What is intuitive design?

If a user describes a product or system as intuitive it is among the highest praise they can offer. Given this, it’s reasonable to ask what it means to be intuitive.

It seems nobody really knows. Ironically, people’s definition of intuitive is, well, intuitive, as they struggle to define the term in a specific, meaningful way.

A dictionary definition: Intuitive is when users understand behaviour and effect without use of reason, experimentation, assistance, or special training.

For such intuition to be possible requires prior knowledge, from experience in the real world. So, for example, if something looks like a push button, we know from the real world that we can push it to make something happen.

A big part of what human factors practitioners bring to the design process is to understand human behaviour and come up with solutions to work with that behaviour.

Not everyone is a designer, but everyone has an opinion about design, especially if something feels intuitive. The problem is that even though we target specific user groups, no two users within that group are the same. Users have different backgrounds, experiences and expectations. To design products that feel intuitive for most users we first need to understand what intuition is.

Complex products that you have been using for a long time can still feel intuitive because you might know exactly what to do. New and seemingly simple products can feel very unintuitive because you don’t have any knowledge of how to use them. Yet, it is possible to make new products feel intuitive.

If someone has to process too much new information, cognitive overload can occur, information will get lost and a feeling of discomfort arises. The user will experience this as un-intuitive. Therefore it is essential for designers to create products in which the amount of new information does not overwhelm the user.

“Cognitive load”

In processing information, our brains are subject to three types of demands, or loads: cognitive (including memory), visual and motor. Each demand requires a different amount of mental effort. Trying to remember something or do a mental calculation – both cognitive loads – requires the most mental effort. Users therefore tend to want to keep things as they are, especially if it takes a lot of mental energy to change them.

Cognitive load and intuitive design

As we use up mental effort, our attention span lapses. It takes less mental effort to recognise something than it does to recall it from memory. Icons or prompts are useful in this regard. We also lose attention if too little mental effort is required. We have a fundamental drive to seek out information, and this concept of cognitive load suggests that a medical product design that is too plain won’t hold our attention. A design that is too complex will overload us, and too much choice inhibits decision-making. Finding the right balance is the key to effective medical product design.

Medical product design has a lot to do with developing devices with characteristics that make them easy to understand and to use. To do this effectively, designers must understand perception and cognition: how users sense the world, how those sensations are interpreted by their brains and how they think about and act on what it is they perceive.

Much of the design process is spent considering how users will interact with the device that is being designed. By knowing how we sense interpret and act on information in the world around us, medical product designers can be deliberate in providing cues that enable devices to be operated intuitively, confidently and safely.

In Summary

Understanding cognitive psychology will enable medical product designers to develop products that are intuitive to use and that appeal to the identified target user population. Knowing how we sense and make sense of things – how we see, understand and decide – is the essence of good medical product design.

In part 2 of this blog we’ll explore some of the details of how we see things, understand them and how we are influenced and motivated to behave in certain ways.



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