Designing the Future of Intuition: UX in the Physical World

December 6, 2017

Often today, when people design new things, new experiences, they focus on making them intuitive.

They shouldn’t, and I can explain why.

The word intuitive has become just as overused as the word innovative. It has become a buzzword to be choicely dropped when attempting to relay the merits of one’s latest work. Do not get me wrong, I think intuitive use is important. It is one of the principles of Universal Design, and it is one of the 12 principles of the Michael Graves Design philosophy.


Think about what the word intuitive means. Defined as “easy to understand or operate without explicit instruction.” When something is intuitive it is instinctual. The problem with intuition today, in the context of how people interact with the built and digital environment in which we live, is that intuitive behaviors are no longer instinctual, they are learned over time. Intuition, as we refer to it today, is a byproduct of use and experience.

In the 1970’s Noel Burch came up with the idea of the 4 stages of competence, also known as the 4 phases of learning. These phases help put the learning process into some context, describing the distinctive phases one experiences as they learn a new skill. Using the example of learning to walk, the phases are described as follows:

Phase 1: Unconscious Incompetence

When you are in this phase it indicates that there is a skill you do not understand. You could be unaware of it entirely, or perhaps simply deny that it would be of any use in your life. Using the example of walking, think of an infant who has just learned to crawl. To advance to the next phase, you must recognize the value of this new skill, as well as recognize your own incompetence. The length of time you spend in this phase is dependent on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Phase 2: Conscious Incompetence

You still do not know how to do the skill, but you recognize the value the skill has to fill a deficit in your life. Imagine a toddler, teetering wildly as they learn to get their feet under them and familiarize their self with the idea of balance. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Phase 3: Conscious Competence

At this point you understand or know how to do this new skill. Demonstrating it still requires concentration. Think of a young child who still stumbles or trips if they are not focused on the act of walking.

Phase 4: Unconscious Competence

This is the final phase. You have now had so much practice with the skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while doing another task, like so many people we see walking and using their phones today.

4 phases of learning with illustrations of child learning to walk.

What these phases do not communicate is the experience we take passing through them. The USER EXPERIENCE. To make this graphic more informative, I am going to juxtapose it with some other ideas starting with the learning curve. The learning curve is a familiar phrase, but I think many people do not pay enough attention to what it really represents. What the learning curve illustrates is how we learn as we gain experience. It communicates how learning is not a linear process. We struggle in the beginning to make advances. Over time, and with experience, our skill level tapers off as we reach the limit of our ability.

The Learning Curve

When the idea of the learning curve is juxtaposed with the 4 phases of learning, we get an even clearer understanding of the learning process. The shape of the curve begins to have more context as it relates to each phase. This helps us understand the meaning of intuitive use today. When we reach Unconscious Competence, at the top of the learning curve, the skill has become intuitive.

Why all of this is of interest to me, and should be to you if you create new products, spaces, or experiences of any kind, is that each of these phases can be correlated to designing those new products and experiences. Here’s what I mean, working backwards from the top of the curve. Something that leverages what is completely intuitive to people is a “Refresh.” If you are creating something where people enter it with Conscious Competence, perhaps linking together known skills in new ways that require concentration, it is “Evolutionary.” When you bring people in at Conscious Incompetence, asking them to learn something new that they know will benefit them, you are creating something “Transformational.” And if you bring people all the way back to Unconscious Incompetence, introducing a new idea that fills a gap in people’s lives they did not know existed, you have something “Disruptive.” When you think about it this way, you realize things don’t necessarily need to be intuitive when they are first introduced, but through a well-designed user experience they will become intuitive.

Let me give you two examples to clarify these distinctions, starting with something that is a “Refresh.” Marpac approached us in 2015 to work on redesigning and expanding their product offering. Marpac manufactures this amazing white-noise making machine that helps people get better sleep by drowning out disruptive noises. We began our partnership by refreshing their existing product, the “Dohm”. Why a refresh? People love the way this product works. It’s proprietary mechanism for creating such an amazing sound is a mechanical fan, not an electronic recording. It has been on the market for decades and needed some aesthetic attention. Maintaining the tight constraints of it’s internal magic, we gave the Dohm an approachable personality upon which we could begin developing more evolutionary and transformative products as line extensions. Through the use of form and texture we made the object more delightful and easy to use for long-time owners and first-time buyers alike. It’s refreshing!

Marpac Dohm original design (left) and 2017 redesign by Michael Graves Design (right).

The example I like to use to talk about a disruptive product has been around for well over 100 years. It was in the 1880’s that bicycles began looking like what we still use today. With the introduction of chain drives, same-sized wheels and pneumatic tires, the bicycle became more than just a dangerous hobby for young men. It was now accessible to the middle class, providing men and women alike with an entirely self-reliant mode of transportation. It was a disruptive product for it’s time.

The bicycle helps me illustrate another dimension to the learning curve, which is the fact that all learning curves look different. Learning to ride a bike takes time and effort to learn how to balance, pedal and steer all at the same time. The bicycle is now such a familiar product in our society that we have sayings like “it’s like riding a bike.” This doesn’t mean it was easy to learn. What it does mean is that it is intuitive by today’s standards. Learning the skill of riding a bike is a skill you will have for the rest of your life, because the user experience is much the same as it was 130 years ago.

Learning curves for technology today are entirely different. When you look at the learning curve associated with technology like smart phones you will find that they get you to “intuitive” much faster, when done well. Apple was always praised for making products that were “intuitive.” I would argue that what Apple excelled at was understanding, and mastering, the user experience. They excelled at making products that were remarkably easy to learn.

The other key difference between technology and something like the bicycle is that, while you learn to ride the bicycle once, technology is ever evolving. Software is constantly updating, forcing us to learn and re-learn endlessly. Sometimes we are even forced to unlearn what we know so that we may “advance.” Anyone getting familiar with the latest iPhoneX may attest to this.

This is why the phrase is “like riding a bike” and not “like using a Palm-Pilot.” And this gets to the heart of my point. Intuitive use should not be a goal, it should be the outcome of a great user experience because what is intuitive today, may not be tomorrow.

For a great example of the shifting idea of intuitive use in a physical product, look no further than the ice cube tray. The original idea of being able to make ice in your own home was a disruptive one. To be able to fill this tray with water, place it inside this big box in your kitchen, and be able to have ice a few hours later was magical. In the decades that followed the ice cube tray would only undergo evolutionary improvements. People would focus on making them more flexible and less expensive by using plastic. Others would focus on making them easier to fill, easier to empty, or both. Others still would simply focus on making the experience more fun by allowing you to make ice cubes look like anything from snowflakes to submarines.

All of these products were focused on the user experience. At some point, however, someone had a more disruptive idea.

I have 3 kids, and our refrigerator at home has an ice dispenser on it, as many of them do today. We were staying at someone else’s house, and their fridge did not have an ice dispenser. As I was filling ice cube trays my kids said, “what the heck are those things?” They had no idea what an ice-cube tray was. This blew my mind. This is because at some point someone stepped back and took a deeper look at the user experience of making ice and asked, “why should people have to do this at all? Why can’t we have the freezer do all of this for you, and all you have to do is walk up and dispense it?” This was a disruptive idea. By focusing on improving the user experience, intuition was redefined. While the ice cube tray may be completely intuitive to you and me, there is a generation growing up that has zero awareness of this item, and therefore it is not intuitive to them. And keep in mind this is cultural too. Only ¾ of the world’s households have a refrigerator. There are people who none of this would make any sense to.

source: @donya.gjerdingen via Twenty20

So, by now you get my point that intuitive use should not be the goal, but rather the outcome of a well-designed user experience. Don’t focus on what is intuitive, right? Wrong! You must understand the people and environment, the “context,” you are designing for. Part of doing that is understanding what is intuitive to them. If you do not understand this, you risk sending “False Signals” and creating a product that is unpleasant, frustrating, or even dangerous.

We came across a product while doing research for the Michael Graves | Stryker Transport Chair that we felt sent out a false signal.  One of the differentiating features of this product was that it could nest like shopping carts to save space. While this approach was novel and helped reduce space requirements for chair storage, it seemed they had sacrificed the user experience for this novelty.  Let me ask you a question. Do you need instructions on how to sit in a chair?  Of course not! Sitting in a chair is like riding a bike, unless you wanted to sit on this product.  While the narrow front helps the chairs stack efficiently, it created a difficult ingress/ egress experience that could be a fall hazard for patients. The risk was so great that we learned the company provided instructions for how patients should get into the chair. They “highly recommended” you sit on the chair from the side by raising the armrest, sit down, pivot into a forward position, and lower the armrest.  You cannot create an object that has a well-known, intuitive use (like a seat) and ask people to use it a different way.  Especially in a hospital where patient falls are one of their biggest problems. Traditional folding wheelchairs did not offer a better experience either.  With footrests and legrests blocking entrance to the chair, along with armrests that are unreachable from a standing position, it also created its share of risk for patient falls.

We took a different approach. We focused on the user experience of getting into, and out of, the chair.  We made the footrests spring-loaded, so they can never be left down to trip a patient.  The leg rests store underneath the seat, creating wide-open access to the seat for the patient.  We developed a “stand-assist” armrest that can be held securely from a standing position and, as its name suggests, assist patients when they stand up.  These features were not designed by asking ourselves what the most intuitive solution would be.  We asked ourselves what the best (and in a hospital, that certainly includes safest) experience would be.  From there we were able to design a superior solution that worked with, and even elevated, peoples engrained understanding of how to sit in a chair. This type of thinking went into the design of the entire chair, which you can see a case study of here.

Stryker Prime TC designed by Michael Graves Design.

We addressed the biggest problems facing hospitals today; patient falls, clinician back strain and injury, spread of infection, wheelchair theft, and lost parts. Oh, and it still stacks for efficient storage!

Most advances we see today challenge intuition in some way. This is because intuition is not the goal, but rather an outcome, it’s the end of the learning curve. Focus on solving a problem, and the user experience that goes with the solution. Decide what you want that experience, that learning curve, to look like. In today’s busy world, what will be the willingness to learn something new? How many hoops will people jump through to complete a task?

In our business, we work on projects with clients of all kinds. And in almost every case, “project” is just a euphemism for “problem.” So, when we seek to solve problems, we need to understand and visualize the user experience. We need to understand and visualize the changes we are asking people to make to their rituals, and those changes should be for the better!

To create a great user experience, we focus on 3 big ideas. Empathy. Understand the people for whom you are solving the problem. Understand the context of the situation, what drives them, what is intuitive for them. Understand their existing user experience. The second is vision. If empathy is about understanding the existing user experience, a creative vision is about imagining a better one, and being able to communicate it. The third is validation. You won’t know if your solution is delivering a better user experience until you test it.

We are always under immense constraints in the world of design; cost, feasibility, timing, safety, privacy, etc. What businesses are winning on today is user experience. Are you working on something that needs a great user experience? Give us a call, together we can design the future of intuition.

To learn more about Designing the Future of Intuition, including examples of our process for generating great user experiences,  watch Rob Van Varick speak on the topic at Mobelux.