You almost undoubtedly came here by clicking a link – why did you click it?
Maybe a tweet piqued your interest and you thought it would satisfy your curiosity. Maybe someone asked you to read this and you wanted to accomodate their request. Then again, maybe you just wanted to see a sample of my writing.
Whatever the reason was, I hope what follows positively satisfies it – epecially since that’s what I do for a living: understanding the things that people want websites to do and then adapting those sites to better serve them.
First, a Little Terminology
When you click on a link, you’re hoping the page that follows will scratch an itch for you. Sometimes that “itch” can be low-stakes, like…
“Show me all your sneakers in size 10.5″
and sometimes it can be very important, like…
“Tell me if my checking account can cover my child’s doctor visit”
but the one constant is that there is always SOME kind of itch, or we wouldn’t be clicking on that page’s link in the first place.
This is what I call supporting a user’s “intent” – kind of the sweet spot between their cause for taking an action and the benefit they expect to get for doing so.
This article is about seeing those intents through as indicators of success.
Shifting Our Focus and Our Definitions
I used to start projects by completely focusing on the solution I was providing and assuming the “problem it was supposed to solve” part would be implicitly understood by everyone else involved.
This was a bad call, because not only was it often NOT implicitly understood, it also caused everyone to start talking about the project in terms of how we were going to execute on it, rather than what we hoped we’d get out of doing it to begin with.
The revelation I had can best be summed up with what Bruce Li says starting around the 1:10 mark in this clip from Enter the Dragon:
I slowly realized that instead of focusing on the “moon” (the website’s net outcome) my planning documents were focusing on the “finger” (the website itself). The real value I was providing didn’t lie in the websites themselves – it was the value they provided to the people who used them that indicated success.
Getting Specific About Intents
When we as designers create website features, we’re essentially saying “I bet this will be effective.” However, if we don’t specifically define the effect it’s supposed to result in, we can never find out if the bet worked out or not.
If you look at a lot of common web design planning documents (wireframes, prototypes, specifications, etc.), there’s an unfortunate emphasis on “what” is to be created without directly tying it back to “why” it should exist to begin with.
For example, here’s a sitemap that came up on the first page of a Google image search for “information architecture”:
I’m not singling this out because I think it’s a bad sitemap; I actually think this is one of the nicer-looking and more-legible ones that popped up. That said, as clearly as it describes what should be made, how much context does it give regarding the purposes those things should serve?
Where do you refer to see if the “AIR Newsletters” or “Employee Directory” or “International Development” sections are effective or not? Which intents are they even supposed to be supporting?
As website designers, we should be on the hook for producing positive results in the way the website is used. Rather than starting a project by identifying its Information Architecture, next time think about beginning with its Intent Architecture, then see it through by demonstrably accommodating those intents as opposed to just providing deliverables alone.
Every time we call up web pages, we’re making a small expression of hope that we will get something good back in return. As web designers, it’s our duty to make good on that hope.
In short, we should hold ourselves to delivering the “moon” to our user bases instead of simply giving them the “finger”.
Buckminster Fuller was a designer, a scientist, an inventor & one of the most fascinating thinkers I’ve ever studied. He never experienced the world wide web, but I recently came across a passage in one of his biographies that perfectly applies to web design nonetheless:
When [he] announced that the wind “sucked”, his audience usually laughed out loud. The statement certainly sounded funny, but he was serious. Talking about the wind “blowing” deflects [our] thoughts from what is actually happening. No force can push a huge parcel of air around Earth any more than you can push a flock of ducks into a barn. In any case, what could be doing the pushing?
Nothing is doing the pushing; wind isn’t pushed. When you face the wind, you have your back to its cause. A distant low pressure area pulls denser air to itself, just as a bucket of feed in the barn will bring in the ducks. A “northwest wind” is actually a “southwest suck”.
As designers, marketers & strategists, we often talk about our work in terms of what should be made in order to get people to take the actions we want – sign up for a newsletter, upgrade their account, take a survey, tell a friend.
But the truth of it is, we’re completely powerless when it matters the most: that moment when someone, somewhere is actually putting our website to use. They will use it how they want, to do what they want. And if it doesn’t serve their purposes, they won’t use it at all.
Their motivations are the driving force behind every interactive experience; our designs don’t cause it, they can only support it.
When you face the wind, you have your back to its cause.
I love that line. Which way are you facing?
I didn’t like it at first, either.
I rejected my first offer of a shopper’s club card when I was about 16, fully ensconced in a period of rebellious insouciance. I despised the idea of “the man” (a local grocery store chain called Hannaford) spying on me and my purchase history. I was as enlightened as a teenager could assess himself to be and wanted no part in letting some corporation know when I last purchased a Pepsi: better to pay full-price for my soda than sign over my life story.
It only later dawned on me that Hannaford really couldn’t have cared less about me as an individual – there was simply no way to scale and act on an insight like “oh, Samuel’s gone two months without buying oyster crackers – now’s the perfect time for a half-off sale.” What they were actually interested in was the identification of group-wide purchasing trends, or what the scientific community calls “emergence”.
You know how flocks of birds or schools of fish tend to flow and react as a single organism? That’s basically what emergence is – the behavior of the group being more than the sum of its parts. For example, there’s no way to study an individual fish and predict how a hundred of its kind would react to the presence of a hungry nearby shark – only the emergent behaviors of the group can inform that. The group becomes its own unique identity.
Humans are largely the same way, whether we realize we’re participating in an emergent group dynamic or not. Hundreds of years ago, insurance companies recognized that there were factors (such as age) that correlated very highly with life events (such as death). These factors weren’t particularly helpful at the individual level (you can’t know when someone will die simply based off the fact that they’re 45), but when applied to a sample size of thousands, significant trends emerged with stunning and highly predictable accuracy.
In our modern, consumer-driven world, there is a HUGELY under-recognized proliferation of our “factors” already out in the open. They’re being sought and bought and sold and analyzed at this moment. Where you grew up. Where you bought your first house. What magazines you read. When you last applied for a credit card. Your estimated net worth. The age of your children. How soon you might get divorced.
The handiest example is that of Target using its predictive analysis algorithms to send a teenage girl a mailer catalog focused entirely around baby products. Her father intercepted it and was furious – Target was behaving irresponsibly by encouraging a young woman such as his daughter to be thinking about babies (and what goes into making them) at her age. He took the matter to the local store manager and gave him a piece of his mind. Only a couple days later, however, he offered that manager an apology – it turns out, because of her buying habits, Target knew his daughter was pregnant before he did.
Most recently, Orbitz.com has been excoriated for promoting higher-priced items to people connecting to their site on a Mac than those connecting via Windows. As far as the reporting I’ve read has disclosed, this is absolutely not a case of price-fixing or bait-and-switch tactics; it appears as though they’ve genuinely recognized a strong correlation between Mac users and certain hotel packages, and are promoting what it predicts its visitors will most enjoy. That those packages are more expensive on the whole is just one attribute among many – a similar headline could read that Orbitz.com recommends Mac users to more modern hotels, or cleaner ones, or ones closer to art museums.
The fact of the matter remains that Orbitz is reacting to an emergent trend in user behavior (the preference of premium hotels) for a particular factor (using premium computers) by providing what it believes its users want. Netflix does exactly the same when it pushes Westerns to fans of John Wayne. Same with Amazon and its “people also bought” recommendations.
Our generation is presented with facing something of an uncanny valley of self-awareness, wherein privately-controlled algorithms may be more aware of our habits, impulses and proclivities than we are. This is an imminently powerful mechanism at work and one we’re right to react strongly towards when we perceive it stepping out of bounds.
However, our responsibility extends far beyond knee-jerk reactions to headlines. Rather than descend like wolves on a company for serving up what it believes we desire, let’s instead reflect on our own relationship with a system that is oblivious to ourselves as individuals, for better or for worse.
This system arrived a long time ago, whether we recognized it or not. It will grow exponentially in the years to come. We can either greet it with fear and outmoded superstition or with a sense of responsibility, awareness and education. Despite all the algorithms they may use to predict our behavior, that choice, at least, is truly ours.
A couple years ago, I started playing tennis. And I stunk. I stunk so bad I could barely keep the ball within the court’s fences, and when I did it was usually because I’d smashed it into the net.
I first focused on being able to produce legal serves and returns. Just trying to keep it in-bounds was enough. Later, I was able to take a small leap in my game: shot selection – not just hitting the ball in-bounds, but also away from my opponent. Really next-level stuff. It helped me play better, but I was still just paying attention to the materials and constraints that were in front of me – a racket, a ball, a court and an opponent.
The next leap in my game came from focusing intently on that last item – the person I was playing against. I noticed that while making my opponent run to get the ball made them less likely to return it successfully, it did other things, too. It wore them out. It knocked them off-balance. It got them out of their comfort zones and made them reactive instead of proactive. The game became a sort of back-and-forth “conversation of behavior” and I started focusing entirely on the reactions of the person on the other side of the court, with everything else fading into the background.
In short, I stopped focusing on what my shot did to the ball and instead focused on what my shot did to the person. The ball just became a tool to move the other person around.
I’m seeing a similar paradigm shift in the web design world these days, and that makes me very happy. We have long attended to creating beautiful, finely-crafted, best-practices-compliant websites, but until recently have rarely followed up to see what effect the things we’ve implemented actually have on the people using them.
I’m glad to see that changing, and it’s summed up quite nicely by Jared Spool in a recent interview:
“What we’re only just starting to realize as an industry is that if you think of a designer as a type of artist, their medium – where they do their art – is actually the behavior of the users. In other words, a good designer creates behaviors.”
While the behaviors one seeks to create on a tennis court are competitive rather than collaborative ones, the point is the same: it’s not so much our crafts that matter, it’s the actions our crafts inspire.
This is why I start every project with a description of the real-world behaviors we want the resulting website to facilitate, and use that list of behaviors throughout the design process to ensure that the solution we’re providing matches the problems we set out to solve. For a car company’s website, for example, “create visit signup form” is vastly different from “get people to test-drive cars” - the latter requires that the site actually helps people show up at the dealership, the former only requires that the feature itself shows up in the browser.
When we focus on moving people and not just pixels, we shift our priorities from creating products to creating relationships. And whether relationships are facilitated with clay courts or Chrome, our interactions – our conversations of behavior – will always have the same measure of success: to bring out the best in each other.
That, to me, is a goal well worth pursuing.
Back in mid-April, I met with the partners at The Good and informed them I was resigning. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to. In fact, it was one of the hardest ones I’ve faced up to this point, but was impossible not to.
While my time at The Good had honestly been nothing short of amazing and the growth path I was on unexpectedly rapid, I’d also concluded that the long-term plans for the company weren’t an ideal match for the long-term plans I have for my career, and acted on that realization.
I wish the guys at The Good the best of fortunes and will myself be looking to take on IxD and Dev projects both large and small. If you have anything from UX / interaction design to WordPress theming or anywhere in between that you think I’d be a good fit for, don’t hesitate to contact me and I will make sure you’re glad you did.
If you think you’ve got a bigger and more meaningful opportunity, that goes double. I would absolutely love to hear about anything and everything coming in the range of “web application” or “product” or “startup” or even “cause”.
I’m not sure what the future holds, but today I’m upping the odds of it being as amazing as I can make it. I am a firm believer that time is by FAR our most precious resource, and it’s a decidedly non-renewable one at that. We only get as many chances as we give ourselves.
The backlash against spec work in the design industry is, as I see it, justified.
We are legitimate producers of value, and those contributions need to be reciprocated and respected.
I get that. I agree with that.
But let’s not forget the role that altruism, volunteer work and community involvement play in legitimizing our practice, as well. We are all working for a day when there’s a balanced relationship between those commissioning work and those creating it, but bearing our teeth at the scent of every contest will only spite ourselves in the end.
Today I had the pleasure of opening an envelope and coming across an old-school handwritten letter a client took the time to send to me.
I think you already did. Thank you.
He recently linked to a Stephen Coles-penned article by the name of The Webfont Revolution Is Over, Let the Evolution Begin. It’s a good read, and primarily focuses on the need for producing fonts that render clearly and legibly under many different screen conditions (OS makes, browsers, font sizes, etc.).
The “money quote” for me read as follows:
Demand fonts that render well for the bulk of all web users, not just those on Mac OS X or Windows 7, but also the poor saps on Windows XP who still represent more than half of the browsing population.
What I find particularly curious about said article and the linking to it by said party is that the webfont on MarkBoulton.co.uk, his personal (and recently-refreshed) weblog, looks absolutely terrible under some not-so-unlikely conditions.
After reading Fred Wilson’s post on creativity, along with its comments, I’ve had plenty to chew on for the past couple days. I obviously suggest you read it as well, but the main points as I see them are thus:
- The Technology industry is historically an engineering-driven one
- Engineering is the “how” and Creative is the “why”
- The Web has matured to the point that the “how” is something of a given
- This leaves the “why” as an area of differentiation
- Thus, bolstering your Creative team is a wise move
- Bonus: Does this significantly alter the nature of the industry?
Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: “Creative” is a terminological can of worms and unhelpful for the discussion because of its interpretations multitude, which the author basically cops to in the opening paragraphs. I’m assuming for the purposes of the point he was making it was used as shorthand for “a thinker” instead of “a doer”; of course, that’s also a notion that’s difficult to fit in a box, which speaks to an issue of context: