5 Ways to Make a User Interface More Intuitive

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In the world of graphical user interface design, the word “intuitive” gets tossed around a lot. Many believe that an intuitive user interface is an impossibility, while others seem to use the term interchangeably with “user friendly” or “easy to use”. I fall outside of both camps. I believe that it is very possible to design a UI to be “intuitive”, and while it is a quality that may be intertwined with ease of use, I don’t think it is the same thing.

First off, it’s important to understand what “intuitive” means in terms of UI design. Webster’s defines it as: “based on or agreeing with what is known or understood without any proof or evidence”. Usually, when I hear an argument that intuitive user interface design is not possible, it’s supported by the suggestion that a person with absolutely no familiarity with any user interface, wouldn’t know how to operate a UI without some sort of instruction or help. There are two problems with this argument. First, unless an interface is being used by a member of an indigenous tribe of bush-people, or a time traveler from the middle-ages, the user will have some sort of previous experience with modern technology and UI. Secondly, and more poignantly, this argument applies to instinct rather than intuition. Instinct refers to the ability to do something naturally, or seemingly without thinking about it, like a reflex. Intuition is similar, but is based on previous experience or things learned. With this in mind, the concept of an intuitive user interface shouldn’t be hard to accept at all. So, how do we make sure our UI are intuitive for end users? Here I will detail five ways to make a user interface more intuitive, and show why I believe it is not only possible, but necessary to take this confusing and often misunderstood concept into account when creating any user interface.

Don’t stray from tried and true conventions

While I love to see innovation and originality in user interface design, there are many established practices that shouldn’t be messed with. Things like the telephone style, numeric keypad, and the standard symbol set for transport controls (play, pause, stop, etc.) are so standardized that messing with them would just confuse users. Even if you feel you’ve devised a better way of doing things, it’s better to leave these pillars of UI design alone if you want your interface to in fact, be intuitive.

Use left to right flow

Because it’s the same way we read, using a left to right page flow is intuitive to most users. Depending on the platform, this can be suggested visually by having pages animate in from the right and out to the left. Better yet, on a device that supports gestures, the user can swipe from the right to the left to move to the next page. To accomplish left to right flow on even the most basic devices that don’t support animation or gestures, simply keep ‘next page’ buttons on the right of the screen, and ‘go back’ buttons on the left side.

Use common symbols & icons

This also relates to conforming to convention. Icons and glyphs are a huge part of user interface design in general, and there are many standards that have been established over time. If you don’t care for using a ‘gears’ icon to access device settings, it’s probably okay to experiment a bit and try something new, as long as it still suggests “settings”. However, if you think something other than a right-pointing triangle should be used to represent ‘play’, swallow your pride and stick with the standard, or you’re just asking for trouble.

Use consistent element placement

This is quite simple and should go without saying. If a persistent element is in a particular place on the first page of your UI, make sure it stays there on all the other pages. This especially ties into making an interface intuitive. If you establish a location for a particular control, the user will quickly memorize it and reach for it — intuitively. A great example of this can be illustrated using the left to right page flow discussed previously. If you place a “next page” button in the bottom right corner of the screen on four pages in a row, and then on the fifth page, place the “go back” button in the same spot, the user will undoubtedly press it and wonder why she’s back on the previous page. In fact, she would likely perform the same action several times before noticing the label on the button. This is because she’s pressing the button intuitively instead of actually looking closely at it every time.

Mimic real-life

This is currently somewhat of a sore spot for many interface designers, myself included, as skeuomorphism has taken a backseat to the whole “flat UI” trend that is so popular right now. Realistic-looking buttons, switches, sliders and other controls, have an advantage in terms of being intuitive, because they mimic their real-life counterparts that users are already familiar with. Not to mention that they’re far more challenging and rewarding to create as a designer, but that’s a topic for a whole other blog post. My point; mimic real-life interface objects and your UI will be more intuitive for end-users.

There are a slew of additional ways you can make your UI intuitive, like using color, shape and size to differentiate between controls, and effective use of element states. So, this should be more than enough evidence to show that it’s not only possible to make a user interface “intuitive”, it’s absolutely necessary if you want people to have a positive user experience.

Aaron Craig

Aaron Craig is a graphic designer & entrepreneur. He is the founder of NTDesigns, a UI design firm that specializes in touchscreen based interfaces, especially in the home automation industry. He is the primary author for the NTDesigns Blog, and writes periodically for other blogs and publications in the UI design and automation realms when he can. Aaron lives in Milwaukee with his family and two dogs, Napoleon and Kip.

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