Intuitive or Simple? They're Different.

One word you’ll hear often in UX design is: intuitive. You may have a sense of what it means, but if you had to explain it, would you use the word “simple” in your explanation? If so, keep reading.


This article is about the true meaning of “intuitive” because it’s an important idea for you to know. But this isn’t a distinction that you want to force on clients in a meeting.

Saying “intuitive” instead of “simple” is perfectly fine in normal conversation, unless you’re the type of person who points out grammar mistakes and gets worked up about Oxford Commas.

What I actually want to change is how you think about about your own designs.


The difference between intuitive and simple is fairly basic: 

Intuitive means that information is presented in the way your brain naturally likes information to be presented.

Simple means that the information doesn’t have many parts or steps and doesn’t take a lot of effort.


If you think, as the designer, that you can step back and decide whether something looks intuitive, you are not thinking about it properly. 

It might look simple. But you can’t see intuition.

It is very difficult to predict whether something you have designed is intuitive to other people. VERY difficult. You know too much about it.

You know how it is supposed to work. How you intended it to work. Not how it actually works in the mind of someone else.

As a designer, this can be hard to accept.


On wikipedia you can find a list of Cognitive Biases

It is literally a list of all the predictable ways people make mistakes, if information is presented in a certain way.

The cool thing about Cognitive Biases is that many of them are extremely simple. Like anchoring:

Imagine I tell you to “pick any number” and I start with 8. Whatever number you pick will probably be a lot closer to 8 than if I had started with 23,000.

That’s anchoring. The first choice influences the second choice. Simple, right?

Now imagine, you meet a guy, named John, who wears goth clothing, has long black hair, and listens to death metal. Is it more likely that he is a Christian or a Satanist?

Still simple. 

Not intuitive. 

Your intuition just told you he is probably a Satanist. But your intuition is wrong.

So wrong.

It is much more likely that he is Christian. It’s not even close, actually. His clothing, hair, and musical taste have nothing to do with it.

He is actually more likely to be a Muslim or a Buddhist or a fan of Kim Kardashian than a Satanist!

That is an example of Base Rate fallacy. Another cognitive bias. 

Even after I have explained it, you might be sitting there thinking I am an idiot, because it’s obvious that his clothing and music indicate his religion.

We judge things based on what we have experience and expectations, not on their actual statistical importance.


Design works the same way.

To me, the question about John’s religion is obvious, because I understand Base Rate fallacy, and because I chose it as an example for you.

To make it intuitive, I might have to present it in a different way. Maybe I could exclude the information about John’s clothing and music, and just focus on the fact that there are billions of Christians and only a small group of Satanists.

It is always more likely that someone is a Christian than a Satanist, even if they have a pentagram tattoo on their face. Unless a couple billion people changed religions when I wasn’t looking.

And your intuition hates that idea. Even right now. You’re resisting. I can feel it. A pentagram tattoo on a Christian?!

To you, your designs will always be obvious. You understand the strategy and structure you have designed into them.

But users don’t. And they definitely won’t think that hard about a website or an app.


“Simple” is a description of how information is presented.

“Intuitive” is a description of how information is understood.

So next time you sit back and think “now that’s an intuitive design,” you better check yourself before you wreck yourself.