Why Some Applications Are More Intuitive

Rado Kotorov's picture
 By | August 29, 2011
August 29, 2011

Users often run into situations where a certain product or application will be somewhat puzzling. They’ll be forced to ask, "How do I do this?” or “Where do I find this function?" For those who like puzzles, this may be entertaining. But for the majority of people who use such applications to be more efficient, this can be an irritable distraction. The more puzzles they encounter, the faster they abandon the product.


The user expects the product to be designed for her or him. They understand that some learning may be needed. But in general, the functions have to be engineered in such a way that the user can figure them out just by looking at them.


Then, why are there so many confusing products out there?


Recent research reveals that designers may fail to take into account the differences between the automatic response system and the reflective response system in the human brain. The former gives priority to the response, the latter to reflection, which is then followed by a premeditated action. For example, the automatic response system allows us to avoid an accident by swerving the car wheel without thinking, while the reflective response system enables us to deliberately choose our investments.


These two systems are present when we interact with products and applications. A classic example of the importance of the automatic response system is described in the book “The Design of Everyday Things”. Most doors used to have handles on both sides, with signs to indicate whether you should push or pull. However, the majority of people will pull, even if a sign tells them to push. The door handle triggers the automatic response system, before the sign can trigger the reflective response system.


Therefore, in order for a product or service to be truly intuitive, it needs to follow two principles. First, its basic and most popular functions need to be accessible via the automatic response system, without thought and premeditation. Such minimalistic design was achieved in the iPod, where the four function wheel left no room for mistakes by the end user. Second, the design should not put the two systems in conflict. In other words, the door handle sends one signal, while the sign sends a different one. This type of error is the most common cause of user frustration.


A prime example of such conflict can be found in stove designs, where four burners are arranged symmetrically in a two by two grid, but the knobs are positioned linearly. How do you know which knob goes with which burner? In software applications, we often see similar conflicts. Icons do not properly represent the related function, like the hover over help label, and dialogs contain functionally unrelated components, leaving the user with countless questions.


Designers and architects of physical goods have been following these principles for some time. We now see many doors that do not have handles if the user needs to push to open it, and stove tops have knobs that are arranged in the same manner as the corresponding burners. The application of these principles has also resulted in more intuitive and responsive UIs, like the ribbon found in Microsoft Office and other applications.


We must strive to apply the same techniques to the design of BI tools and custom web applications, particularly when users want to do more sophisticated types of analysis. Good design will simplify complex tasks, allowing end users to accomplish more with less effort. BI has been somewhat behind this trend, because creation has been delegated to IT professionals who understand the technology, but are not trained in the principles of design. But, this is not rocket science, and adherence to the two principles discussed above can help make applications more intuitive and easy to use.