An Event Apart: Properties of Intuitive Web Pages

by June 19, 2012

At An Event Apart in Boston MA 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:

  • Early computers required engineers to be operated and managed. They were designed to be used by people with a technical background who were highly skilled and trained. Then personal computers (like the IBM Displaywriter) that could be used by anyone emerged. The users of these computers were not skilled in the tool or trained. They were focused on the work they were doing.
  • Around this time the theory of novice and expert computer users emerged. Experts knew how to fix problems when they came up. Novices were people who were new to things but would gradually become experts over time. But this theory doesn’t hold up.
  • Example: a new elevator system that doesn’t require buttons. Everyone that was an expert elevator user couldn’t use these easily the first time. Over time though, they found them easy.
  • 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 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.

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.
  • Socially transmitted functionality: someone has to show you how to do something. You’re unlikely to discover it on your own.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Intuitive design is how we give our users super powers. This enables them to do new things.


  • Redesigns can be a disaster. A major retailer launched a $100M redesign and saw conversion drop 20%. A law firm had to shut down. Doctor’s offices and airlines experience significant delays. Their site/application was no longer intuitive for their most important users.
  • Redesigns can increase the gap between current and target knowledge. People know how to use things and we switch things up on them.
  • An average conversion rate for large (billion dollar) Web sites is 1.6%. 20% of the users spend 80% of the revenue on a site. Out of every 1 million visitors, 16,000 are buyers, and 320 are the top buyers.
  • It’s the top buyers/users that are most effected by redesigns. They know how things work and we change it on them. This is the source of redesign disasters.
  • The top buyers/users are the ones that can move the needle up or down for a business.
  • Little changes to a site over time are often a better approach than major redesigns. “We’ll be successful if the day we go live, no one notices.”
  • Security question don't work but people keep using them because they see others using them and assume it is a pattern.

Tool Time vs. Goal Time

  • Goal time vs. Tool time. Goal time is making the outcome of the experience better. Tool time is when user is trying to move forward without any improvement in the outcome of the experience.
  • We always want tool time to be lower. Amazon One-click eliminates tool time entirely. Walgreens scanning app for prescription renewals is another exmaple.
  • A customer journey map can help you visualize where customer frustration exists. You can overlay current experience against aspirational experience as well. Moving from current experience to aspirational experience is where innovation happens.

Design Skills

  • The “gap” between current knowledge and target knowledge is where design happens.
  • User research: studying your users to understand target and current knowledge.
  • 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.