Intuitive: A word that isn’t that intuitive

Intuitive: A word that isn’t that intuitive

I recently had a conversation with a client where the topic of drag-and-drop was brought up.  They had been using drag-and-drop in one of their products because they considered it an intuitive way for their customers to interact with their software.  Through the conversation I realized we had stumbled on some common misconceptions around what makes something intuitive.  A quick Google search of the word intuitive brings this:




  1. Using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive.
  2. Easy to use and understand.

I think the first definition is the source of the confusion.  We commonly connect intuitive to being instinctive or natural.  Since the creation of the graphical user interface, personal computers have relied heavily on metaphors to communicate with their users.  Drag-and-drop was actually part of the groundbreaking work at Xerox PARC that set the standard for the personal computer.  They created the desktop metaphor that we still use today by replacing strictly text-based controls with icons and the ability to physically manipulate object on the screen with a mouse.  This completely changed how we interact with computers.  Computers were no longer abstract calculating machines, but something much more familiar and natural.  Touch-based interfaces have taken these concepts even further by removing the mouse from the equation and letting the user interact directly with the objects on their screen.  Even though drag-and-drop has been around since the beginning, time and time again I see designs that implement it fail when it is put to usability testing.  Designs that succeed in usability testing communicate their function through their design.  Unfortunately there is no consistent way to communicate to a user that an item is ‘drag-and-dropable’.   Some interfaces will give directions like, ‘drag-and-drop to select your files’, but now you are forcing users to read, which is not fun or intuitive.  The whole reason we like graphical user interface is because we don’t need to read.

This brings us to the second definition of intuitive, ‘Easy to use and understand’.  If you want your users to be able to use your software without training, avoid invisible interaction methods like drag-and-drop. Make sure the design tells them how it works so users can save their instruction manual reading for Ikea furniture.

Patrick Noonan, is User Experience Specialist at Akendi, a firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design. To learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit

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