Design Intuition: The Most Misunderstood Critical Design Skill.
A reflection on the role of design intuition in the modern design process.
Intuition is the ability to understand something immediately without needing conscious reasoning. Or at least that's how the dictionary defines the word.
But for me, intuition has always been something more. Although intuition allows you to skip the friction of logical reasoning, it's by no means an effortless phenomenon.
When intuition manifests in my life, it shows up as a feeling of discomfort or encouragement toward a particular idea or concept. But unlike direct reasoning, where you can logically progress to a conclusion, intuition doesn't provide a conscious mechanism that will conclusively produce an answer to a problem.
In that sense, intuition works as an internal compass, not a map.
Intuition is a profoundly personal experience that requires emotional calibration and often requires the rhythm of consciousness to ultimately emerge as helpful information that can be acted upon.
Intuition isn't necessarily a skill but a human faculty that manifests as an expression of our thinking and behaviors concerning the world.
Everyone is intuitive, but only some are fully aware of their capacity to derive meaning instinctively, and indeed, some people are better at being intuitive than others.
My experience has shown me that in many realms of life, people prefer to distance themselves from the concept of intuition, although they might intimately experience it every day.
For some, the idea of intuition is too esoteric to be reliably used in the highly rational frameworks in which we operate.
In the case of modern design, in particular tech design, we seem to have distanced ourselves from the concept of intuition to conform to a world where products or experiences are designed through a scientific approach where hard data sets the pace.
However, I have learned throughout my career that designers must apply their intuition to move forward with a design vision or initiative, even in the most data-rich environments.
Almost everything worth building requires some level of blind faith that helps you move closer to a place of conviction.
In situations of uncertainty, intuition-driven decisions are often the only source of meaningful creative breakthroughs.
So what exactly is design intuition?
Design intuition is an acquired skill closely correlated to one's individual design experience. It would be unfair to expect a junior designer to have the same intuitive design capacities as a seasoned principal-level designer.
However, design intuition seems stronger in highly devoted designers whose interest in design is an outlet for their creative abilities.
Experience plays a big part, but so does one's attraction toward specific fields such as philosophy, psychology, architecture, art, and behavioral economics.
Design intuition emerges from repeated exposure to similar problems and ideas across multiple experiences.
For example, suppose you create one hundred accounts across various services. By doing that, you will likely learn something about building usable online sign-up flows. You will learn even more if you design a couple of online sign-up flows. If you do all this with different people and in different environments throughout the years, you will likely become capable of designing an excellent sign-up flow almost instinctively.
That repetition often transforms into subconscious knowledge that allows you to assert a design direction and understand relevant design constraints. It's a calibration exercise to determine if you possess any kind of information to help you make a decision.
Design intuition is, therefore, an amalgamation of all your past experiences, knowledge, and passion for specific ideas. It emerges timidly in areas where your subconscious can see resemblances to what you already know about previously observed design problems. It shows strongly in areas where the issue at hand maps tightly to your most fundamental interpretations of the world.
But design intuition isn't infallible. Designers are also humans; we risk confusing our intuition with other cognitive phenomena, such as bias in our thinking.
It's crucial to understand that intuition, in general, is a delicate tool. If you use it carelessly and don't calibrate it through practical reasoning, it will likely drive you into a dead-end.
In the case of design, intuition needs to be applied with surgical precision, allowing data, facts, and anecdotes to enhance the quality and objectivity of the information that emerges instinctively.
Design intuition is the most disruptive skill any designer can develop.
Still, it only works and effectively develops when built from a place of strict knowledge and deep reflection about our surrounding world.
The difference between biased thinking and intuition is that the latter is a timid exercise of confidence, while the former is a negligent outburst of know-it-all-ism.
How does design intuition fit into the modern design process?
Talking about design intuition would only make sense if we can adequately contextualize it in the modern design process.
Those who have read my thoughts know that I believe the industrialization of the design process, particularly in technology, has introduced an unbearable latency to our collective capacity to innovate.
Modern design education has over-indexed on teaching highly theoretical processes that depend on activities that rarely work in practice.
For example, the idea that behavioral data is widely available at tech organizations is one of the most overstated notions in product development.
Unlike popular belief, telemetry and user research are challenging execution problems that take considerable time and operational effort.
While data might exist, it's often buried in data warehouses, and its availability in the product development process depends on whether or not it can be queried and analyzed by someone.
Likewise, user research depends on a company's ability to build a symbiotic relationship with its customers. Many designers seem to believe that user research programs simply exist.
But the reality is that talking to your customers is an intricate activity with scarce resources. Producing user insights that can confidently inform decisions is a complicated and lengthy activity with a slow pace.
This is why design intuition is critical when operating in realistic development environments. Designers' objective function in product organizations is to imagine the experiences that deliver value and maximize benefits for the user and the business. To accomplish this, designers must confidently match the pace and make decisions without data. Great designers know how to develop a contextual understanding of the problem and channel their robust intuition to move forward.
Without design intuition, making product progress will be virtually impossible. Design intuition allows designers to productively set a direction without being bogged down by the need for validation at every step.
Simply put, design intuition is the ability to develop a real understanding with minimal signal while exercising utmost empathy for users.
Design intuition is a complex personal experience that requires emotional calibration, a deep understanding of one's experiences, and a deep mental library of knowledge.
It is not a skill that can be taught but rather an expression of one's thinking and behaviors that can be enhanced through repetition and exposure to similar problems.
It only emerges when one has the disposition to explore the world with curiosity, discipline, and patience.
Design intuition is essential in moments of uncertainty and can be the driving force behind meaningful creative breakthroughs.
However, it is crucial to recognize that not everyone is equally intuitive, and design intuition is closely correlated to one's individual design experience and passion for specific ideas.
Being capable of embracing one’s intuition and using it with a high level of discernment is, in my experience, what differentiates good designers from great designers.
Intuition becomes increasingly valuable in the new information society precisely because there is so much data.
Thanks for reading The Stone Mind by Juan J. Ramirez! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work
Great piece, the UX researcher I work with sent me this. Thanks for the inspiration.
Reminds me of some papers I read in university, written by Donald Schon, on the Reflective Practitioner!