One of the main goals of modern design is to make the use of a product or service as simple and intuitive as possible for users. This article discusses the foundations on which is based this essential quality of good design.

All designers have heard at some time this surprising statement from a user: “This is not intuitive.” Also, all designers have thought at some time “how can be difficult if it’s so obvious to me?”.

In a market where “people can have a car in any color as long as it is black” (Henry Ford), it was possible to ignore the user, but the current situation is very different.

While in traditional design the main objective was to design functional products and services, i.e. to fulfill the function for which they had been created, for the modern designer this is not enough.

In an increasingly competitive context with increasingly demanding consumers, the design had to take a step further and add a new element: usability. The objective of this element is ensuring that the use of a product or service is quickly and intuitively understood.

Obviously, it would be impossible for all users easily understand how to use a product or service, but we should aim to make it simple and intuitive for the largest possible number of people. Although sometimes it may be difficult, designers should enquire about the opinion of the users and analyze with an open mind the reasons why they think that a product is complex.

But what do we mean by easy and intuitive?

Obviously, simplicity and intuition are relative, depending on each user, each country, and each culture. The fact that these variations exist indicates that these qualities are based on the user perception, rather than some inherent quality of the product or service.

Unlike many other animals, there are very few instinctive things to humans. The vast majority of processes that people perform every day are the result of a long apprenticeship. The continuous interaction with artificial elements adds an extra difficulty.

Faced with new elements, we use knowledge and learned schemes, looking for similarities. We simply apply previous patterns to solve new situations. Those new situations that don’t fit with our learned patterns will be perceived as unintuitive and, conversely, a situation based on a known pattern will be easy to manage.

The problem with this logic is that, in many cases, the patterns of the designer are very different from the user ones. Designers, besides having a broad background, spend months on the design of a project. After so long, they know so deeply the product or service that they could draw it with their eyes closed.

Often, designers are not aware that what is simple and intuitive for them can be extremely illogical and complex for users. It is important, then, to see our work in a different light, be aware of our own patterns and our acquired knowledge. At this point, the role of sociologists and anthropologists can be critical to understand the user schemes and to avoid launching a product or service doomed to failure.

Taking into account the principle of learned patterns, there are some techniques that can help us to design more “intuitive” products and services. The following are the three most basic techniques:

1. Mimicry: to mimic patterns already well known among users. This is, for example, the system used to navigate through the different pages of a website, where the menu mimics the index of a book.

2. Minimum stages: to minimize as possible the number of steps that a user must follow to get the desired result. In those cases where it is not possible or not desired to mimic previous patterns, to present all the possible features and options from the beginning is imperative. In those cases where it is not possible to reduce the number of steps, it may be useful to explain the stages and guide the user.

3. Iconography: to use shapes and colors that represent well-known objects or situations to communicate how a product or service works. An example would be the use of a bell icon to indicate that a button is an alarm. Within this category there is also the use of words, although many bugs are the result of the ambiguous use of certain terminology.