good gut

I’m beginning to theorize that designers and usability researchers can start to quickly evaluate designs with their gut, […]

I’m beginning to theorize that designers and usability researchers can start to quickly evaluate designs with their gut, once they have seen enough usability tests. Watching test after test builds up a body of experence that can result in pattern matching of interface and behavior. This results in situations where a designer (or researcher) looking at a design and feeling uneasy– they might not know why it won’t or will work, but they “know.”

In fact I think the gut is more accurate than a rule.

How to Think With Your Gut lends credence to this theory.


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  1. 1
    Jared Spool

    Absolutely! There is a tremendous amount of evidence to support that a well refined ‘gut’ can outperform the most analytically trained person.

    However, there is another component. One has to unlearn all of the falsehoods that have been put into our heads by people who didn’t know what they were talking about.

    I’m talking about the rules like “people hate to scroll” or “faster download times make for more usable pages”. There are tons of these rules that people believe are true that turn out not to bear fruit.

    And if the gut of a designer has these rules embedded, they’ll continue to produce underperforming designs.

    Now, the next question is, how do you get an entire team to think with its gut on equal terms?

  2. 2
    George Olsen

    There’s actually a lot of learning theory that talks about how beginners consciously follow The Rules, while experts have internalized the rules and therefore use (and intentionally break) them unconsciously.

    The problem with rules is they’re usually one dimensional. In graphic design (to pick one field as an illustration) there’s lot of guidelines — and they’re sometimes contradictory. So the value of experience is knowing which rules to apply in which situation, in combination with which other rules, which in turn have a feedback effect on the first set of rules that need to be taken into account, etc.

    Same goes for sailing, writing, or any number of fields and to Jared’s question, it’s really hard to teach that stuff. It’s usually done via example. Classroom learning helps you understand tides, currents, wind factors, etc. but it’s no substitute for being out on the water.

    So in sailing (or graphic design) you normally learn by apprenticing under someone more experienced than you. If you’re lucky they’re able to articulate what’s become unconscious knowledge to them, which speeds up the learning.

    But that’s often difficult because intuitive judgements by definition usually can’t be well verbalized. You know it feels it’s right, but you can’t necessarily pull it apart to say why.

    The other shortcut to experience is vicarious experience. Aside from being social, one reason sea stories are so popular is it’s a chance to learn from someone’s experience (good or bad). They’re rarely couched as lessons, but I’ve picked up invaluable advice from them.

    Of course, the value of theory is that it helps you complement intuition with analytics. There are great musicians who can’t read music, let alone understand music theory. But those who do are at an advantage because they better understand analytically why something works and can build off something that began intuitively.

    But in the end Charlie Parker put it nicely: “First you learn your horn. Then you learn music theory. Then you forget all that and just blow.”

  3. 4
    Ron Zeno

    The danger comes when, as a designer/whatever, you think that you know everything, stop user testing, and run with gut feelings.

    Or worse, never conduct any tests at all (certain “gurus” come to mind) or never learn how to conduct tests properly (other “gurus” come to mind). Building on bad experience means that you may never learn best practice at all. In that case, working from your gut is just self-delusion.

    once they have seen enough usability tests

    Highly unlikely. Seeing them is no where near enough. You need to learn how to conduct them properly, learn how to prioritize issues, and learn how to issues relate to each other. Hard stuff. I think these issues are far beyond gut instincts.

    In fact I think the gut is more accurate than a rule.

    Nonsense. Rules can be easily examined and modified. Gut feelings may just be delusions.

  4. 5

    Don’t worry that I’m suggesting giving up testing– on the redesign I’m working on now I’ve got six rounds of usability testing, 4 surveys, eye tracking and a couple other methods. I believe firmly in testing early and often.

    and I still believe in gut over rules. I’ve seen more bad design come from beginner designers slavishly following rules than a well-trained gut designing. (and by seeing a lot of testing needed to test your gut I mean hundreds and hundreds of hours of well run testing.)

  5. 7
    Ron Zeno

    I’ve seen more bad design come from beginner designers slavishly following rules than a well-trained gut designing.

    Since you’re talking about people with “hundreds and hundreds” of hours experience running quality tests, then you’re just saying that highly skilled and experienced people are more effective than inexperienced people. Can’t argue with that.

    Good rules can help everyone, especially the inexperienced, such as the rules from, but there aren’t many quality sources of good rules.

  6. 8

    Part of the reason works so well– and their guidelines do– is because context is part of the equation. Rules without reasons and context are often forgotten, or if remembered misapplied as often as correctly applied. In liu of experience, a good story can illustrate a rule or principal so the a designer can understand when to follow and when to break it. Same reason Design of Sites is such an excellent book.

  7. 10

    The team is focused on developing evidence-based usability guidelines. The metaphor they use to rationalize this approach is interesting. They compare two approaches to practicing medicine– the “country doctor” approach vs. the “teaching hospital” approach.

    They argue that the practice of medicine has improved because of the work done in teaching hospitals to back up hunches and hypotheses with hard research. The research provides evidence that a particular course of treatment will or will not work. In some cases it backs up practitioners’ hunches. In other cases it shoots them out of the water.

    If I’m a new doctor, I don’t have hunches. I’m going to initally rely on the evidence gathered by others in practicing medicine. Over time as I gain experience I will begin to develop my own base of evidence– which may not be codified but will enable me to practice medicine more effectively.

    Also, with evidence-based practices I can tell my patient that “Procedure X has worked in Y% of cases with these complications” rather than “trust me this will cure you.” I can also tell my patient that despite what she’s seen on that late night infomercial, Procedure Z doesn’t work.

    And that might be the real value in having evidence-based rules– being able to convince a client –or a developer, or a designer– that they should do something because evidence-based rules support it. Even better if the “evidence” is based on user testing.

  8. 11
    George Olsen

    I’ve actually been a fan of the medical analogy for awhile — since like design it’s part science and part art.

    Patients (users) know their pain. They don’t usually know what’s real cause, nor what to do about it. I.e. is that pain in my abdomen caused by a stomache ache or appendicitis?

    That’s where a trained expert can help. But if you read accounts of medical diagnosis (for example in Discover magazine’s regular feature, you find doctors will often start with an intuitive guess and then use medical tests to confirm or disprove that guess.

    So it’s not a question of either usability testing or design rules or intutition, it’s a question of how to use each appropriately.

    BTW, the similarities with medicine go deeper. There are many illness that have similar symptoms. Consequently, doctors use context quite often to narrow down which “rules” are most applicable in figuring out the illness. Consequently, doctors with lots of experience (seeing different contexts) get better at diagnosis.

  9. 13

    Danger! Will Robinson, Danger! Just say no to GUT! =:-O

    Actually, I’ve thought about this ‘gut feeling’ idea in the shower a number of times (there’s a big ‘gut’ pun in that comment somewhere, but I’ll spare tire you the groan).

    I’ve often noticed that there’s a ‘feeling’ I get when using or evaluating an interface, and I come across an ill-designed feature, page or interaction. It’s a mounting sense that something’s not right, and it builds until – BAM! (insert Emeril impersonation) – you recognize the problem. BUT, that’s really all I’ve found my “gut” or “intuition” good for – identifying design problems.

    The act of DESIGNING something leans more on experience and creativity, not my gut – although I might use my “gut” to help me assess whether the design idea/direction “feels right.” Unfortunately, the really juicey design problems rarely have a solution that just feels right from the start…I have to test it, refine, and work with it to gain a level of ‘gut comfort.’ So, I’ve found my gut doesn’t really help me when I’m designing in uncharted waters.

    My ‘gut’ helps me when I’m in my comfort zones: familiar design situations, familiar target user profiles, etc. Just yesterday, I was asked to look at a system that was developed for market traders and economic analysts. The system was very complex and horrible — from my novice, low-domain-knowledge-user’s perspective. Experience told me that newcomers to the field would have a hard time, but I had to accept (against my gut) that very savvy power-users might find this system more usable than I. I also know enough about the users to know that they can’t afford to spend a lot of time with the system – if you’re a market trader, seconds can make the difference between getting a bonus and getting fired. It’s at times like that when I challenge my gut and recognize that I have to better understand that group of users before making recommendations for a wholesale redesign. I’d do my client a disservice if I waltzed in and acted as if my gut and experience make me a Walking UX Oracle(tm). To the contrary, my experience and gut tell me when I have to lean on UCD methods, and when I can just apply guidelines. Assessing the RISK inherint in design decisions is of vast importance. I can test ideas willy-nilly on my blog, but I can’t be cavalier with decisions about my company’s ERP system. The best ‘gut thinkers’ are good risk assessers.

    While I’ll admit to use my ‘gut feelings,’ I don’t want to promote that people “go with their gut” — too many people already mistake ‘usability’ for common sense — inexperienced folks’ ‘gut reactions’ are often wrong, and they don’t understand the need for a solid UCD methodology to prove/disprove/improve their ‘gut.’

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