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What is "intuitive"?

Posted by notKlaatu , 13 November 2008 · 108 views

What is really intuitive, anyway? A lot of us seem to have some idea of what an Intuitive interface is...but really, everything we call intuitive usually translates to "this is like something I have used before". I mean, even simple stuff like trashing a file.... is it intuitive or are we all just really used to the idea of having a Trash Can icon into which we can drag a file? Well, because we are all so used to that concept, it IS intuitive, but what if we were all used to having an icon in a panel or kicker that meant "zero out space occupied on the harddrive by the currently selected file"...then the first thing we would all look for such an icon on a new system that we started using, and a system set before us with a trash can on the desktop would baffle us. We'd think it was a folder, maybe, for junk mail or just a funny icon for a folder. We wouldn't associate it with a method of erasing a file from our computer because "as everyone knows," we would say quite sensibly, "you don't put digital bits into a trash can."For me, "intuitive" is a process, not something tangible. Intuitive interface design is the collection of a series of logical steps, but it is also the collection of all the different applications on a system - the way they all work in similar ways so that to learn a few basic concepts is to learn a whole variety of more complex applications for those concepts, and it is the consistency of interface so that when my hand automatically goes to click a button, that button is where it would be regardless of what application i am in.Let's look at a simple example: I have a window with a red button and a blue button. Is that intuitive?Well, yeah, it is...sort of. You're supposed to click one of the buttons, right? Um...but what do they do? It's not so intuitive any more is it? Now it's absolutely counter-intuitive. If I tell you what you are doing, the context shifts, and suddenly it does become intuitive. So intuitiveness is not just simplicity; it is simplicity and context.Let's look at something that is frequently considered not intuitive: line commands. If I sit someone in front of a black screen with some green text on it and say, ok, find the file called needle.txt they are not going to know what to do. It is not intuitive. If I sit a geek in front of the screen and tell her the same thing, however, it is pretty intuitive; she will simply type ls | grep -i needle or something like that, and the problem will be solved. Now what if it turns out that I didn't sit that geek in front of a unix-like terminal and in fact she's starting at an EFI shell? Well, even that is intuitive to this geek, because she will know commands to try, and commands to try to get help, and sure enough, eventually she would be able to find the document I requested.So really, intuitive is not in the design of something, but in the similar design of a collection of things. It is the basis of knowledge of concepts that are consistent across many applications. And it is consistency of interface design. That is what it is, and don't forget it.




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