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May 30, 2017

Intuitive operation – a positive user experience without instructions

From software to websites, cars and coffee machines – everything is expected to be intuitive to operate. In general, the term "intuitive" is associated with a simple and direct way of using a product almost effortlessly. We just seem to know what to do with it. But what knowledge do people resort to when they use certain products? How does knowledge turn into intuition? And, above all: What experience can you build on when developing the concept for a product so as to enable as many users as possible to handle it intuitively?

In science, the term "intuitive use" is employed when a product can be operated by subconsciously resorting to previous knowledge. With a minimum of cognitive effort, the users experience an effective, efficient and satisfying human-machine interaction. Processes and actions are subconscious when they are executed without undergoing further control mechanisms or considerations. Even though this may sound quite abstract, it is easy to illustrate: 

When playing pick-up sticks, you have to concentrate to deliberately lift a stick without moving the others. However when you lift a cup, you don't have to think about how to move your arm and hand. You just do it. You reach for the cup effortlessly and intuitively because you can resort to previous experience, which makes the motions easier. But what kind of previous experience is there?

There is knowledge ... and knowledge

We differentiate between five different types of knowledge: innate, sensual, cultural, expert and method knowledge. They differ with regard to their level of specialization and scope. The more specific the knowledge, the less widespread it is. While every healthy human being disposes of innate reflexes, there are comparatively few people who are able to operate an industrial welding machine. When you develop a product's concept and design this means: The more heterogeneous a user group, the more universal the previous knowledge has to be. 

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Back to basics 

A product that it is used internationally by people of various age groups and professions should not build on expert knowledge or the culture-specific experience of individual user groups. In this case, image schemas could be useful. Image schemas are experience structures that are stored in the memory and are created through recurring sensual experiences. They can be considered to be almost universal because people learn and practice them from an early age. 

Sensual perception, for example, helps to create a concept of "inside-outside", "high-low" or "close-far". Once image schemas have been stored, they can be linked to each other and transferred to other application areas. That way, people have, for example, developed a schema equaling "high" with "a lot" and "low" with "little". This concept is often visible in user interfaces, for example in the sliders used to control the volume on PCs, laptops or smartphones. 

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Intuition through consistency

The more specialized a product is, the more difficult it is to build on general knowledge. However, intuitive operation can also be achieved on the level of expert and method knowledge. In this process, consistent design is key. Given the interaction structures are highly consistent between applications, users are able to transfer previously gained knowledge effortlessly from one area of application to another. If, for example, you have learned that words in a word-processing program can be highlighted by clicking and dragging the mouse pointer, you will know intuitively how to select adjoining cells in a spreadsheet program. 

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When reality becomes the model

The strife for natural, intuitive interaction patterns and mechanisms laid the basis for the success of so-called "natural user interfaces". Natural user interfaces are user interfaces that are built on thought/action patterns acquired in everyday life and that adopt them as accurately as possible. Instead of using various input or output devices (e.g. monitor, keyboard, mouse), users can interact directly with the natural user interface by using physical interactions such as speech and gestures, interacting with virtual objects in the user interface the same way as they would interact with real objects. 

An example of a natural user interface everybody uses is the smartphone: By moving a finger, users can scroll through lists until the movement slows due to virtual friction. This resembles the way a real object would react when it is pushed on a horizontal surface.

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Intuition guaranteed?

But what is the gist of this short overview of the world of intuitive operation? For a start, the awareness that there is no master plan for intuitive use. If you want to design intuitive user interfaces, it is vital to proceed with the utmost care and attention and to incorporate as much background knowledge as possible into the project. Simple equations just don't work. Just because users have the opportunity to speak to a virtual system doesn't necessarily mean that they perceive the interaction as intuitive. On the other hand, complex systems can be used almost intuitively as long as they are designed consistently and built on previous knowledge. And before commencing with the design process, UI experts have to decide what kind of intuitive interaction is appropriate in the particular situation and what knowledge structures can be expected. 

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The author

Michael Burmester, professor at the Stuttgart Media University HdM and UX expert, writes for UID.