“The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious,” the founder and former CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, explained. We can easily agree that design should be intuitive. We can also easily agree that something is intuitive when we can use it without thinking about it. Making a design intuitive is much tougher. Solving this task requires an understanding of the psychology behind human interaction, specifically how humans come to understand the physical and cultural environment. In this article, you’ll learn the basic psychology behind designing intuitive user interfaces – and you’ll learn how to get started applying it.
The Connection between Intuition and Experience
Design does not become intuitive by magic. When we experience a design as intuitive, it is because we have encountered something like it before. We divide the users’ experience into experience with the physical and cultural environment, and we explain how to take advantage of both types of experience to create intuitive interfaces.
Here, we will teach you fundamental psychological knowledge about users’ experiences with the physical and cultural environment and show you how you can apply this to intuitive interface design.
“A technical system is, in the context of a certain task, intuitively usable while the particular user is able to interact effectively, not consciously using previous knowledge.” – Intuitive Use of User Interfaces (IUUI) research group. An interdisciplinary team of researchers who explore how to define intuitive use and interfaces.
From our very first breath, we interact with the physical environment and learn the fundamentals of how physical objects behave. We confront and learn from the physical reality every day. Humans also grow up in a cultural environment consisting of language, metaphors and symbols that are more localised and unstable than the physical environment. Some cultural artefacts we encounter all the time; some we only encounter occasionally.
In a widely cited paper, psychologists and interaction design researchers Klaus Bærentsen and Johan Trettvik argue that we should understand the user’s activity and experience from an activity theoretical perspective. Activity theory has its roots in the Soviet psychology research pioneered by Lev Vygotsky, Alexei Leont’ev and Sergei Rubinstein and has been one of the leading theoretical frameworks for understanding human-computer interaction since the 1990s. According to activity theory, human cognition cannot be understood separately from the physical and cultural environment we grow up in, so it makes sense to analyse human technology interaction in this perspective.
Both the physical and cultural environment play a fundamental role in our expectations and understanding of the world. Bærentsen and Trettvik use activity theory to state that everything humans know how to do, we have learned at some point in our lives. Some things we learn as newborns; some things we learn as adults through hard study. When we first learn how to do something, it is a conscious action. With practice, actions turn into operations that we can perform without considering them. They are, in other words, intuitive.
All interface design builds on the users’ previous experience with the physical and cultural environment. When we design interfaces with objects that the user can move or sort into folders, the user can rely on her experience with the physical environment to understand the properties of the objects in the interface. When we use icons and text, the user relies on experience from the cultural environment to understand them. The user always uses both her experience from the physical and cultural environment to understand what action possibilities she has with an interface.