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Well, some people like to say that there is nothing "intuitive" about User Interface whatsoever, even for Mac systems.

I don't know if it is true, but it does seem to have some air of truth around it.

Of course it's true.

I mean, why would it be "intuitive" to drag the floppy disk into the trash-can to eject it?

As the article points out, we're trying to rely on metaphors to ease the learning curve for users, but metaphors, like all abstractions, are leaky.

When we call a UI "intuitive", what we are really saying is that the metaphors chosen enable those who understand the metaphor to leverage this understanding to intuit how to operate the UI.

EDIT: added final para.

That was a long way to say that when we call a UI "intuitive", we really mean that it is "familiar". Hopefully this comment clarifies for others what was meant by the metaphors.


Another thing to note is that many truly intuitive things are not necessarily easy at least at first. Riding a bicycle is in fact intuitive, but many find it difficult in the beginning. Snowboarding and skiing are also intuitive, but people often experience a significant learning curve.

Heck, flying a plane is definitely intuitive, but it takes a large number of hours to be considered good enough to do it on your own.

EDIT: The ultimate example is flying a helicopter. All of the parts of a helicopter are so dynamically linked, a simply described operation like "move to the right" is going to take a bunch of simultaneous adjustments on several controls at once. There is actually no way to fly a helicopter, except intuitively, and it's definitely not easy at first.

I think you are using the term intuitive differently to how most people use it in relation to user interfaces.

In your helicopter example, the interface is (your) intuitive because it can't be done by thinking, you have to just "intuit" what to do.

However, people would say the helicopter is highly counter-intuitive, since there are four main controls and four degrees of freedom, with obvious linkages between them to anyone who has a passing knowledge of 'copters or 'planes. Despite this, every control affects two or more degrees of freedom, which is highly counter-intuitive, since everyone is used to vehicles where the controls affect only one degree of freedom.

TL;DR: You are using intuition to mean "unconscious competence", but generally, intuitive is used as a synonym of "obvious."

Before the term "intuitive" was bent a little by common usage in the tech fields, it had a basis in "unconscious competence." Unconscious competencies based on in-built the physical modeling tools of our nervous system are very powerful. Leveraging these in-built capabilities to build our UIs is also very powerful.

Awareness of all of these different sorts of "intuitiveness" probably distinguishes the excellent UI designers from the average ones.

EDIT: Not only are the unconscious competencies very powerful, they also tend to be highly optimized.

But the use of the term "familiar" here is, alley oop, a metaphor. Which is what Raskin takes the long way to say in the article you reference.

My point is: this problematic does not only apply to UI design. In general, whenever we use abstraction (which we do all the time, often in the name of brevity) we are taking a risk-- and one of those risks, to extend Raskin's metaphor, is uncanniness.

And yea, upon teh n00bs, did Our Geek Jobs set His Obsessive Eye. And He brought forth a device of great sales potential: the iThing, which one can touch with thine finger.

And lo! did teh n00bs poke and jabbeth at the iThing, achieving much of what was desired.

Anecdote: I found the iPod really unintuitive and un-natural to use.

I'm one of those people that can pick up just about any gadget and work out how it works (much as I expect you are dear reader). I'm the go-to for computer repairs and questions for family and friends, I help people work their mobile phones, set-up their AV equipment, etc., I've done stage lighting, sound engineering, a very little electronics .. you get the picture. I can even work a Mac!

My play on this whole question is that an interface is intuitive if I can work it out without the instruction booklet in a short time. Pretty handy-wavy for sure.

(not attempting to pick a fight, just feel I need to point out...)

I'd generally argue that the reason you have troubles with the iPod is because you've learned to think like an engineer... ie, unlearning how to think like an uninformed user in the process. You're not exactly their target audience (nor am I).

Out of pure curiosity, which iPod style is this referring to? Scrollable-wheel, click-wheel, touch, shuffle? I personally find the click-wheel versions to be a bit annoying because they don't register scrolling accurately enough.

I once made a comment on HN about user interface and the advent of touch, in regards to the iPad being great for people who just don't want all that complexity, and a commenter replied to me saying that our parents would then have to learn a completely new user interface paradigm, the touch interface.

My response was that reaching out and touching something that you're interested in is about as intuitive as you can get. Even my kitten 'understands' that if she wants to interact with the sun falling from the sky in Plants vs. Zombies, she just paws at it. She does have a tendency to attack randomly and plant things everywhere, but she's got the basic idea.

A lot of other tech-minded people, however, seem intent on trying to shoehorn the touch interface into their concept of a WIMP UI, then complain when it doesn't work. One coworker, on the day the iPad was announced, even exclaimed 'But it doesn't even have a stylus!', to which seven other people in the department replied 'Good'.

How do you know you just aren't conversant with "the way most engineers would do this"? That would mean you are using your familiarity with a certain set of conventions and not necessarily using your intuition.

>How do you know you just aren't conversant with "the way most engineers would do this"?

I don't use the term "intuition" in the exact way I use the term "intuitive" wrt a UI. I warrant that you're correct that my thought processes could align to some extent with those of the creators of any interface that I'm attempting to grok and that this appears as if the interface is intuitive.

Intuitiveness (rather than "intuition" to make the distinction I hinted about above) in an interface that relies on metaphor (affordance of buttons enhanced by shadow, etc.) is simply about familiarity.

A previous comment mentioned a simple light-switch as being possibly lacking in affordance for a jungle-dweller who lacks knowledge of our technology. I'd agree that they're unlikely to intuit what to do, but the interface to my mind is intuitive in that once one tries it then the feedback leads to a ready analysis of the effect and enables rapid understanding of the superficial workings.

What you're saying is that a light switch has high discoverability.

Like all things supposedly "intuitive".

What's intuitive? It's all learned from something. We can't even pick our nose when we're first born, we have to figure out how to move our arm.

We are born with a fear of heights. It takes a little awhile to develop object permanence, but there's very little risk of people not getting it. The brain is not a blank slate -- that's ideological dogma from bygone days. Science is showing the brain has a lot of functionality baked into the hardware. Read Steven Pinker's books for the general interest overview.

There indeed is a real intuitive.

And how would you suggest leveraging it for computer interfaces? Putting the dangerous things over the edge of a cliff?

Read Pinker's books. There's a lot more than my two examples. (Though either one alone demolishes your earlier claim that all "intuitive" is learned.) There's a lot of intuitive stuff around Geometry alone that painters have been exploiting since cave paintings. I think there's plenty more we can do as computer people with that alone.

I always think that, somehow, everyone is confusing "intuitive" and "consistent".

Well even if you are consistent the problem still stands.

If you don't know what a pulldown do then it doesn't help that the design is consistently using pulldowns.

Right-clicking is a great example of non-obvious consistency (and one of the key tenets of horrible Windows/Linux UI design).

Right-click actions are, by their nature, hidden, and there's often no indication that you can right-click to get more actions. Case in point, the windows taskbar's system tray. Lots of icons, most do something when you click on them, but often they do different things depending on how you click. Since clicking does something, it's not always obvious that what you want might only be available by right clicking.

Also, depending on which mouse button you use, 'safely remove devices' will either give you a menu of devices to safely remove, or give you a menu with one option, which opens a window with a list of devices to safely remove.

Critics have derided the Mac's no-right-click mouse for ages, but for the non-technical user, not well-versed in the behaviour of a computer, it makes much more sense.

The only "intuitive" interface is the nipple. After that it's all learned. http://www.greenend.org.uk/rjk/2002/08/nipple.html

Although even the nipple is often something that has to be learned. There are a lot of lactation specialists that help new mothers and babies latch and feed. And a surprising number of babies that have trouble finding the nipple.

This is especially common with slightly premature babies. My son was born a day shy of 36 weeks (normal is 40 weeks; 38 is considered "full term") and needed a lot of training.

He knew how to suck and he knew how to swallow, but couldn't put them together.

Speaking as the parent of a newborn, I would have to say that statement isn't quite true.

It's also relative. Certainly, a GUI + mouse is closer to intuitive than the command line. The iPad's multitouch is a little closer still. Reactable strikes me as yet closer. (Granted, it's domain is much narrower.)


I don't know... I've always found the command line to be easiest to use. Certainly, it is very far from aesthetic, but very functional. There are no stupid metaphors to deal with, just commands. what do you want to do? then type that command in. it's like math.

No stupid metaphors to deal with?

What do you want to do?

I want to record sound

OK, the computer is organised in terms of files and directories where a file is a chunk of information with a nametag like in an office filing cabinet, and the microphone is presented as an imaginary never ending file where the chunk of information changes every time you look at it, and you'll need to run a program to repeatedly look at the file and copy the contents to a new file in a directory of your choice... no, you can't put it "anywhere" and then search for it later, you are forced to choose a directory for it.

Your files have all the lines messed up? That's because it's built as if it's a typewriter with a forced "I'm at the end of a line" instruction which you never need to care about until you get a page from another typewriter where the operator had to push a different button at the end of a line and when he looks at the page it looks fine but when you look at the page you see it as if you had typed it on your typewriter pressing his end-of-line button which you don't have on your typewriter so it doesn't do anything, so you see one long line, ha ha!

Those are very valid and true criticisms for current command lines and the way they interface to the larger computing environment on which they live (and you didn't even go into all of the problems you could have). But I want to point out the attack has a limited scope in an important way, command lines that have been built in the past, with roots that go quite far back for most of them.

Just as it isn't a full and knock-down criticism of GUI's to point out that people have done them badly, this attack doesn't go to the core idea of command lines, "type what you want to have happen." The available metaphors can and should be made more in line with how people think of what computers can do.

You may have a point. All I had at the tender age of 11 was the "]" prompt on my Apple II+. There are abstractions to deal with on the command line, but for the most part, they exist in one's head, so there's no worries about someone else's weird metaphor getting in one's way.

it's like math.

YMMV. Most of the HN population can deal with math. Some people's pupils constrict and their brains shut down.

What command lines are extremely lacking in is not "intuitiveness". For anyone who is passably literate (or maybe even just anyone who can speak), using words to say what they want is quite intuitive (in the "familiar" sense, which seems to be what UI discussions fall back to as a working definition for "intuitive"). No, what command lines lack, in most (if not all) current implementations is discoverability to the vocabulary and grammar, some friendly feedback, the forgiving-ness that new users need to get past that fear of doing the wrong thing, and hand-holding teaching-the-steps-toward-complexity kinds of things (if complexity is wanted by the user).

Someone in another thread mentioned that their parents have trouble with even the abstraction of programs for tasks. The parents know what they want to have happen "send an email to their son", but connecting that to a program that needs to be started and used and then possibly closed again is something they seem to forget. Well, in that case, a simple command line environment for getting them to the right task-based interface would be as good as anything else, so long as it had a natural and discoverable vocabulary. It is perfectly natural for me to put some words in a row to communicate to you what they wanted, and at some point they probably put some words in a row to tell him what they were getting frustrated with the computer about. So why is it that one would think that having them put the same words in a row for the computer is somehow, despite being quite intuitive in all these other contexts, suddenly for the computer it is not intuitive?

No, back in the day computers simply weren't up to the task of interpreting all the myriad ways that someone might have said "email my son". And command line environments were not made with discoverablity, friendliness, and forgiveness in mind. The people using them were willing to bend their own minds to the limitations and peculiarities of the command lines. And instead of making them better and better for other users, the programmers and designers thought they could get more bang for the buck with pictures instead. Thus things have gone quite far down that path until we are arguing over what visual cues for controlling stacks of windows of disparate interface paradigms are more intuitive, what icon best reminds people of "email", and how to get them to notice/remember which text box they should put their son's name in. Meanwhile computers are quite powerful enough for someone to take an fresh, intelligent stab at merging a command line back onto the screen so that computers can finally catch up to taking commands the way a normal three year old finds perfectly intuitive.

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