Intuitive & tacit versus cognitive design

I have to admit being a bit of an idiot when it came to understanding intuition & the tacit in design for not only all my student years, but even my early years in industry & lecturing.

It can be a little hard to get your teeth into & it doesn’t help when people talk about the x-factor and vague terms like that. But the eventually I had to admit that it not only exists, but is the difference between adequate and great design, and in some fields (like those for people considered ‘disadvantaged’) it can be the difference between success and faliure. So its worth understanding & getting a grip on, whether  you are in a highly competitive market where every drop of greatness counts, or just trying to make the world a better place (an extremely common motivation for studying design). So here is a little informal discussion. Please feel free to add or ask questions at the end.

The Mac versus PC is probably the most obvious & widespread example of intuition versus cognition. I was in one of the few design courses using PC’s because all our 3D software only worked on PC & you could get PC versions of all the other software was available for PC. Thus all my cognitive training since leaving junior school (where we had the original Apple) has been on PC. I then married a systems architect who only works on PC, but he recently got me an iPad to replace my dying (& now stolen) laptop.  The difference is remarkable! Especially when I try using his work tablet and laptop when he brings them home.

His main motivation for getting an iPad was that the screen is better for my migraines (note worthy in itself), but what stuck me, was that I could pick it up I teach myself how to use it in the shop, just by playing around with it (using intuition). In my education training they stressed this kind of learning for preschoolers and almost ignored it for secondary & tertiary learners until postgrad, something I consider a grave mistake (Why churn out stupid minions & then expect them to think for themselves? If a preschooler can cope with it, so can a kid in high school 😉 )

Anyway, I recently saw the extent of this difference between the iPad & its counteparts when my husband gave his mum one for her birthday. She is not the computer guru. I remember past Sunday lunches spent with the men carefully making her lists & showing her how to check email & Facebook when she was given a PC. This time I saw my husband try to think his way through teaching her, clearly using his head (cognitive) only & devising lists for her. She seemed scared & lost so I interrupted & took over, givinggeneral principles   that would work over multiple apps & situations & encouraging her just to play. Given her Facebook & even Skype activity, I’d say that this intuitive learning is working for my mother-in-law. Not only that, but it makes the process fun, actually addictive. To say that it adds to the appeal of the product and brand is a gross understatement. This may explain why even their less technilogically successful products like the iPhone still have some appeal despite  the irritation of dropped calls etc. In a strange way, many of us have swapped our relationships & learning so that we use computers & technology intuitively & relate to other humans via text only which limits tacit communication, making it much more cognitive.

Well not everyone has the budget or corporate environment of Mac, but its still worth considering tacit & intuitive matters like affordance, the aesthetic-usability effect, biasing, classical conditioning etc. I therefore encourage comments & questions on the topic now, & will otherwise continue through my list of more specific design principles encouraging tacit knowledge & intuitive design.

(Written while playing with 2 busy preschoolers)

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One thought on “Intuitive & tacit versus cognitive design

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