Intuitive technology? Don't make me laugh!

Jun 10 2016 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

I have been assessing, buying and learning software most of my adult life. Whether it’s big, enterprise-wide stuff or the latest version of Windows Whatever, most of us have had to learn, use, unlearn and relearn ways to get the machines we rely on, help us get our work done. That’s okay, but there’s one part of the process that drives me crazy.

Nothing sticks in my craw more than being told whatever software I’m struggling with is “intuitive.” The implication is that we stagger out of our cribs and immediately know - through divine guidance or some innate evolutionary imperative - exactly how to make this bunch of ones and zeroes do what we want it to do. While some tools may come to us easier than others, very little of it is ingrained, especially if we are above a certain age and didn’t come out of the womb with a Snapchat account already set up.

What they usually mean to say is, “if you’ve used similar tools in the past, you will probably not struggle much learning this one.” A prime example is using one of the Microsoft Office tools. If you know where to find a command in Word, odds are it’s called the same thing and located in the same place in Excel [or at least it was, before they ruined Office with that %#$%#@ing ribbon thing - ED].

I was reminded of this when reading an article the other day about how consultants are making money from teaching organizations how to use Slack, the latest ‘must-have’ online collaboration and communication tool. We use it at Remote Leadership Institute, and I like it very much. As the article points out, however, a lot of companies roll it out and then people either don’t use it at all, or more likely, use only a fraction of its capabilities. This means the organization doesn’t get a return on its investment, and people aren’t getting the advantages it was meant to bring them.

While I find Slack easy to use, it is hardly “intuitive,” unless you are one of the millennial engineers in Vancouver who uses it all day long and designed the features. You designed it because it makes sense to you, but we’re not you. Here’s a typical example in Slack. The “away” status button is two menu items away from the “out of office” status update. If it were really intuitive for me, they would be in the same %#$%#@ing place. They’re not. Just saying.

The people who sell software often use the word “intuitive” as code when selling. It means one of two things, depending on the audience: 1) To the end-users it’s a way of talking them off the ledge and minimizing how disruptive the learning and rollout process will be and 2) to the corporate buyers it’s a way of saying, “This won’t cost you much for training.” Neither of these things is necessarily true.

Some tools will be easy to learn and integrate into the normal workflow, others will take some time, but all have a learning curve and an initial loss of productivity associated with them. You can minimize the pain and speed up adoption, but you won’t escape it entirely, no matter how “intuitive” they may seem to you.

  • People need to understand the context of the tool. How does it apply to their work and what problems will it solve for them? If you’ve never used a “collaboration suite” or a “database management system” before, do you even know what that means?
  • They need to see it used in context, and compare it to their current experience. Believe it or not, there is a huge difference to some people between “annotation tools” and “whiteboard functions” even when they are the same darned thing. WebEx calls them one thing, Skype for Business another…. That’s hardly ‘intuitive’.
  • People need to practice and receive feedback when learning. If they are told to watch a demo or a YouTube video and then try it themselves, there will be wildly differing results.

The two big killers of software rollouts are ambivalence (ugh, why are we going to this tool. It’ll be more trouble than it’s worth) and frustration (I have tried it a couple of times, it doesn’t do what I want… I’m not using it.)

So if you’re buying a tool for your company, or thinking about changing software, or - heaven forbid - trying to sell it to someone, remember that people aren’t born automatically knowing how to use it.

You’d think by now that IT people would know that. It should be intuitive.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.