Intuitive to use: Does it work as a design guide?

Four buttons are lined up one above the other. They are used to open and close the door. There are lots of written instructions.The seven classic principles of universal design were developed in the 1990s and are still applied in many contexts. The concept of universal design continues to evolve. Today, the concept is better understood as a way of thinking about inclusion throughout the design process. Newcomers to the concept of universal design often try to apply the principles literally rather than as a guide for design thinking. Maybe it is time for a product recall?

The classic principles are not themselves intuitive to use. And herein lies the problem. Consequently, Steinfeld and Maisel devised the 8 Goals of Universal Design in 2012. The 8th Goal is about cultural inclusion. These goals are easier to apply and more suited to adaptation to different design disciplines. However, they have yet to receive the same attention as the classic principles.

Not surprisingly, there have been many academic papers critiquing the seven principles. Academics are now arguing nuances between universal design and intuitive design, or applying principles in a tick-box fashion. One such paper is focused on the third principle, simple and intuitive to use.

The author concludes that as a design principle it doesn’t work because it doesn’t say how it is done, but is useful as a reminder to think about a broad range of users. It is worth noting that the researcher did not consult with users during the design. Rather, an example from an existing design was used to critique the principle of intuitive to use. 

The author reports on the application of an automatic locking system on a toilet door on a new train in Norway. The trains were designed with the principles of universal design. This includes an electronic door locking system for the toilet. However, this system has many passengers confused in spite of written instructions and icons. Consequently passengers have found themselves in embarrassing situations due to the door not being locked. Clearly there is something wrong with the design for everyone. It fails the test of intuitive to use. But is this a problem with the principle, or the designers who failed to properly test the design? Did following the principles give unfounded comfort to the designer such that no product testing was used?

The title of the article is, Intuitive use in design guidelines: Can intuitive use be applied to a product?   An article in Medium has picked up the story and concludes it is bad design. It adds the critical point that if you need lots of instructions on how to use something then it is definitely not intuitive.

Abstract: Several design guidelines recommend to design for intuitive use and marketing often advertises products as intuitive in use – but what does it mean for a design to be intuitive? One design guideline that embraces intuitive use is described by the principles of universal design. The third principle says that the design should strive for ‘Simple and intuitive use’ regardless of experience and cognitive abilities. This article will examine the concept of intuitive use and address the case of an automatic toilet door system that, even though universally designed, seems to be confusing to many users. From the literature, the focus will lie on the concepts of affordance and familiarity, due to its relation to intuition. The case is further used to evaluate these concepts and to see if principle three of universal design is possible to fulfill. The article concludes that the principle is a good reminder of an important concept; however, the design process needs supplements from other design literature to fulfill the principle.