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Why a non-intuitive user interface creates a great user experience

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David Ismailov, Sr. User Experience Expert, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

In 2007 people lined up for blocks to buy the world's first iPhone. Those who were lucky enough to buy those first magical devices opened the box, turned it on, and...voila! They immediately knew how to use it and were off and running. They knew how to use a completely new product with new software and a unique user interface (UI), straight out of the box. How did Apple create such an intuitive UI? The answer, as it turns out, isn't so intuitive.

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Intuitive = familiar

Dictionary.com defines something as "intuitive" if you can understand it immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. It's an automatic process over which you have no control. This old saying explains it in starker terms: "The only intuitive interface is the nipple. Everything else is learned." The origins of this quotation remain foggy, and the accuracy of the statement is questionable, but the implication is clear: intuition is rooted in familiarity. What people regard as an intuitive user interface actually leans on their existing skills and knowledge from their previous experiences. This applies to products, services, and business models equally.

Even Jef Raskin, who pioneered the Macintosh project for Apple, has equated "intuitive" with "familiar." That was Apple's secret to the UI in its first iPhone, which felt intuitive to many people. Even before they got their hands on it, customers knew how to use the iPhone, thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign that featured demonstrations of the product.

By comparison, Apple's 2013 Christmas commercials shot an arrow straight into people's emotions. The spot featured everything from teary-eyed grandparents to children kissing their dogs, but the iPhone screen didn't appear once in the commercial. Why? Because by then everyone was already familiar with the iPhone. It was already intuitive.

Another example is the Apple Watch. In recent years, people have accepted ever-larger mobile screens as smartphones have transformed into mini tablets. Apple turned this trend on its head with the introduction of its Apple Watch.

With a new form factor with a touch screen that shrank in proportion to the expanding iPhone screens, there was no way for Apple to make the user interface intuitive. It was unfamiliar and complex to operate—far too complex, in fact, for an initial product release.

So, to make it familiar—and intuitive—Apple spent $38 million last March on commercials teaching people how to use its "crown," a new and unfamiliar way to operate the UI, as well the watch's other new features. One week before Apple Watch went on pre-sale, the Apple website offered guided tour videos that taught prospective customers how to use the different functions and apps on the new device. So what are the lessons here?

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Be unique

User experience (UX) designers are often at odds with corporate decision makers about what makes a great UX. At design meetings, the word "intuitive" gets thrown around countless times in close proximity to the words "Apple" and "iPhone." What many of the corporate suits miss is that if you want to create the next great UX, your UI can't just be intuitive in terms of familiarity. You must identify the core of your product or service and find a unique, simple interface for it.

Once you have unique core elements and processes in place, the rest of the product will become intuitive. You don't want to be an Apple look-alike. You want your app to have its own distinguishable markers and identifiers so that anyone will associate it with your brand from a mile away. This is what Apple has succeeded in doing, and that's what you need to do as well.

Know the limitations of your MVP

As the lean and agile movements have taken over the startup world, consumer software products usually start small, with the proverbial minimum viable product (MVP). But an MVP is merely a learning tool; it's something you use to research the market, not a finished consumer product. To reach the masses quickly, you need to define an initial product that's flashy enough to get people talking, but simple enough to learn easily.

You need an MVP plus something extra—something your marketing team will drool over. Your initial product definition should address every major aspect of the product, such as performance, quality, marketing features, and overall user experience.

Consider iOS 7. It didn't show many dramatic advances over iOS 6, but it did have the parallax effect feature that lets users view things such as home screen icons and alerts in what looks like 3D. That's not something I'd call a requirement, but it certainly brings a "wow" factor.

However, you can only take that so far. There's only so much that people can take in. If your flashy, new, unique UI requires too much learning, it'll probably fail. That's one reason why Google+ never enjoyed the same success as Facebook. Many people just couldn't be bothered to relearn how to operate what are essentially Facebook-like features. Finding the right balance between the familiar and the unique is part art and part science, and objective testing methods can help you find the right balance.

Getting to "wow"

What's really going to bring millions to your doorstep is something unique, but you can't abandon the intuitive and the familiar altogether. Intuitive doesn't mean old and worn. There are plenty of perfectly good, proven design patterns you can use to make your application look familiar right away. I suggest a hybrid approach that combines familiar features to give users a basis on which to start exploring your application, and then build on those to introduce new, unique features that set you apart from the competition.

When it comes to UX, a little "wow" goes a long way.

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