How do I move this bar of soap to move this pointy arrow" then that wouldn't be intuitive because it would require rational, deliberate thought.

Sure, moving a mouse is not a "natural" interaction; how "natural" the reaction is is completely irrelevant to intuition. In practical terms, the only "natural" is what happens. For human beings in the United States, a keyboard and mouse is "natural". Natural in this context is the environment you're in, not the environment that would be if there were no humans.

Now, intuition is not always achievable as a goal either, so you shouldn't put undo focus on wanting to be intuitive. I can charitably read that remark as an appeal to not depend on "intuition", but as Michael Zuschlag's answer demonstrates, "intuitive" is also not completely impossible to achieve in an interface.

You know what's intuitive? Seeing a submit button and clicking it to submit a form. Sure, it's learned. Sure, stick a baby in front of a monitor and it won't fill out the form and "magically" know to press the submit button. But that's not what intuition is; intuition is understanding with only basic perception of an object.

For more on more natural learning, see my related answer on Cognitive Science explaining how learning is a very natural thing (even when it doesn't involve mice and keyboards).

  • +1 Probably the most coherent and well explained answer here. – Jay Aug 22 '12 at 8:52
  • Probably? It IS! – Jake Petroules Dec 2 '12 at 8:29

Ah, I think the cash machine example is wrong - I'm old enough to remember when our banks introduced them. They had a sales rep out the front of the bank giving customers lessons, and uptake with older people - people who you would think would be able to work these things out - didn't like them and resisted early efforts to learn.

Common place artefacts are always said to be intuitive because they have always been a part of your life and one tends to forget the initial learning of a process.

I've always thought that you learn throughout life including that, when you are a baby, that nice big pink thing gives you yummy food!

"Intuitive" means

  • A user does not have to use a manual to figure out how to complete a task.
  • A user does not need to learn through trial-and-error.
  • The interactions are not the focal point. It is not hide-and-seek. Interactions are subtle tools to reach the goal.

From these vague points it is clear that interfaces are depended on the target group. If the target group of an interface is the whole world, then it should be as close to the mental model of the real world interaction as it can be. Since this by definition is a limiting factor, be sure that there is no universally recognised and appreciated User Interfaces - only interfaces appreciated by large groups of people.

Even the nipple is not recognised by people that have not been breast fed. Also, the whole system behind it unstable, has different context depending on the age of the owner and the user and it may behave differently under certain circumstances. Bad interaction example :)

  • Thanks Charis! I agree absolutely that "the interface should be as close to the mental model of the real world interaction as it can be". But what about the real world interfaces? For example, everyone can use the stairs without manuals, so it should be considered as an intuitive interface. But there are many objects which can not be used properly without learning. – Kostya May 14 '10 at 12:47
  • Even if it was about the interface of the Earth itself, you always have to consider a certain target group. People from a flat green landscape, will not interact well with a snowstorm. People that were born without being able to use their legs would not know what to do when they see stairs for the first time. It is always a matter of a target group and assumptions - therefore there is no "universally approved" interface. Its like saying there is only one God! :) – Charis May 14 '10 at 18:58

An example I was given ages ago was a cash machine ATM. Nobody has ever been given instructions how to operate one, they just go to it and use it. That may not be quite as applicable nowadays, now that there is more to ATMs than just withdrawing cash (now you can top up phones etc.) but I think it still makes its point.

You could also discribe a pelican crossing terminal as intuitive. Just one button, and we know how to use that instinctively too.

  • Thanks, Jon! I like your examples very much. But I'm not really sure about the pelican crossing. I think we all know how to use it because we were taught in a childhood. But if you take an imaginable person who have never ever been in a city, would he understand what to do to cross the street? – Kostya May 14 '10 at 12:55
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    Being old enough to remember when ATMs were introduced - I can assure you that many people found them confusing at that point :-) – adrianh May 14 '10 at 13:35
  • I would say that it is still intuitive, provided you already know the purpose of the device. It is used to help you safely cross the road - providing that you know this then the actual device itself is straightforward to use without any training. That does raise an interseting dilema though - is there anything truely intuitive without already knowing what the purpose is beforehand? – JonW May 14 '10 at 14:36
  • Not sure how an ATM is intuitive at all; they have instructions on screen at all time. – Ben Brocka Aug 21 '12 at 16:25
  • ATMs aren't intuitive. I know someone who as a teenager had to have their card returned by post the first time they used it because they didn't notice the arrows beside the screen and the ATM timed out and kept their card. – Sam Hasler Aug 21 '12 at 17:00

"Intuitive" as a term was misused to the point of absurdity in the earlier days of software development, and probably still is. Any discipline which requires knowledge and skill but touches upon the common experiences of most people (like user design, or writing) is either deified or trivialized.

Even in the early nineties, it was common for people to refer to the "intuitive" user interface of a car. Apparently people forgot how much time and effort it took them to learn to drive, not to mention the hunt for headlight and windshield wiper switches every time they drove an unfamiliar car. And finding the transmission fluid dipstick... and the difference between an automatic and a stickshift...

I suspect people forget the impact of folks like Don Norman ("The Psychology of Everyday Things", later retitled to the less-scary "The Design of Everyday Things") who championed/popularized applying cognitive psychology to design, or Jakob Nielsen ("Usability Engineering") championing the idea that your design intuition probably sucks and is trumped by a systematic, disciplined approach to finding a better design.

The idea that the mental model of your application design will be consistent ("if it works like this in that part of the app, it probably works like this in the other part") is probably about the only truly intuitive thing. Design for consistency - create expectations and then meet those expectations. Consistency between the application model and some learned model is intuitive, but only if you discount the learnedness of the foreign model.

[This last is not meant to imply that intuitivity/consistency is the trump card of good design, only that it's one of the strong forces in the equation.]

[Or to put it another way; I just came across this, which I wrote several years ago:

Somewhere in the process I decided that a large chunk of what people think of as "intuition" seems to consist of subconsciously constructing and internalizing a model of the world. When we can match up a new situation to part of that model quickly, and that part of the model correctly allows us to make successful predictions about interacting with something, we call that "intuitive". ]

The nipple is NOT an intuitive interface. This quote may be funny, but it is unfounded probably because it was stated by a man who knows nothing about motherhood. Only a man could put nipples on such a pedestal.

An intuitive interface is one that calls on various mental models held by the user in order to allow them to have understanding of the features of the system before they begin to use it.

A new-born baby has no mental models surrounding consuming food or nipples. They have a reflexive action as mentioned by some posters, however many newborns can have trouble latching on or learning how to feed. They have no intuitive understanding of how to use a nipple.

Now a really intuitive interface would be the bottles that are used to feed small children - these are often shaped similarly to a nipple and provide sustenance the same way. They call on the child's mental model of the nipple in order to be intuitive and this is very effective.

A mammal is born with the "Instinct" to feed not "Intuition"... The word "intuition", like the word "instinct" does not carry with it a sense of "reasoning", it does, however, suggest or convey the idea that some amount of knowledge and awareness is involved.

The quote does not mention human babies but as humans are the only mammals that use interfaces, we can assume that humans are what the quote is referring to.

Instinct is something you are born with, and as you grow into an adult, sometimes you lose some of those instincts. A child is not born with intuition, she/he gains it through experience.

When a baby is born, the instinct is there to swallow and to eat. Finding and suckling a nipple is learnt and therefore the action becomes intuitive, it does not start out as intuitive.

It IS the only intuitive interface. Here's why:

Well first, it is an interface.

in·ter·face/ˈintərˌfās/ Noun: A point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc., meet and interact.

It is intuitive without any learning required

in·tu·i·tive/inˈt(y)o͞oitiv/ Adjective: Using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive.

Mammals including humans are hard wired to understand the nipple interface without being taught.

Every other item we interact with is learned from mom, dad, siblings, friends, teachers and up the line. Every child's toy serves as the foundation for all the ways we interact with our world. Even a rattle is learned by discovery. I think I have made my point.


  • "Without any learning" isn't universally true--at least not with humans. – DA01 Aug 21 '12 at 4:48
  • I disagree, minutes after birth newborns will "root" for the nipple and latch once they find it. sonographydegree.net/2010/05/… – Itumac Aug 21 '12 at 13:45
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    They will try. But it doesn't always come naturally (I know this from experience and the subsequent consultation with lactation consultants) – DA01 Aug 21 '12 at 14:31
  • Wife is a post partum doula. So I understand your position. I remember my bio professor saying that in biology for every rule there is exception. – Itumac Aug 21 '12 at 14:38

I believe the term 'intuitive' can only really be understood in context: as UX designers, the key thing we need to understand is who our audience is. 'Intuitive' as it is generally understood is pretty much meaningless: it's a marketing term, like 'natural'. As other posters have commented, a nipple is 'intutive' because it's a simple affordance: the design lets an infant (the primary audience) meet their immediate need (for simplicity I'm ignoring complications in breast feeding!). So if you design an interface that is similar to one I have already used, I would find it intuitive. I like to think of it as a hierarchy:

  • An affordance that means I can only do one thing is intuitive
  • Clear labelling or instructions can make it intuitive, but require more effort on my part
  • Building on cultural artifacts (e.g. red for danger in the west) can be intuitive
  • Building on my existing skills or experiences can make it intuitive

As you go up the hierarchy, you restrict the audience more and more.

In Steve Jobs Biography, Steve thought something was amazing when he watched a Calf soon after it was born. Never being taught, the calf instantly knew how to walk. Steve concluded the calf was born with hardwired software.

Is is possible that animals are pre-coded with software, and humans start out with a clean slate?

Nothing is intuitive to humans.

Everything is learned. Everything that seems intuitive is based on previously learned models. Everyone knows how a book works. It has a cover, a title, pages filled with sequential content. To make a kindle intuitive, you COPY the mental model that already exists in our mind.

Intuitive interfaces are just copies of things we already know.

Tabs = Binder with dividers Windows = Paper on a desk (the one on top shows) Touch Device = Real Buttons were used to pressing Swipe = Turning a page in a magazine or book ect ect ect...

Intuitive design therefore, is simply using models a majority of people know.

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