An Event Apart: Properties of Intuitive Web Pages

by August 28, 2012

At An Event Apart in Chicago IL 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.
  • Security question don't work but people keep using them because they see others using them and assume it is a pattern. Security questions make you feel stupid because you are unprepared for the need to have answers to the questions.
  • Amazon has the most secure purchasing system on the Internet but nobody notices it because the design is invisible. They manage things behind the scenes and integrate security into flows that feel natural.
  • 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.
  • An intuitive design is invisible. Good design is invisible. It is like air conditioning –you don’t notice it until something is wrong.
  • Intuitive designs direct people's focus to what tasks that are important. Unintuitive designs force people to focus on elements not related to their tasks.

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).
  • 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. So many apps use introductory tours to educate users.
  • A design is intuitive when current knowledge is equal to target knowledge. What they know matches what they need to know to use something.
  • 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. The highest risk users are the ones you need to design for. Our most important users need the most intuitive designs for them.
  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • Using this tool you can imagine a better experience across all these points. The space in between the aspirational experience and current experience is where you can move things forward in little baby steps. This is where you can be innovative.
  • Understanding the problem is the hard part. Solutions are easy.
  • Your design doesn't have to be intuitive, usable, standards-based, or reliable. Once you remove quality everything else gets a lot easier. But if you do create intuitive designs, you'll give your customers superpowers.