Now that I’m in China, I often find myself having to read and use things that are in a language I can’t understand very well. It ranges from trying to order things online all the way to trying to understand the menu at a new restaurant. Recently, I had to use the subway in Shenzhen, which meant I had to figure out how to order a pass from a digital kiosk. Using it forced me to have to make a lot of guesses on what meant what. Fortunately, their kiosk made it very easy for me to switch the language to English, so I was able to understand almost everything.

It got me thinking, though. I am not an interaction or UI/UX engineer by any means, but in the past I’ve heard that interfaces should be intuitive and not require lots of complicated instructions to operate. For example, in Dieter Ram’s 10 principles of design, it states that good design makes a product understandable. How do you test that though? What makes one product’s interface more understandable than another’s?

After using the kiosk yesterday, I think I found a decent litmus test for intuitiveness. Take your existing product interface, change all English words and phrases to non-Roman alphabet words - the meaning isn’t important here. Take the modified interface and share it with a potential user of your product. Explain the task you want them to accomplish, and then let them try to carry it out.

By watching what they try to do when there aren’t words that they can understand, I think you’ll be able to learn quite a bit. You’ll see what interaction elements they gravitate to, how the color choice affects what they try, as well as many other things. It’s a good way to see how the physical shapes, colors, and order of elements in your design speak to the user. The design of your product is literally forced to speak for itself. Afterwards, ask users why they did things the way they did. Maybe they had to use a subway kiosk somewhere else before, or the location of a button seemed similar to a shopping cart on Amazon. Hearing about these previous experiences and systems that might have trained them to interpret your product in a certain light will be helpful in showing what gaps you have to fill.

This is not a complete or a full-proof test for understandability or intuitiveness, but a test that might help. Sometimes, your interface might require proper nouns for labeling, or certain aspects simply might need to be communicated with words. For the simple things though, try this out. You might be surprised how your design speaks and instructs your user.