User Research vs Intuition

User Research vs Intuition

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User Research and usability testing are (should be) two of the cornerstones of any company’s efforts to improve revenue generation through their online channel.

User Research allows us to create hypothesis that are aimed at improving the website’s user-friendliness, but more common, conversion. Usability testing allows us to test those hypotheses.

The resources needed to research, document, setup and execute usability testing are not dramatic, but they aren’t effortless either.

How can we validate intuition and optimize our websites without even testing? Is this sanity speaking? In the real world however, and I think this is the situation for many companies, internal processes just don’t allow for the more in-depth approach. Insights need to come quick and solutions need to be agile.

Should we even consider anything non-scientific to tell us what to test? Will intuition based decision-making make up lost ground on the scientific approach to online optimization? Maybe we should skip testing all together and lead by intuition alone.

Trumpin’ it

As conversion rate optimization specialists [or enter whatever fancy title you have here] we face the daunting task of fighting that uphill battle against the vested rulers of e-commerce.

In all honesty, how many of you have had the conversation in which you ended up defending your optimization hypothesis against a manager’s argument in which he recalls some advice his next door neighbour gave him during a BBQ last weekend?

I have lost count. I have shown my trump card in the heat of the battle many-o-times, that’s when I take a moment to explain the necessity of performing usability testing to prove a user research based hypothesis. I don’t think that I stand alone.

History Repeating Itself

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

The Drunkard’s Walk

Are we the first of our kind to run into this problem? When did people first try to get rid of the ‘gut feeling’ motives? Believe it or not, people have been at it for at least 5 centuries…

As far back as the 16th century scholars and scientists have been pushing for a more scientific approach to finding out ‘how nature operates’.

As Leonard Mlodinow write’s in his book ‘The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives’:

“Galileo’s was a precise and practical observation, and although simple, it signified a new approach to the description of physical phenomena: the idea that science must focus on experience and experimentation – how nature operates – rather than on what intuition dictates or our minds find appealing. And most of all, it must be done with mathematics.”

Let’s be clear, I am not a mathematician. You won’t find me doing a Good-Will-Hunting at MIT any time soon, but I am confident that many of us have the basic skills to appreciate the effects of intuition when discussing website optimization processes with the powers that be, even if we know that testing is the only way to prove a hypothesis.

Maybe intuition is just ‘how nature operates’. The irony is mind-boggling.

We might need to face the fact that even though scientific research can give us proof, trusting intuition might give you the business advantage in this cut throat, fast moving digital age.

Intuition based optimization can be a better balance between time, resources and money than user research and usability testing can ever be…

What is intuition though? Shouldn’t we simply be avoiding it?

The Compulsory Wikipedia Quote

As any other self respecting blogger, I feel that is my duty to in some way incorporate a Wikipedia quote…

“Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason. The word ‘intuition’ comes from the Latin word ‘intueri’, which is often roughly translated as meaning ‘to look inside’ or ‘to contemplate’. Intuition provides us with beliefs that we cannot necessarily justify.”

‘Cannot necessarily justify’… can you hear those scientists cheering? But alas, while the statement was being cheered on, it got challenged…

Based on experience, be it personal or professional, we prime our unconscious minds to react to situations. It is possible to know the right solution to any problem, which can validate making that quick decision and avoid using up valuable resources on user research.

In other words, with enough experience, of a subject matter expert of course, intuition could be justifiable. [cheering dies down]

Recognition Primed Decision

Gary Klein - User Research

Gary Klein

The Recognition Primed Decision model, developed by Gary Klein [and others] in 1998, proved (scientifically, ironically enough) that people can make relatively fast decisions based on prior experience avoiding the need to compare/weigh options.

Gary Klein states in his research that pressured by time, shifting scenarios and personal responsibility [sound familiar?]; specialists called on their vast experience to identify similar scenarios and choose the most valid solution.

This process is driven by complex pattern recognition capabilities in the brain. In the red corner, supporting the scientists Neuropsychologist and neurobiologist Roger Wolcott Sperry states that “intuition is a right-brain activity while factual and mathematical analysis is a left-brain activity”.

What is the right way to go, left or right? How reliable is intuition? Does the amount and type of experience matter?

Operating Blind

In short, subject focus, proven experience in time, practice and insight translation seem to be the ideal recipe for recognizing reliable intuition sources.

I think we can all agree that to put a brain surgeon in charge of your car’s maintenance or vice versa does not feel reassuring at all. *Although I would rather have a brain surgeon work on my car than the other way around.*

So, when taking intuition into account, the key is to match the relevant intuition source to the problem at hand.

To Change Is To Err

“To err is human, to get positive results in every single one of your tests is highly doubtful”

Changes to the website can effect all visitors, both positively and negatively, we just tend to shout ‘Victory’ whenever the positive outweighs the negative.

It seems unrealistic that every single usability test performed will result in a positive gain, even after having performed extensive user research. So where do we draw the line between ‘to test’ and ‘to bypass testing’ when using intuition as our source?

In my opinion there is little harm and with the effects of common work floor time pressure, I think that in many occasions, it will be an acceptable way to go.


So don’t be too hard on intuition. It’s a short cut, but a short cut that could possibly be more beneficial than we might think. We can seriously cut back on time, money and resources as long as we trust the sources of intuition.

Let me be clear though, if I get the chance to test, I’ll test, but I am realistic enough to bypass testing if business [deadlines] dictates it.

We should always try to promote the more scientific approach to online optimization, but we are not in the Land of Oz anymore, we are back in Kansas. We need to make sure that we do our best to support the company and our customers in any way we can, with proper research or just gut feeling.


About Matthew Niederberger

Matthew works as Conversion Optimisation Manager at Ziggo BV. In his free time he enjoys family life as well as digging into online user research material whilst frequently generating some of his own, which he freely shares here on


  1. Your points on the role of intuition in ux decision-making conform to many of my own experiences designing interactive sites where enrollment is a key goal. In most instances the schedule does not allow us to conduct formal user testing and so we try to build in-market variables into the launch, randomly displaying two versions of the same interface to see which one performs better. The result most of the time: no significant difference. In a few occasions we’ve conducted eye-tracking studies with essentially the same result.

    Most of us can quickly recognize a well-designed interface from a poor one, can recognize the established patterns and combine (and recombine) them to form complex systems. THe result is that doing ux produces predictably usable results. This is a result of patterns becoming ingrained not only in the practitioners of ux but also in our audience who are essentially internalizing behavioral interface patterns.

    What’s the most fascinating thing to me is that some of the most popular websites still have poorly designed interfaces that are extremely difficult to use (amazon, ebay, google ex-search). And what this proves to me is that the role of familiarity often trumps good design.

  2. Another interesting post on a topic that we as optimisers shouldn’t be afraid to talk about: educated hunches, intelligent ideas, or good old fashioned gut feelings!

    You make an important point that at the end of the day, we optimisers need to be realistic about what can be achieved with the budget available. Sure – the “Rolls Royce” solution might ideally involve a full round of User Experience research which can be used to inform testing recipes, however in many cases there simply isn’t the time, budget, or corporate appetite for this approach.

    In these cases, we need to be supported in doing what we can with what we have – even if this means we use what we know from our education and our experience instead of recently researched insights. After all, I’m sure Galileo would agree that all testing should be treated as an experiment – not a final solution!

  3. Juan Lanus says:

    I’d say “experience” more than “intuition”.
    I noticed that I have developed an ability for to look at an interaction context as a user, wearing the user’s hat.
    When I do so, it is crear to me how the user will be thinking.
    This is more or less what is achieved with Alan Cooper’s “personas” method: make the designers think like the users.
    To me, “intuition” sounds more like something made up, while “experience” sounds to me like something willingly elaborated over time, albeit it might be due to the meaning of the equivalent words in Spanish.
    Once upon a time I did UIs and watched my users using them, over their shoulders. After doing it many times, I already know what they will say and build the UIs properly in the first time.

    This reminds me of a member of a forum that went to listen to Tufte and returned totally vexed because The Master said that he wouldn’t do user testing but instead he’d build the UI well from the very beginning.

    Actually, it’s impossible to build a bad UI and turn it into an excellent one with as many user testing and fixing rounds as you want. There is no way to beat a UI that was born right, and that comes from experience.


  1. […] when you start to consider the fact that User Research can help you gain actual insights (no pun intended) into a visitor’s behavior, you can start […]

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