Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Interfaces: Intuition v. Expectation

Last week I navigated three government-related websites. Two were what you might expect, but one was surprisingly nearly perfect. But the real surprise was realizing it had been a long time since I’ve seen any site work so well and so simply. It’s purpose wasn’t simple, but (almost) everything worked just as expected.

That’s how everything should work, not just websites. Not just technology. Tools that do not work as expected (especially after reading the instructions) are positively maddening. Yet making things to work as expected is not how designers are taught. They are told things should be intuitive.

They are, but there is a big difference between an intuitive interface and one that works as expected. To being with, the two words are not remotely synonymous. Intuition is a hunch. Expectation is a likely possibility; intuition is a guess and expectation employs reason.

Specifically, the dictionary tells us intuition is knowing without the use of rational processes. The racetrack tells us that people who rely on intuition and play hunches lose much more than people who play the odds—the expected probabilities.

Speaking of numbers, the phrase “intuitive Interface” gets 17 million hits on Google. Obviously, we’re constantly told interfaces should be intuitive. Or should they? In fact, there is a growing backlash against the term, and it’s being called “the I-word.”

Saying an Interface should be intuitive is worse than bad advice, it completely misleads designers. The only intuition available to designers is their own. The interfaces they create are for others to use. Using the word intuition inhibits designers from thinking about other’s expectations. It becomes a narcissistic mirror, obscuring the user’s point-of-view.

For decades, designers and users have been told interfaces should be intuitive. Nonsense. Intuition is far too subjective. Interfaces should behave as reasonably expected. Designing for intuition may sound glamorous, even mysterious, but designing for expectations gets better results.


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