What Does Intuitive Really Mean?
“This app is confusing.”
“Super smart and very responsive.”
The best place to start a discussion on intuitive design might be the review section of any given app in the Google Play Store or App Store. A co-worker in design once recommended I start my day by reading the ratings and reviews of the products or services we were working on. The exercise, I was told, would help to break the inertia of tech speak, design silos, and industry echo chambers by giving me a glimpse into the raw, unfiltered, subconscious thoughts of the ‘real’ world, where people don’t necessarily depend on data to drive their decisions or care about conversion rates, where the cloud is still simply a specific collection of water droplets or ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere above our heads.
“Just don’t take it personally” – he told me.
It’s a humbling exercise to read reviews of your work as a designer (or in any other creative field for that matter.) Yet, unlike a painter, videographer, or writer, a designer’s work has to make it easier for someone to buy a house, choose a better insurance plan, or order a pizza. Our goal, in UX and graphic design, is to combine an experience as basic as bouncing a ball with a visual aesthetic and appeal that aligns with a universal understanding of human behavior, a client’s needs, and our own standards of excellence. We sweat and bleed to somehow synthesize hours of user research, interviews, stories, design iterations, graphic explorations, annals of historical data, and conflicting client expectations with the expertise of engineers to incorporate it all into an interface, experience, product, or service everybody, anybody can use and enjoy. Our work is released and, more often than not, left wide open to be publicly critiqued by the masses.
I still read the reviews and, I’ll admit, I do take it personally – sometimes. Yet, however ironic it might seem, I’ve found that the more I peruse app store reviews, the more I learn about the people behind both the positive and negative feedback. For me, this exercise has become as valuable to the design process as any initial user research or stakeholder interview. I will admit, not every review is created equal. Nevertheless, an app review can be a forum by which we begin to get to know the real person who invests in our work rather than the hypothetical ‘users’ or ‘consumers’ of the R&D phase – and maybe, just maybe, get an actual, unsolicited understanding of their hopes and expectations. A person who willingly commits their time to give a rating paired with a substantive comment can often provide a more precious piece of qualitative data than any email survey or form response.
So, then, what does intuitive really mean?
I believe intuitive design is attentive design. Intuitive design is not a result, but rather an ongoing creative discipline dedicated to continual listening, watching, and observing through the lifecycle of design and development and then beyond to the post-release feedback. Intuitive design is an intelligent, informed balance of quantitative and qualitative data that values empathy over mere transactions and strives for a deeper understanding of unique personal expectations in order to create meaningful user experiences.
Of course, the challenge here is obvious. The opportunities to get up from our desks, step away from our laptops or desktop computers, and actually engage people outside of our industry bubble can be few and far between. Creating and facilitating design workshops and user and stakeholder interviews is time-consuming, expensive, and are often given lower priority in a project budget against everything else involved to push a product to market. Granted, this tide is shifting as more and more companies and services are realizing the importance of incorporating better customer care and service as they invest to keep up with the rapid shifts and changes in the technological landscape.
As a result, the demand for a better, more intuitive design is increasing and will only increase more as technology continues to extend its reach further into every facet of the human condition, from helping us improve our posture, our spending habits, our sex lives, to how we brush our teeth. The responsibility now weighs even more heavily on designers’ shoulders to discover what is deemed ‘intuitive’ and design accordingly, to do magic, to ask a member of the audience for a penny and then pull a hundred dollar bill out of their ear.
During an interview for a local radio show in New Haven, I was asked to give my advice to any listener who might potentially be interested in pursuing a career in technology. I told them to turn off their computers, put down their phones, walk outside, and meet someone new.
Intuitive design begins when we stop isolating ourselves in digital experiences and start listening to people’s voices and the sounds of the environment around us.
When we learn to open our eyes and see the beautiful subtleties of the mundane – how someone takes their coffee, whether or not they put the cream in before the sugar, if they stir counterclockwise or not, how they hold the spoon, if they speak, wave, or simply nod their head when you say hello – and dedicate ourselves to figuring out what the small details might reveal about who they are as a unique human beings.
I do still read the reviews as it offers a quick daily reminder that there are people out there who genuinely think differently from me, who I probably disagree with, and who don’t think that I’m very good at what I do. Their published words and thoughts in the app store, positive or negative, are a chance for me to listen, a priceless point of intersection that we otherwise never would have made. I read as many as possible, the insightful, the excited, the bitter, begrudged, and pissed. I try to see the person behind the review, where they were when they wrote it, the kind of day they were having, if they were sitting at home on their favorite couch, or walking through a crowded avenue.
I try to listen, to learn from them, and, then sometimes, I respond.