Random reflections on intuitive UI design

Some people are intuitive users of tools. They are able to make the tools wordless extensions of their intensions, similar to how most of us use a pencil. We don’t instruct ourselves to move our hands in order to move the pencil, we just somehow make a mark on a page. Intuitive users are able to do this with more complex tools like user interfaces.

Other people seem to be verbal self-instructors. They have a monologue in their head — sort a script that tells themselves what to do. These people never really form an intuitive relationship with complex tools. They just memorize steps to execute tasks.

The former users are very sensitive to design. They want the design to follow Beatrice Warde’s ideal of invisibility. After the tool is learned, it should merge with their will, and disappear.

The latter users are less sensitive. As long as they can memorize the script needed to do certain actions, they are more or less indifferent to the nuances of how a thing is designed.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way (and I think it has to do with successive generations of designers brought up on web design), we’ve lost sight of intuitive invisibility as a goal of design. Further, a great many UI designers are themselves verbal self-instructor types who lack even basic awareness of what intuitive means, much less how to design for intuition. These types say “this is intuitive because it is well-organized and easy to figure out.”

Another point. It used to be that Apple’s primary customer base was a minority of intuitive users who could not tolerate the imposition of a thick, glove-like linguistic layer between their intentions and their actions, and who valued design that removed it and would pay for that quality. The people who have never seen a real difference between Apple and Microsoft, except one of slickness or prestige, tended to be the verbal-self instructing majority, and they were Microsoft customers.

But now that Apple is a consumer goods and media company chasing the mass market, this small and choosy segment is no longer worth the effort. It’s a smart marketing decision to bugger this segment, but I’m still mad as hell about it.

This is me throwing a tantrum about PowerPoint’s unbelievably horrible “design”. I’ve passed the point of burning fiery rage, and entered realm of icy hatred where the only thing that helps me feel better is analytic vivisection. Thank you for listening.

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