Anticipatory Design: When There’s Too Much to Choose From
The world of digital design is ever-evolving, especially as we begin to interact with more technologies on an increasingly diverse range of platforms. One trend that has been pretty consistent in design, however, is the general move toward simplicity.
Unobtrusiveness is highly valued in our browsing experience today, to the extent that even the smallest changes in interaction can catch us off guard. Remember the shift from scroll wheels on a mouse to natural scrolling on trackpads, when we suddenly had to change scrolling direction? That one blew people’s minds for a while, and some are still refusing to adopt the change.
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We like familiarity, and we like browsing and interacting with as few interruptions as possible. Nowadays, though, simply having a straightforward, easy-to-use website may not be enough to satisfy users’ increasingly high demands for a great interaction experience. Indeed, the way digital design is headed, it’s no longer unreasonable for users to expect the interface to know and accurately predict our desired actions.
This concept, known commonly as anticipatory design, sounds a little crazy at first (how could a website’s design anticipate our needs?), but it actually has roots in some of the more significant developments in digital design from recent years. First came the concept of responsive web design (RWD), which developed as a result of people beginning to interact with web pages on different devices, like mobiles and tablets.
Responsive web design essentially responds to the user’s platform by adjusting the presentation of a website to best fit the screen on which it appears, making the experience feel as organic as possible. From this phenomenon came material design, Google’s visual language designed to take advantage of the changing way users physically interact with platforms and devices (i.e. with their hands). Using the concept of “motion provides meaning,” material design takes RWD one step further and now shows users how the screen is reacting to their touch.
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These developments all point to one trend in design, and that is making the content appear as if it is literally interacting with and responding to the user’s actions. It makes sense, then, that the next step is to get design to appear as if it can anticipate where the user is headed next. From this path of trends comes anticipatory design.
The key to anticipatory design? Giving the user fewer choices. Popular culture and design are often intertwined in telling ways, and one recent development that is poised to have a great impact on this next big design trend is the revelation that users actually don’t like being given a wide array of choices. Zack Rutherford at UX Pin’s Studio lays out the reality of decision fatigue via the example of booking a cruise through Orbitz.com.
The experience, he notes, creates a lot of stress for the user, because the site prompts the user right off the bat to make a ton of choices all at once, from hotel and flight choices to duration of trip, port of departure, and desired cruise line. This drains the user’s cognitive resources far too quickly and makes for an exhausting browsing experience.
The concept of anticipatory design has a firm psychological basis to it, and one that is reflective of the way the market responds to users’ demands. Aaron Shapiro, CEO of Huge, recently wrote about his experience attempting to buy Monopoly online to play with his son.
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His conclusion: choice is overrated. Shapiro found himself exhausted at having to choose from over 2,000 different variations of Monopoly, among which the original version was not easy to find, and the whole experience ultimately tainted the enjoyment of the board game itself.
The underlying principle here is that users have an end goal, and that end goal is inherently considered a meaningful endeavor. Every step before arriving at that meaningful endeavor is just time and energy wasted on doing something the user actually wants to do.
With the motto “efficiency, not freedom” in mind, anticipatory design aims to get the user to that end goal while facing the fewest number of obstacles possible. Eliminating the steps to the desired end product and guiding the user’s pathway efficiently are the keys to good anticipatory design. Wouldn’t it be great to simply acquire the cruise ticket and nail down the itinerary without feeling stressed and exhausted afterwards? It would.
While some skeptics argue that anticipatory design assumes too much of a user’s pathway and will only be able to work in broad strokes, others point to the vast amount of data we already have on user behavior. The insight we already have, proponents of anticipatory design argue, provides enough information so that experienced UX designers could use existing data to design algorithms that identify the most common pathways, and ultimately make users’ decisions for them.
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Users are already impatient when it comes to browsing. Whether they’re booking a trip or buying a board game for family game night, the priority is not so much freedom of choice as it is efficiency in arriving at the desired end.
Anticipatory design eliminates all the many redundant choices users have to make and moves them quickly and simply through their desired pathways, bringing them to their destination with as much left in the cognitive tank as possible.
You can blame it on users’ increasingly short attention spans all you want, but the truth is, users are expecting more out of their browsing experience, and anticipatory design is the logical next step in the progression of digital design movements.