An Event Apart: Properties of Intuitive Web Pages

by Luke Wroblewski February 6, 2012

At An Event Apart in Atlanta GA 2012, Jared Spool walked through what makes a design intuitive, why some users need different treatment, and the role of design. Here are my notes from his The Curious Properties of Intuitive Web Pages presentation:

  • On the Avis car rental form, asterisks mean optional. This caused many people to believe that they had to fill in information that was not required. At some point, asterisks came to mean “required” on Web forms. How did that happen? When we use the asterisk incorrectly, something becomes unintuitive. But since this convention was created by someone that means we can create intuitive designs on purpose.
  • When something is unintuitive it steals the focus of the user from what they actually want to do. It gets in the way of a task. An intuitive design is when the user is focused on their objective or task.
  • Intuitive is something you learn. For example, once you learn how one scrollbar works, you expect the same elsewhere.
  • An intuitive design is invisible. Good design is invisible. It is like air conditioning –you don’t notice it until something is wrong.
  • It's not novelty that causes problems with intuitiveness, its not simplicity. Intuitive is personal –based on what people currently know and their previous experiences.
  • When too many things are competing for a user’s attention nothing wins. Keep the focus on someone’s objectives not on the interface.

Current vs. Acquired Knowledge

  • Magic Escalator of Acquired Knowledge: when you are at the bottom, you have no knowledge of how something works and when you are t the top, you know everything about how it works (usually only the engineers who built something are here).
  • There are two points on this continuum we care about. Current knowledge (what the users already know), target knowledge (what they need to know), the knowledge gap is the space in between (what we need to design for).
  • A design is intuitive when current knowledge is equal to target knowledge. A design is unintuitive when there is a gap between current & target knowledge.
  • We can reduce target knowledge until it meets current knowledge by simplifying the design. We can move current knowledge to target knowledge through training. These are our two options for design.
  • The “gap” between current knowledge and target knowledge is where design happens.
  • A design is intuitive when the knowledge gap is really small. In other words, it’s easy for people to bridge from current knowledge to target knowledge. In these cases, people don’t realize they are being trained.
  • We can give people more control over change through tiered introductions, the ability to switch between new and old versions, and small ongoing tweaks instead of major redesigns.
  • An intuitive design happens when we don’t force our users to attend to change.
  • When people encounter situations where knowledge gap is large and they have to use things –people despise these experiences. If the knowledge gap is large but use is voluntary, people avoid these things. When knowledge gap gets smaller, people either tolerate or are cautious about using things.
  • If knowledge gap is small, people will love the service. That’s the opportunity for you and your competitors.

Focus on the Right Audience

  • Redesigns can increase the gap between current and target knowledge. People know how to use things and we switch things up on them.
  • There’s just a small number of people how are responsible for actual income. Yet most of the time we try to make the design better for everybody. Yet don’t need to do that. We just need to focus on the people who are most important.
  • With a redesign we are usually designing for everyone not for the people who matter most.
  • A major retailer launched a 100M redesign and saw conversion drop 20%. Their site was no longer intuitive for their most important users.
  • In the name of making it easier for everyone, we make things harder for the people who use things everyday.
  • People don’t hate change they just hate change that takes away their current knowledge.
  • Users only focus on local (relevant to their task) options. They don’t pay attention to the other stuff. But these things still get added because of internal turf wars.

The Role of Design

  • The medium of design is behavior. We want people to work differently with the designs we create. Each different design drives different behaviors.
  • Interaction design, visual design, user research, copywriting, information architecture all play a role in influencing behavior.
  • Socially transmitted functionality: someone has to show you how to do something. You’re unlikely to discover it on your own.
  • Conventions of proximity and muscle memory drive which conventions people will expect.

Overcoming the Gap

  • We have a number of techniques for uncovering knowledge.
  • Field studies: observe people using your products in their natural environment. Helps identify current knowledge.
  • Usability studies: help identify target knowledge and the gap.
  • Paper prototyping: quick way to learn where target and current knowledge sit.