Familiarity Breeds Intuition

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “Familiarity breeds contempt.” While research with relationships between people might bear this out, I would suggest when it comes to interactions with devices, familiarity breeds intuition.

If you’ve talked to anyone about a product they like and why they like it, you may have heard “It’s intuitive.” A quick web search finds numerous companies named some variation of Intuitive Design. Clearly intuitiveness must be good stuff when it comes to design or else why make it the adjective your company is associated with. On the other hand, when Lifehacker stoked the fires of the long running Mac vs PC debate a few years ago, asking for people to respond and champion their chosen side, they found “Macs have a reputation of being the more intuitive choice…, but if you ask a handful of Windows users you’ll find that they consider the platform more intuitive in many ways.” Lifehacker called this point in the debate a draw, so while being intuitive is good, it also seems to be subjective.

So what does it mean to say something is intuitive? We can start with the dictionary definition. Webster’s defines intuition as “the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.” A shorter way to say it might be that you don’t have to think about it. When something is intuitive people feel like they just “get it.” It feels easy. In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell spoke of intuition as “thin-slicing” information to make quick decisions.  The President of our company, Kevin OConnor expands on thin-slicing in the world of UX.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has spent much of his career examining intuition, specifically when it comes to making decisions or judgments. Intuition arises from perception and associations built up in memory and occurs automatically. It is less effortful and therefore seems easy, but it is rooted in a wealth of experience. Even complex mental tasks that we might be tempted to think of as involving a great deal of explicit reasoning such as playing chess actually involve a great deal of intuition based on tons of hours of practice the expert has under their belt. In his recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow Dr. Kahneman discusses this specific example:

“We have all heard such stories of expert intuition: the chess master who walks past a street game and announces “White mates in three” without stopping, or the physician who makes a complex diagnosis after a single glance at a patient. Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day. Most of us are pitch-perfect in detecting anger in the first word of a telephone call, recognize as we enter a room that we were the subject of the conversation, and quickly react to subtle signs that the driver of the car in the next lane is dangerous. Our everyday intuitive abilities are no less marvelous than the striking insights of an experienced firefighter or physician—only more common. The psychology of accurate intuition involves no magic. Perhaps the best short statement of it is by the great Herbert Simon, who studied chess masters and showed that after thousands of hours of practice they come to see the pieces on the board differently from the rest of us. You can feel Simon’s impatience with the mythologizing of expert intuition when he writes: “The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.” (emphasis added)

So how does all this research on intuition tie back in to ‘intuitive’ design? Interactions with devices seem intuitive when they are familiar, because we recognize at a reflexive level the cues presented, what interactions are available and, to varying degrees, what the results of our actions will be. After hours spent surfing the web, we have expectations based on that experience for how a website will be structured, what items on the page they can interact with and how, etc. When those expectations are well met, a website may seem ‘intuitive.’ When they are not met, people may find the experience unsatisfying. In terms of intuition, they’ve been forced to expend effort thinking explicit about a problem they never wanted to solve (e.g., How do I delete these items from my cart?) instead of carrying out the action they did want to in the way they expected to. It’s no surprise then that often interactions seem to work best when they follow users’ expectations.

In summary, experience leads to familiarity and familiarity breeds intuition. The trick is often in knowing our users and their experiences when we design things so that they can seem ‘intuitive.’ At User Insight we help clients to understand their users so we can design the right experience for them.