Against intuitive technology

“I want my technology to be intuitive” is a statement that has always irked me. Musing over why I can feel my eye twitching when I hear it I realised that ‘intuitive’ is a proxy for ‘I don’t want to think about the technology’. The assumption being that the tech is only there to facilitate at task. Presumably this task mirrors something the individual has done many times before in analogue form giving them the ability to intuit the process. For example, paying a bill or writing a report. “I don’t want the technology to get in the way of what I’m trying to achieve” being the sibling of the ‘intuitive’ comment.

Baby with iPad
Proof that bright lights are attractive to babies. (CC – lynnmarentette)

What many call intuition in their lives is almost always something that has been learnt. Beyond basic responses, such as a baby throwing its arms out (the Moro reflex – although here I may have moved from intuition to instinct), much of what we think of as intuition is simply stuff-we-have-learned-and-then-forgotten-we-learned. Knowing that the Diskette symbol means ‘save’ is not intuitive, especially as the skeuomorphism of our icons slips a generation and becomes wholly abstract.  More fundamentally, a Diskette might be the symbol for ‘save’ but what does ‘save’ mean? It’s certainly not an intuitive concept in the non-physical milieu of the digital where we have to create our own mental maps of where information is located and how it’s curated.

To my mind the most successful ‘intuitive’ aspect of contemporary technology is its ability to support modes of consumption. Adverts for the Kindle Fire phone show beautiful people using the technology to buy goods and services in a variety of ways which smoothly align to their beautiful lives. It’s hardly surprising that the dominant ideology of capitalism should be mirrored in the technology so successfully and received as ‘good design’ or ‘intuitive’ rather than ‘learnt’ or ‘programmed’.

What does it mean when the technological process many find the most intuitive is buying something from Amazon or seeking out information using a search engine that primarily exists to target adverts? The same applies with individual production online, as for most this involves packaging their identity into neat slices for others to consume via Social Media.

This is what comes to my mind when I’m asked why all technology isn’t more intuitive. For me learning the technology is part of the larger learning process. In an educational context there are many occasions when I don’t want the tech to be transparent, I want it to be questioned.

In the creative sphere nobody complains that software such as Photoshop or Final Cut are complex and require tutorials and workshops to master. It’s recognised that they’re powerful tools which need to be understood before they can be harnessed or appropriated. For example, we know that if we don’t get to grips with Photoshop the result is a dumb replication of a particular aesthetic (or Instagram as it’s known).  Photographers and filmmakers don’t expect the technology they use to be intuitive, they expect to be powerful, requiring effort to learn and to bend it to produce the results they desire.

It’s likely that this use of ‘intuitive’ in educational circles comes from writing being the predominant mode of production. Obviously as with any form of literacy writing must be learnt but the physical tools required to realise ideas in this mode are relatively simple. Bounce that into digital technology and you have MS Office Word which at its core is a straight reflection of the physical paradigm. This I suspect is where most people who demand ‘intuitive’ are coming from, they are not considering the possibility that some technologies operate in new paradigms that cannot be tenuously mapped back to existing practices. New modes of practice need to be developed in these cases. The manner in which technology can call us to question and adapt our practices by getting-in-the-way is the muse for much creativity and innovation.

I don’t want technology to be ‘transparent’ – a bland tool which supports practices we already understand. I want it to be challenging, I want it to inspire by being unexpected, open enough to be appropriated in new ways by intelligent, engaged individuals. Learning the technology, learning how it can be appropriated, recontexualised,  disrupted, abused and used is part of the process of education not something that should be designed out.

18 thoughts on “Against intuitive technology

  1. Steve Parkinson Reply

    I can appreciate where you’re coming from but don’t entirely agree.

    From my point of view intuitive refers to being able to carry out a task without having to waste cognitive effort on unnecessary actions. Yes Photoshop has to be learned. But a lot of effort has been made by Adobe to ensure you can concentrate on the task of learning the principles without being distracted by an unintuitive interface.

    Too often I see academically produced software that has a great principle completely destroyed by a horrendous interface. Having a different layout, different functionality, different button placement on every page isn’t challenging. It can destroy a product and ensure it is never adopted. Another great idea on the scrap heap.

    I fully support intuitive technology that allows people to concentrate on the task they hope to achieve.

    1. David White Reply

      I’m not advocating for bad or inconstant design here. My point is that well designed technology still needs to be learnt and generally the more powerful it is the more you have to ‘bring to it’ to get the best out of it.

  2. Digisim Reply

    I think you are absolutely right in that technology should make us think and “advance?” our capabilities.

    I do however think that we must consider how we present “technology” to others when we ourselves might be more confident (perhaps more of a resident) than some others.

    I agree that it’s not about technology being intuitive, but accessible. And I mean accessible in the broadest sense. I think a useful example in Higher Ed is the VLE. I often hear people say that it needs to be more “intuitive” but what they mean is useable.

    I think historically many HEI’s have procured VLE systems based on “functionality”. In my mind this has to change, functionality is worthless if it’s not useable. The challenge here is that functionality is easier to assess compared with usability when going through a procurement process, however if we gave more time and value to that process I think it is achievable.

    I am on the look out for a range of “usability” models from which to plan a potential VLE review process so if you have come across any in your work please let me know.

    1. David White Reply

      More useable for what would be my question. I wonder if we focus on ease of use without discussing what we are trying to achieve overall. When I ask people why we have Moodle they say that it’s because we moved from Blackboard, that doesn’t really answer my question. The role and the value of the technology is rarely expressed – it’s become axiomatic that the use of certain tech is good so we’ve stopped taking about it. This is something that I’m hoping to address here at UAL using my 3 box model to frame discussion.

      1. Digisim Reply

        We frame our conversations on the use of e-learning (a poor term but inherited & due for review) around 4E’s.

        We ask our staff to frame how they seek to use tehnology by asking 4 questions.

        What can technology “enable” us to do?
        How can technology “enhance” what we already do?
        How can technology “enrich” our learning experiences?
        How can technology “empower” learners and teachers?

        This has certainly helped us to turn TEL activity into a conversation first rather than last!!

        1. David White Reply

          I like it. I might use that.

  3. José Picardo Reply

    Hi David,

    Thought-provoking and much to agree with. For example, I wholeheartedly subscribe to your parting words:

    Learning the technology, learning how it can be appropriated, recontexualised, disrupted, abused and used is part of the process of education not something that should be designed out.


    However, I think you maybe conflating intuitive with simple or undemanding. For example, I find Final Cut – one of your examples – both suitably complex yet easy to use.

    Those of us who have advocated in the past the invisibility – or , if you prefer, transparency – of technology do so from the perspective that technology ought to be there when needed, like electricity, so that teachers can focus on the teaching and learners on the learning without unnecessary stumbling blocks, such as long waits to be logged on or a poorly designed VLE.

    From this perspective intuitive really means instinctive, not undemanding. In my view, this is when technology best supports the processes involved in teaching and learning, when it is not an addition but rather an integral part of the context in which teaching and learning take place.

    1. David White Reply

      I basically agree with you here but taking the VLE as an example, my worry is that even if it’s ‘undemanding’ you still need to have a good sense of what you are trying to achieve. You have to have an idea of what the point of using the VLE is in learning and teaching terms. My worry is that when people say ‘intuitive’ they are hoping that the tech will somehow automatically embody the learning and teaching… This will still be a problem even when all the stumbling blocks are removed.

  4. Martin King Reply

    Thanks for another valuable and apposite post.

    I often hear the “I” word used in despair when speaking to VLE course editors. Many view the VLE as their performance support tool, only to be disappointed when they find that a little more effort is required to realise its capabilities – the very same capabilities that were demanded during the VLE selection process.

    While I sympathise, and generally agree that simple tasks such as uploading a file or posting feedback should be easy, there is a need for greater personal – and institutional – investment to understand, use, and push the more complex and powerful tools.

    I’ve been thinking of vandalising (sorry, building upon) your VR work and by replacing the visitor resident axis with one which spans amenity imposition, and using it to plot users attitudes to institutional and 3rd party services. This may provide valuable information on how to develop, and support the use of such services.

    1. David White Reply

      How about adding amenity/imposition as a vertical axis in the V&R continuum?

      1. Martin King Reply

        That would work too – maybe even better. Will try this and let you know.

  5. John Jackson Reply

    A fascinating post and thread – which will no doubt continue to stimulate debate!

    When do users of technology typically voice this desire for platforms to be ‘intuitive’? Probably when they find that it does not do what they want / expect it to do and they become frustrated, angry and maybe fearful trying to use it. It has for them become a barrier – and there can be many reasons for this.

    One of these *may* be that it has been ‘badly designed’. ‘Badly designed’ can mean many things but if the resource for no good reason diverges in a significant way from learned and embedded digital literacies and accepted design orthodoxies (however transitory) it will meet resistance. If there is divergence, the extent to which this will be accepted will be determined by the benefits it offers. World peace = very complex but worth striving for; square wheels on a motorbike = hmmm, best not.

    And to what extent do users say they wish a resource were ‘intuitive’ when what they actually mean is ‘usable’ or ‘fit for purpose’? This can be a diplomatic and non confrontational way of registering dissatisfaction and in a way that at least partially the user (rightly or wrongly) implicitly accepts responsibility for struggling with what may actually be duff tools.

    1. David White Reply

      Yes, intuitive is probably used as a gentle way to say something is badly designed in many cases. Perhaps it’s simply a lazy word but it’s an interesting way into layers of expectations and assumptions.

      Overall I’m interested in shifting the discourse from a description of what the technology ‘does’ to what we think we are trying to achieve. Somewhere along the line, as digital tech has gone mainstream, we’ve lost that thread.

      1. John Jackson Reply

        I agree. Treating digital tech just as a way of doing some things faster and with less effort is to betray its promise and to rob ourselves of our own potential.

        And as attractive, enjoyable and occasionally inspiring as well honed apps and platforms can be, the true magic happens when we approach the digital not primarily as consumers but critically exploring, testing, experimenting, playing, breaking, creating, sharing …

  6. Lindsay Jordan Reply

    Great analysis of the eye-twitch, Dave. I’ve noticed said twitch a lot recently.

    It is good that we’re thinking about technology in a semiotic sense – the signifier of ‘intuitiveness’ and the signified – what people are actually talking about when they talk about intuitiveness.

    I’m reminded of Ray Land’s work on the liminal state and how – as teachers or subject experts – we of course forget old meanings since they are no longer appropriate. Also that liminal states vary with the learner.

    For those of us who’ve spent many happy years thinking deeply about technology, the signified (‘intuitiveness’) has surely changed – as you have described here.

    Dave – what is the signified for you? What do YOU talk about when you talk about intuitiveness? Or maybe you don’t at all? 🙂

    1. David White Reply

      For me intuitiveness, such as it exists, in tech is about a consistent use of a design metaphor. Although as I mentioned these metaphors tend to be extremely abstract now – try explaining why an interface uses certain icons and you find yourself 3 metaphor layers deep translating back through to whatever the original physical touchstone was.

      The most intuitive moments for me with technology are directly linked to the practice I’m undertaking. For example, I’ve spent years working with video editing software so I can now ‘see through’ the interface to the act of creating a decent edit. That’s not because the interface is intuitive, it’s based on the principles of editing celluloid, something I’ve never done. It’s because I’ve learnt what-does-what in the service of clear ideas around what I want to achieve. So I can ‘see’ the edit I want in my mind and have learnt the tech to the point where I can reach that goal. That’s not to say that the process of learning the tech didn’t influence my understanding of what an edit could be. It’s still being influenced as the tech evolves…

  7. […] *Dave O. White,Against intuitive Software […]...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *