User Interfaces Shouldn't Just Be Intuitive

To Make Things Easy to Use, Make Them Obvious!

December 16, 2010

When you are designing a product or service, make sure that you are as clear as possible when you design the user interface. Being user-friendly or intuitive isn’t enough. While everyone loves a mystery, we don’t like to guess about how to use something that we really need. Take the guesswork out, and make it all obvious!


We have come a long way in usability from early days of software, hardware, and other types of products. But we still aren’t designing user interfaces that are obvious! When you use a product, you should never have to guess how to do something or wonder what will happen if you press the button.


My Favorite Star Trek Movie

I really enjoyed the 1986 movie, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home—you know, the one about saving the universe and humpback whales. Of all the movies based on all the series, this one was the most lighthearted and fun. And my favorite sequence in the entire film is when Scotty needs to design some transparent aluminum not available in 1986 (where the Starship Enterprise ends up in the space/time continuum or something), so he goes to a technology company and sweet talks his way to one of their computers—a Mac! He looks at the computer and, as he is used to doing in the year 2286, says, “Good morning, computer.” Nothing happens. He tries again, “Good morning, computer.” Still nothing. The people are looking at him strangely, and Dr. McCoy comes to the rescue by pointing at the mouse. “Ah,” sighs Scotty, as he picks up the mouse, puts it to his mouth, and speaks into it, “Good morning, computer.” McCoy then points to the keyboard, and Scotty furrows his brown, cracks his knuckles, and comments, “Quaint,” and begins to type.

I laughed really hard when I first saw it, and I still laugh when I see it. Isn’t it absurd that he doesn’t know how to use a mouse?

Well, no. The first time I saw a mouse, I didn’t know what to do with it either. A user interface is only effective if the user can, well, use it!

My iPhone Experiences and Patty’s iPad Dilemma

When it comes to user interface and a good user experience, Apple is always touted as the leader. (Well, the leader is commercializing wondrous inventions by such visionaries as Doug Engelbart and others.) But, in truth, while it is easy to use an Apple product once you have it figured out, it take a while to get the hang of it.

I confess that I am a PC user, but I’m not anti-Mac by any means. I just have always used a PC, and I’m used to it. But my first Apple device was an iPhone, which I purchased early this year. My old phone no longer held a charge, and the iPhone was only $1 more than the replacement Nokia I was considering, so what the heck. I joined the 21st century with what some might call the smartest of smart phones.

But I had a little trouble with the interface. For one thing, when I hold the phone to my ear (not using an earphone), my chin—or maybe it’s my cheek—often puts me on mute. I had to learn to hold the phone differently. I also had to get used to the touch screen and figure out exactly how much pressure to use. If I pressed too hard or too long, nothing happened. And the worst thing is that, when the phone rings and I want to answer it, the disconnect button to press is on the left, which is where the “connect” or “okay” buttons always are on my PC and even on the Mac. The “close” or “X” is typically to the right. So I often end up hanging up on people, even to this day!

Patty Seybold recently got an iPad (she is much more advanced into this century than I am). And she’s having user interface difficulties. She didn’t even know how to turn off the darned thing. And, although she wasn’t sure why, her iPad would often spontaneously turn on and “sing” to her with a random selection from her iTunes library. (She has since discovered what was going on and how to remedy it.

I’m not knocking Apple…very much. The company has invented or commercialized a whole new generation of, on the whole, incredibly useful and usable devices, not to mention business models (like iTunes) to take advantage of them. But while the user interfaces could be considered “intuitive” or “friendly,” that isn’t quite enough. What the best user interfaces are is “obvious.”


Long-time readers of our articles might remember the analogies I’m about to offer. I wrote about them about 15 years ago—maybe even longer than that. But they are still very valuable when talking about how you should design your user interfaces for your hardware, software, and basically any product that is going to be used by someone.


In the early days of graphical user interfaces (GUIs), everyone talked about whether a product’s interface was “user-friendly.” To that, I just say, “[serial killer] Ted Bundy was very friendly. Do you really want a Bundy interface?” Friendly is all well and good, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to good or useful results. Bad news can come from the friendliest of sources.


After people stopped being obsessed with how friendly their systems were, they started touting that their user interfaces were “intuitive.” Intuitive is better than just “friendly,” but it still requires work on the part of the user. She has to use her intuition—and, as we all know, some people’s intuition is not all that good (just ask the woman who fell for the friendly Mr. Bundy).

Here’s a way to think about it: imagine you are walking down a path trying to get to the beach. You come to a fork in the path. Which fork do you take? Relying in intuition, you use all your senses to listen for the sounds of children playing, the smell of the ocean, and the footprints made by dozens of people wearing flip-flops. Not hard, I admit, but those same signals could lead your intuition on a path that sends you to a playground near the water where there is no swimming.


Now imagine yourself on the same path, at the same fork, and there is a sign that says, “to beach.” Much easier! You know you are doing it right.

That’s why I like when a remote control has buttons that say “on” and “off” instead of showing a little circle or a line or being red or green or magenta. It’s okay to be obvious when it helps the user do the right thing to get the result that he wants.


The take-away here is (forgive me) obvious. When you are designing a product or service, make sure that you are as clear as possible when you design the user interface. You won’t be talking down to me if you label things simply rather than in a cute or fashionable way. When you do usability testing, be sure to get people who have never used your products or, ideally, that category of product before. Listen to the questions they ask. Ask them what they might call features. Show them a bunch of icons and ask what they think they mean. And it’s okay to design for a novice—as we become more familiar and more comfortable with our products, we’ll find shortcuts (that you can provide—and thank you—or that we come up with on our own).

While everyone loves a mystery, we don’t like to guess about how to use something that we really need. Take the guesswork out, and make it all obvious!

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