Kevin Cheng  

Hm, I Wonder What This Does: Motivation and Predictability

September 9th, 2005 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Ever get in the situation where you had to take out a design sledgehammer to make something blatantly obvious to visitors? And for just a moment there in the usability studies, just for a nanosecond, you’re thinking, “maybe the user is stupid,” before your professionalism and experience tells you that despite the skywriter pointing out the search box, maybe it was still poorly designed.

It’s easy to fall into a trap of designing around a use case or flow that the team feels is “optimal”. “Well, the user should go here, and then search for ‘palaeontology’ and change the dropdown from ‘all’ to ‘books’. We’ll make sure they notice the search box and highlight ‘books’ in the dropdown to show they should change to that.”

Or not.

Instead of designing around a specific flow, we can try to design around _motivation_ and _predictability_. Why is the user searching for a book? What is the context of this search? Was it perhaps in reference from some other related content from which we can provide a more direct link? And does the user know what will happen when they take certain actions? Often, it’s not _finding_ the feature that’s the problem (the blinking text and skywriter took care of that) but just because somebody notices a feature doesn’t mean they will act on it. The feature has to use vocabulary familiar to the user and contain obvious cues on what would happen if acted upon.

What will be challenging in the upcoming years is designing for the dynamic sites and pseudo-applications (be they in AJAX or any other technology). It’s certainly tempting to fall into the trap of, “Woohoo! We can drag and drop! Let’s do that!” and forget that just because the technology has changed doesn’t mean the users’ motivations have. We’ll have to design with restraint in order to not design features simply because we _can_. Even more difficult will be creating that sense of predictability necessary in good designs. As poor as the click-refresh-page experience was, it was certainly predictable. Now you can start typing in a box and have the entire page change at every keystroke or click on some text to select it for copying and pasting and find yourself in an edit box.

Once we get into those designs, how long will it be before it’s necessary to use that sledgehammer again to say, “hey, you entered some text on the left and look at the bright blue box on the right we just highlighted with a fascinating fade technique and blinking text to tell you that some other part of the page has updated!” This problem was prevalent when Flash first came around and people were all designing their own fancy interfaces, all of which slid, blinked, and zoomed in different ways, reacting to different behaviours. Keeping in mind motivation and making actions and reactions predictable will be more difficult yet all the more necessary with rich applications.

And on that note, I’m going to go implement the feature that lets you drag the comic anywhere within the browser window.

3 Responses to “Hm, I Wonder What This Does: Motivation and Predictability”
sloan wrote:

I always try to explain it isn’t just user type, or objective, but also state of the user as well. They may have an objective, but how does their current state affect the design? In pain? Frustrated? Curious? Motivation is another way of putting it… I think I’ll steal that line if you don’t mind!

Benjamin Jones wrote:

Agreed. Perhaps rather than having a “Navigation Bar” many sites should have a “Task Bar” that contains actions that users might want to perform.

Paul Brown wrote:

I concur with Benjamin completely. At the risk of sounding like a Jakob Nielsen suckup, I’ve always used activity centred design (although I’ve always called it “Task Based Design”) mainly because I’ve always viewed any application as a tool for a task (or several tasks). Nobody cares how it gets the job done as long as it does.

Applying this mentality to websites where the task(s) that the user is wanting to perform are not necessarily known (and may not even be performable by your site) is much harder, but a “Task Bar”, possibly aided and abetted by a home page that gives a visitor an overview of the sort of tasks that you can perform for them, is probably a very good start.

As an example, there are many sites with a link to “my account”. Sometimes this shows your account details, sometimes it shows outstanding orders, sometimes it leads to a submenu etc. Buttons saying “Show my outstanding orders”, “View / Change my Details”, “Destroy all Monsters” etc. may be more verbose and harder to design neatly, but at least the customer knows what you are intending to do when they click them.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?