Intuitive. It's a word that should be reserved for psychics, but instead, we have misused it to describe interfaces.
(As an aside, I do believe in what many would consider to be the more "woo-woo" side of life, with feelings and intuitions. But when I design I try to refer to metrics and stats and leverage design and psychology theories. I'm not into doing what my gut tells me when it comes to business decisions.)
The problem with "intuitive" is that it doesn't exist. We are only a tabula raza when we are just out of the womb. Shortly after exposure to other people, all bets are off - we become products of our culture. What we are exposed to as a child has an incredible impact on our understanding of the world. You could call it programming - I often do. We are raised with certain beliefs from our family and surroundings that provide us a way to understand the world around us. This is why different cultures and people see the world so differently.
Babies have the ability to speak any language on the planet. There was a study done with babies who were exposed to Chinese the first month or two after birth. They were then immersed in a French speaking environment, never speaking Chinese. In the test, they were given Chinese tonal patterns and they picked them up as a Chinese speaker would. The French language worked completely different in their brain. This shows:
“The sound of languages are acquired relatively early in life, usually within the first year. We’ve learned through a lot of seminal work that is out there that children start out as global citizens who turn their heads equally to all sounds and only later start to edit and become experts in the languages that they’re regularly exposed to.”
--Dr. Denise Klein, Melissa Locker, "An Infant's Brain Maps Language from Birth," Time
My favorite story about cultural programming has to do with doorknobs vs. latches. My uncle would constantly proclaim to me how Europe, specifically Germany, was the land of latches and shallow toilet bowls. I'll save the off-color stories about the toilet bowls for another day and focus on the latches instead. When he went to Germany while in the military, one of his challenges was using a latch. It took a while for him to figure out how it works. I thought he was being funny until a close friend of mine from Germany recounted something similar, but opposite. When she came to the US, she had no idea how to use a doorknob. Needless to say, locking a knob was a puzzlement to her because she never experienced one previously.
When we design a new product, we typically leverage familiar paradigms and patterns. We look to see how we can walk a user through an experience to make it feel familiar to them - therefore intuitive. We'll apply a wizard paradigm to outline a complex process and simplify it or apply a shopping paradigm for searches and finding the right item.
To make radical changes, though, you often need to create a new paradigm, or at least experiment with creating one. Sometimes there needs to be an absolutely new way to do something to make it easier to use in the end. Raskin tells us often what happens in this process:
Even where my proposals are seen as significant improvements, they are often rejected nonetheless on the grounds that they are not intuitive. It is a classic "catch 22." The client wants something that is significantly superior to the competition. But if superior, it cannot be the same, so it must be different (typically the greater the improvement, the greater the difference). Therefore it cannot be intuitive, that is, familiar. What the client usually wants is an interface with at most marginal differences that, somehow, makes a major improvement. This can be achieved only on the rare occasions where the original interface has some major flaw that is remedied by a minor fix.
--Jef Raskin, Intuitive Equals Familiar
Going outside of familiar means that you need to take a risk. And most people don't like risk - they want something safe. They want to be sure that what they are launching will be successful. What many forget is that usability testing covers this risk. When it comes to creating new product, I think often the business forgets that we all look at our world through programmed eyes. Sometimes, to break ground, we need to look at the world differently, see a different way to do something that isn't familiar. It's not bad - it's just a change. Often this change will create a new familiar.
Maybe a question to ask a client - me included - is not how can we get this new idea to work, but how can we change the standard and create a new familiar? Creating a new familiar is revolutionary. Creating a new familiar is what Apple did consistently - and why we now see touch devices and mobile as the future. Something to think about.