We all have our reasons for using a piece of software. Maybe it makes staying in touch easier, maybe it helps organize, or for that matter, make us money, maybe it’s just fun to interact with…whatever those reasons may be, the drive to get things done is not, and cannot be the only reason why we prefer one tool to another. There is something deeper that’s happening when we use our favorite sites, services, and applications that’s more profound than just getting things done.
If you stand back and look over the shoulders at the screens of coworkers and family, you’ll usually see a whole lot of nothing. It’s not as if when we look at a screen we are always “doing” something. In my experience, most people are looking at their screens and thinking. Thinking can be static or dynamic; I’ll flip through some articles, format aimlessly when I’m thinking (indenting back and forth, selecting and deselecting text), but all the same I’m thinking. Thinking about a decision. To arrive at a decision, I may have done a few tasks to guide me, but it’s the decision, represented in an interface, that makes a piece of software compelling.
Making decisions is not just compelling, it’s addictive, seeing results accumulate inside an interface becomes the reward that keeps bringing me back. My favorite tools, the apps I use on my phone, on my laptop, are the ones that not only capture and display the decisions I’ve made; they facilitate my thinking, prompting me just enough to tease out the key details to render a result that is tailor fit to me. I now have skin in the game. Once configured, these tools make my data clear and vibrant, easily consumed by the people around me, refined into a narrative that I can use to realize an even greater goal. While we all want to build a product that users want to use, but in doing so, we typically think about what they are trying to do. What post-condition they are trying to achieve?
To understand what enables a decision, the focus needs to go beyond the what, into the ”why”, which tells us about the real rationale behind our user’s actions. Identifying decisions first can allow designers to work backwards and describe data needed to create those decision views inside the UI. Maybe that data is housed in external systems, maybe it is only known to the user, and the tool will have to ask for it. Each route will be similarly influenced by the end decision, delivering just enough data to get a result.
With an understanding of data elements and their related sources, humane design principles can be applied to presenting that decision data visually. Through the controlled use of dynamic color, shape, and vector, designers can define exactly how to channel a user’s attention across an interface, highlighting which data elements need the decision-maker’s attention first. Key interface elements can then be added to allow a user to experiment with different variables within a decision, introducing the concept of scenario planning and trade off analysis into a decision view.
As we build systems that purport to help our users do great things, make sure to highlight decision points inside your own product’s user experience, because it’s these small and large interactions that define how a user thinks inside an interface. Structure this thinking in a meaningful way to the user, and you will have bridged the divide between user thought and action in the real world.