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Date Posted: 2/5/2018
By Kevin Carpenter, contact:


When Intuitive Isn't


The definition of Intuitive from


1. perceiving directly by intuition without rational thought, as a person or the mind.

2. perceived by, resulting from, or involving intuition: intuitive knowledge.

3. having or possessing intuition: an intuitive person.

4. capable of being perceived or known by intuition.

5. easy to understand or operate without explicit instruction: an intuitive design; an intuitive interface.

In his 1973 book Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C Clark wrote how the crew of the Endeavour explored an alien artifact and on finding an entry hatch, tried with all their might to open the wheeled lock. When that didn't work, they realized that "there was no reason to suppose that clocks and corkscrews on Rama turn in the same direction as they did on Earth".  They tried the other way and found it opened without resistance.

So much for "righty tighty, lefty loosy"...


We tend to believe that intuition is something we're born with.  We think it is something ingrained in us, based on our intellect and skills.  We may even believe it is attributed to instinct.  However, other than a fear of snakes, there is very little instinct instilled in humans.


Our slang culture even uses "It's intuitively obvious to the most casual observer" meaning "any idiot can see". However, this is often unfair because intuition is really a culmination of experiences and is based on design, events, and behavior repeating in a consistent manner. If one person's experiences are vastly different than another's, then their intuition may seem completely out of sync with what would be expected.  Intuition then might be better described as convention.


The Intuition of Design

Designers like to state their creations are intuitive.  If we recognize this intuition as simply the adoption of convention, it's much more easily understood.


The little x at the top right of this web page is there by convention.  Now that we've seen it for years, it becomes intuitive to click the X to close the page.  If there were suddenly a different icon to close web page, located in a different spot on the page, we'd all be confused until the new convention is learned. When introducing new approaches, it takes time for the unconventional to become conventional - for it to become intuitive.  Now we all know to swipe, pinch, and stretch the screen on our smartphones. But initially it was a strange learning curve for us to climb.


Simply calling something intuitive doesn't make it so.

Apple often touts the IPhone as a very intuitive device.  However even Steve Wozniak is a bit frustrated with the IPhone X.  During a recent talk at the Nordic Business Forum, the Business Insider reported he was frustrated with the device as "The power button on the side does different things if you click it quickly, or if you click it twice, and a different thing if you click it a third time."


Assuming something is intuitive for the user can also lead to disastrous results. Since I began driving, the convention to change the shift of an automatic transmission has been either a lever on the steering column, buttons on the dashboard, or a lever on the console that clicks between the different positions of "Park", "Neutral", "Drive" and "Reverse".  Now however,  Jeep, Chrysler and Dodge products introduced the "Monostable Shifter" that works more like a toggle or joystick, without the tactile feedback of what gear the car is in. (see more in this link from  The results? Hundreds of complaints, recalls and one unfortunate death.


Changing the convention on a device or within software must be performed with a thoughtful consideration to the possible consequences, and enough user testing to discover how the user will learn the new features and adopt the convention changes.  Unfortunately, especially with Cloud solutions, the features and conventions on software change so rapidly it is difficult to keep up with these "feature improvements" and becomes even more difficult when the users cross platforms.  Conventions within Microsoft may be consistent, but when the user also uses a Mac, or software from Adobe, Oracle, Palisades, and others (as we do here at KCA), even the basic interfaces are different enough that there is a bit of learning every time a product is used.


Human Intuition

Beyond, design, there's the other, more intrinsic kind on intuition.  The Human Intuition that we believe leads us to make smart decisions by way of inherent experience, feelings, and intelligence.  This intuition we attribute to our "gut feel" is however simply based on our collective experiences of how things behave.  The conventional ways things have been done in the past leads us to believe that is also the way things will behave in the future.  Without stating why, we express our beliefs in an outcome based on our "intuition".  Taken to the extreme, our intuitions become our unconscious biases.


Sometimes we're right.trusting_your_intuition

But sometimes we're wrong. 

And sometimes when we're wrong, we're very wrong.


So how to address the Human Intuition risk?

When faced with a new design, a new set of performance parameters, a new business situation, (or visiting an alien artifact I suppose), we should acknowledge our conventions, intuitions, and biases to recognize their influence on our approach to the problem and creating the solutions. In the set of solutions, it's sometimes good to be very explicit and note which solutions follow convention and which may not.  This is also the central reason to build your team around a diversity of thought.  Having a mix of technical, commercial, financial, administrative backgrounds will serve you well in getting a broad range of solutions and limiting bias of any single type of profession.  I've seen some of the best alternatives proposed by people with no technical or engineering background in the opportunity. For truly new opportunities, our intuition can provide as much harm as good, and we must be aware of, and manage, our tendencies to "go with what we know" in finding creative, doable alternatives.


Solutions that follow convention will have less uncertainty associated with their outcomes than those that fall more "outside the box".  Also, solutions that do not follow a set of conventions may be more difficult to create and deliver and have a greater resistance to change, increasing the need for a formal change management program.  However, exploring the unconventional or "not intuitive" alternatives often lead to disruptive solutions and break-out technologies.






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