UI16: Creating Intuitive Designs

by November 9, 2011

At the User Interface 16 Conference in Boston, Jared Spool walked through what makes a product design intuitive and how teams can use this information to create better designs. Here are my notes from his The Unintuitive Nature of Creating Intuitive Designs 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 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.

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.

Features vs. Experience

  • Most products grow by adding features. Word Perfect had 1,700, Word had 70 features (but the right ones). This is a pattern we see over and over again: technology, features, experience.
  • Intuitive design is evolutionary. First build the technology, then add features, then focus on experience.When at the technology stage, people will accept difficult designs in order to get things done. They need the new capabilities.
  • A release 1 product usually comes out with only a features, then a few get added in 1.5, then 2, and so on. Eventually over time things get really complicated. Lots of features add up to complexity. At this point, you notice most features aren’t used.
  • The next release should only include the features that matter. This is the shift from features to experience. It is usually a competitor that releases this version. They figure out matters and release a cheaper version with less features but a better experience.
  • An intuitive design focuses on experience. It’s only at the experience phase that intuitive design becomes really important.
  • This is a cycle that happens over and over again.

Overcoming the Gap

  • We have more than one user, they all have different current knowledge because they come in at different levels.
  • There’s more than one domain: IT, finance, management, etc. Different people know different things. Domain knowledge: specific to the domain you are using.
  • When people learn to use something, it’s hard to change existing behaviors.The kitchen cabinet problem: people know what is in their kitchen cabinets. If we change where things are –people’s existing routines are disrupted.
  • Redesigns can increase the gap between current and target knowledge. People know how to use things and we switch things up on them.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Personas: use to capture current knowledge.
  • Design patterns: store solutions for target knowledge.
  • Observe people interacting with your design. At least 2 hours every six weeks. Everyone on the team. If not, you are not getting the feedback you need.
  • Reduce target knowledge down to toward current knowledge. Provide clear tools to bring current knowledge up.