Michael Weiner

March 4, 2021

The problem with "intuitive" knowledge

Intuitive is defined as "using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning."

The feeling of something being intuitive is hard to explain, we just know it when we feel it. It's what "feels right." Each of us has our own feelings on what is intuitive and what is not. That is a good thing. It creates diversity, variety, and options to choose from.

One example might be an a new app on your phone. You might feel the new app is intuitive to use with all of the buttons being in the "right" spot. Another person might feel like everything is out of place and the app is difficult and unintuitive to use. Both opinions and feelings are valid.

Another example might be how the knobs, buttons, and switches are organized in your car. You might find nothing intuitive about it, but the person(s) that helped organize the instrument panel or dash of the make and model of your car felt the exact opposite about how things were organized.

But what happens when we make assumptions about certain information or knowledge being intuitive?

My background is in programming, so I will use an example from this realm. This issue is in no way limited to this occupation.

Consider a two humans named Bob and Tom. Bob and Tom work at the same software company, but Bob is relatively new to the company whereas Tom has worked at the company for 12 years. Bob asks Tom a question about how a specific feature works in the company's software. Tom is happy to oblige and answers Bob's question something like this: 

This feature comes from the code on lines 99-199. On line 113 it is obvious that X does Z, and since Z is a type of XYA it is intuitive to know that we can use as a M. Then on line 157-198 that block of code just repeats doing X until P is true. This is just basic elementary stuff. Any questions? 

This response seems disingenuous and improbable to come across in the "real world," but I have seen it happen with my own two eyes in a number of situations. This interaction could be between a teacher and a student, two coworkers, a random person asking for directions on the street, etc. 

Humans do not like asking for help understanding something. I am guilty of this myself. When anyone asks for help, it is important to first realize that could be a big step for them. 

Making assumptions about what knowledge is intuitive and "obvious" like Tom does can be not only frustrating for the person asking the question but rude. Typically when any person asks a question, they are (at a minimum) confused. By responding to their question with remarks about how "intuitive" or "elementary" the subject is could subconsciously prevent them from asking questions in the future. Which is a problem. It is perfectly normal to be confused, stuck, or even lost when trying to solve any problem. 

Knowing your audience is crucial. If you and a friend are having a private conversation and both of you have 10 years experience in the industry, then yes it would be fair to make some assumptions about information that should be intuitive at this point in your careers. This should be the exception, not the rule when addressing most other questions or conversations.

I am guilty (more than I would like to admit) about making assumptions about what knowledge should be "intuitive" when a person asks me a question. I want to change that and I would invite you to do the same. Creating an environment that fosters question asking is critical. Whether it be in a classroom, a co-working space, the grocery store, etc. 

Questions are good. Making anyone feel bad for asking a question about something that should be "intuitive" is damaging for everyone involved. 

About Michael Weiner

Hey, visitor! I'm Michael, a software engineer based in Minnesota, USA. I am an IBMer working on IBM Cloud. Feel free to poke around some of my work at michaelweiner.org. Below are some of my personal thoughts on business and my experiences in the computer science industry. Thanks for reading!