Intuitive vs. Familiar

I was recently talking to a coworker and the topic of intuitive vs. familiar came up in regards to user experience and design. He suggested I take a few minutes and write a blog about it so… here is me doing just that.

(Note: other more intelligent writers have put their pen to paper on this one and I encourage you to take some time to look through them. These are my words but a common set of concepts, I don’t claim any original creatorship to these ideas)

A lot of my clients when asked about success criteria for their platform will give me answers about ‘needs to be easy to use’. That’s SUPER vague and really hard to put a measurable metric around it so I always try to unpack that farther and we start getting criteria like ‘intuitive’, ‘familiar’. I can tell from the way they use them that they think these are synonyms. And in other industries they may be but when it comes to user experience they are different. Related but different. Or that something with a low number of clicks is ‘intuitive’.

So what do we mean when we talk about familiar and intuitive? Let’s start with familiar. Familiar designs are ones that leverage pre-existing designs that have created a habit or common design scheme. The most common example of this is the QWERTY keyboard. The layout doesn’t really make any sense but by now we’ve become used to it, it’s now familiar. If you put another keyboard in front of most Western computer users it would not go over well (trust me, I’ve done this) and you’ll hear things like ‘not easy to use’ ‘makes no sense’. Actually the QWERTY makes no sense. It was created for the type writer and we just… kept it. Why? Because people were familiar with it, they were comfortable with it.

Familiar interfaces can be great. Why? Well, we know they work (at least to a degree), people are used to them, they know what to expect, and they tend to be less disruptive. There are plenty of other examples out there of workflows/designs that have become ‘familiar’ due to repetitive use. Basically think of them as habits.

An example is dialing 9 to get an outside line. This is familiar now and most users when first confronted with how to get an outside line in a hotel or an office building will dial 9. Why? Because that’s just the way it’s always been. (hint: if that’s your answer when asked about a design then 9/10 times it’s familiar.)

It’s also important to note that because familiar is due to repetitive exposure it tends to be based on culture. For example, writing dates by month-day-year is familiar to Americans but to the rest of the world it’s day-month-year (smaller to larger). Americans do not like it when they see dates written the other way.

Now let’s shift tack and talk about intuitive. What is intuitive? Intuitive means it makes sense without any training or explanation or referencing an earlier design. That last one is a bit hard to understand and really speaks to the heart of the difference. If someone tries to use something for the first time and says “oh yeah. I know how to use this because it’s like an X”, then it’s familiar. You can intuit the intention of something or a design without needing to be told. A LOT of research is done to try and determine what designs make the most intuitive sense. Especially when developing an entirely new product. If it can be designed in such a way as to feel wholly natural to the user without needing a reference point, training, or leveraging an existing design then that’s the gold star of intuitive. A simple and yet good example of intuitive (and simple) design are volume controls. On most devices these are set one under the other. Without any previous experience with remotes/ipods/cd players/etc, you can look at it and know that the up button makes the volume go up and the other makes it go down. Now, you could argue that this is also familiar. (And yep it is. I never said these were mutually exclusive), but in this case it’s a regularly accepted belief that this is intuitive b/c the function matches the form. Eating utensils (knife, fork, spoon) are also generally considered intuitive, because without having to see someone use them, it is easy to identify which part is the handle and how to use a spoon to scoop things, the fork to stick into things.

So.. Intuitive vs. Familiar… what do we mean?

Well, as I said these concepts are not mutually exclusive. A design can be both familiar and intuitive. This can be achieved by combining various elements that are familiar and some others that are intuitive (there are some great articles on cell phone design that break these down. I’ll try to find and add in the comments below). And in most cases this is what is happening with product design, trying to leverage certain items that are familiar (the windows button being in the bottom right of you screen) while adding in some typically new things that help make it a little more intuitive.

The difficulty with this comes when these two concepts compete with each other. When something is intuitive but because it is different from what is familiar we see dissonance. Take when Microsoft rolled out updates to office that created tabs within the ribbon to group similar tasks together. After research this was shown to be more intuitive (and we’ve seen more tools going to tabs now) but it was not familiar. It was a departure from the way office products had worked up until that point and had become quite familiar to people. The same will happen if you present someone with the Dvorak keyboard who has used a QWERTY keyboard. If they’ve never used a QWERTY, a user can much easier adopt and use the keyboard (as compared to a first time QWERTY keyboard user). But if they are familiar with a QWERTY it takes more time to use Dvorak and will often complain at how hard it is to use.

So.. how do you do this?

There’s no good answer on this. And this blog post wasn’t really intended to give you the answer just make an attempt to explain what is meant by intuitive and familiar and how they’re not the same thing. The ideal is to find that balance of how can something be made intuitive so a user can just pick it up and go (without any prior knowledge) but also use familiar without creating conflict. But sometimes a design needs to be disrupted. Sometimes ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ isn’t how it should be done. And that’s where designers need to make that decision to suck it up and take the initial pushback and hope that intuitive can eventually trump familiar (or become familiar).

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