During a recent Management Information Systems course I taught for the University of Phoenix, I posed the discussion question to students, “What do you think are the most important qualities that determine a well-designed user interface?” While responses were very good, nearly all of my students used the term “intuitive” in their response without providing a more detailed description, as though the term has some universal, unambiguous meaning to user interface (user experience) designers and web users alike.

I responded by asking, “Intuitive to whom?…Would a college-educated individual and a new-born infant both look at the same user interface and agree it is intuitive? Or, would the infant prefer a nipple providing warm milk to embedded-flash videos of news stories?”

Far from obvious, an “intuitive” user interface is extremely hard to define because “intuitive” means many different things to many different people. In this article, I challenge the assumption that “intuitive” is obvious and suggest how we can determine what intuitive “is”.

Nature and Nurture

Our exploration of intuitive user interfaces and user experience starts with “nature” and “nurture”, much like the “Nature versus Nurture” debate that occurs when explaining the talents and intelligence of human beings. For those of us who haven’t opened a genetics book in a few decades, if ever, “Nature” assumes that we have certain talents at birth, while “Nurture” proposes that we gain talents and abilities over time.

Certainly, “Nature” plays a role in an intuitive user interface. According to research by Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling, there’s a great deal of evidence that we are born with color preferences and that color preferences naturally vary by gender. In addition, warning colors like red or yellow, such as red on stop signs and yellow on caution signs, are likely a matter of science and genetics rather than learned after we’re born. So, an “intuitive” interface is partly determined by our genes.

“Nurture” also plays a big role in determining our preferences in a user interface. For example, link-underlining on web pages and word density preferences are highly dependent upon your cultural background, according to Piero Fraternali and Massimo Tisi in their research paper, “Identifying Cultural Markers for Web Application Design Targeted to a Multi-Cultural Audience.” While research in personality and user interfaces is still in its infancy, there’s a strong indication that CEO’s have different color preferences from other individuals, as Del Jones describes in this USA Today article.

But, what about navigation techniques, like tabs and drop-down menus? In a recent conversation with Haiying Manning, a user experience designer with the College Board, I was told that “tabs are dead.” This crushed me, quite frankly, because I still like tabs to effectively group information and have a great deal of respect for Haiying’s skills and experience. As a Gen-Xer who spent much of his teen years sorting and organizing paper files on summer jobs, I’m also very comfortable with tabs in web interfaces, as are my baby-boomer friends. My Net-Gen (Millenial) friends seem to prefer a screen the size of a matchbox and a keyboard with keys the size of ladybugs, which I have trouble reading.

In the end, because of “Nature” and “Nurture”, the quest for an “intuitive” user interface is far more difficult than selection of a color scheme and navigation techniques everyone will like. What appeals to one gender, culture or generation is unlikely to appeal to others, so we need to dig further.

It’s all about the Audience

In looking back on successful projects past, the best user interface designers I’ve worked with have learned a great deal about their audience – not just through focus groups and JAD sessions, but through psychometric profiling and market research. This idea of segmenting audiences and appealing to each audience separately is far from new. Olga De Troyer called it “audience-driven web design” back in 2002, but the concept is still quite relevant today.

Once they better understood their target customers, these UI designers tailored the user interface to create a user experience that was most appealing to their user community. In some cases, they provide segment-targeted user interfaces – one for casual browsers and one for heavy users, for example. In other cases, they made personalization of the user interface easier, so that heavy users could tailor the interface based on their own preferences.

They also mapped out the common uses (use cases or user stories) for their web sites and gave highest priority to the most used (customer support) or most valuable (buying/shopping) uses, ensuring that they maximized value for their business and the customer. More importantly, the user interface designers didn’t rely upon the “the logo always goes at the top left” mind-set that drives most web site designs today.

Think about the Masai

In hopes of better defining what “intuitive” is, I spoke with Anna Martin, a Principal at August Interactive and an aficionado of web experience and web design. Evidently, “intuitive” is also a hot topic with Anna, because she lunged at the topic, responding:

“Would you reach for a doorknob placed near the floorboard; or expect the red tube on the table to contain applesauce? Didn’t think so. But what’s intuitive depends largely on what you’re used to.  Seriously, talk to a Masai nomad about a doorknob – or ketchup for that matter – and see what you get. And good luck explaining applesauce. (Cinnamon anyone?). Clearly intuition is dependent on what comes NATURALLY to a user – no matter what the user is using.

So why would the web be any different? It’s not. Virtual though it may be, it’s still an environment that a PERSON needs to feel comfortable in in order to enjoy. Bottom line is this…if you wouldn’t invite your 6 year old niece or your 80 year old grandmother to a rage (did I just date myself?) then don’t expect that every website will appeal to every user.

Know your audience, understand what makes them comfortable; and most importantly try to define what ‘intuitive’ means specifically in regards to sorting, finding, moving, viewing, reading and generally experiencing anything in their generation.”

So, audience-driven web design has firmly embedded itself into the minds of great designers, who must constantly challenge the conventions to create truly creative interactive experiences on the web. Consequently, as the field of user design transitions into a world of user experience, it’s going to require second-guessing of many of the design conventions that are present on the web today. This not only means pushing the envelope with innovative design, it also means we need to have a good handle on what “intuitive” really is.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.