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Toward Anticipatory Design

Sep 11, 2015

The word anticipatory comes from the Latin anticipare, which means “taking care of ahead of time.” We normally associate it with something that happens, is performed or felt in anticipation of something.

In a way, most products contain at least one element of anticipation. Aaron Shapiro from HUGE defined anticipatory design as a method where it’s up to the designer to simplify processes as much as possible for users, minimizing difficulty by making decisions on their behalf.

It’s Always Been Around

Think about it: since the dawn of the web we’ve seen alert boxes, pop-ups, in-app notifications and many other components that are triggered to prevent something from happening in the future, or to invite you to make something else happen based on past behavior. Most of these events are based on simple conditions: if users do X, then show them Y.

With anticipatory design, these basic interventions become more and more sophisticated with the only goal being to make our users’ tasks remarkably simpler. You read that right: it absolutely means more work for you and less work for them.

	Clippy from Miscrosoft Office
Clippy from Miscrosoft Office. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One example for this is Clippy. Long before Siri, Cortana or Google Now, Microsoft Office’s Clippy (first seen around 1997) detected basic intentions and responded offering help. In this case, typing a standard letter greeting like “Dear Sir” would trigger Clippy’s timely appearance.

Why Anticipatory Design? Why Now?

I strongly believe that anticipatory design is set to be the next great concern of user experience design in this decade. Engaging increasingly busy, burned-out users will require some careful consideration on how our products can facilitate their daily tasks. People no longer have time for the painful extra processing we’ve been forcing them to do. Arguably, we must structure our back-end around helping users complete their tasks without depleting valuable resources they’ll need several times during their day.

Now don’t get me wrong: this is not about designing for lazy automatons, nor about making all of us passive good-for-nothings. This is about putting cutting-edge technology at the service of users so they can dedicate more time to the high-level processing tasks that modern living requires of them.

	Google Now
Google Now allows you to “focus on what matters” by solving issues before you even have to think about them. (Image credit: Google Now) (View large version)

Google Now, for example, allows you to “focus on what matters” by solving issues before you even have to think about them. If there’s a restaurant reservation in your calendar, Google Now suggests travel time and great photo spots to enrich your experience.

Anticipatory Design And Cognitive Load

Developers have been championing the Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) and Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) principles for years, and it’s time to bring that painless logic to the way our users interact with what we’re building. Give it some thought: if we ask users to complete a task more than once within any given process, isn’t that an inefficient use of their time? Similarly, isn’t it redundant to ask someone what they prefer when you have collected that information in the past?

In psychology, we use the term cognitive load to describe the amount of mental effort being used in the working memory at any given moment in time. For everyone involved in user experience design, cognitive load is a crucial consideration. Are we doing everything in our power to relieve the strain caused by learning something new to use our product? How can we reduce the number of elements that our users need to worry about at any given time? Reducing cognitive load is one of the cornerstones of anticipatory design, as it helps create a more pleasurable experience by foreseeing our users’ needs.

	Peapod's mobile app
Peapod’s mobile app. (Image credit: Peapod)

Online grocer Peapod just released a new mobile app that includes anticipatory design. Order Genius, as they’ve called the proprietary recommendation engine, allows you to fill your cart with just a few clicks based on what you’ve ordered in the past. What’s even more interesting is how Order Genius differentiates by seasonality and product cycle, and learns more about your purchase behavior as you use it over time.

	Gatheredtable's homepage
Gatheredtable’s homepage. (Image credit: Gatheredtable) (View large version)

In another move to release grocery shoppers from the burden of having to coordinate recipes, lists and actual shopping, the app also integrates with the Gatheredtable API. With this integration, you can simply decide what kind of menu you’d like to provide your family with and Gatheredtable turns it into product lists that Peapod gladly adds to your shopping cart in a couple of clicks.

Anticipatory Design And Empathy

Being able to anticipate what our users will want and need is closely related to empathy. How connected are we with our customer base? Do we consistently go back and observe their natural behaviors to discover emerging needs? Recognizing effective opportunities for anticipatory design often depends on our ability to connect the dots in the environment where our product is being used.

As designer Pete Smart rightfully points out in his article, “Real Empathy For Innovation”: “Empathic investigation helps us to observe the ways in which people are already overcoming obstacles, and it often uncovers solutions that are more elegant than we’d expect.” He would know, as he recently travelled 2,517 miles to try to solve 50 problems in 50 days using design.

The founders of Waze, a popular navigation app, noticed that people could use one another’s feedback to drive smarter. They went on to create an interface where drivers can not only warn one another about impending issues (traffic jams, accidents, police ahead, among others), but also communicate openly via messages.

There are several elements of anticipatory design in Waze, but some of the most outstanding include: a warning when the car is moving and someone is typing (should always be a copilot); alerts when other drivers have experienced issues; and live notifications when a better route is found. The fact that the app is constantly looking for better routes based on user feedback is, in and of itself, a highly successful anticipatory feature. Once you set your destination in the app, you can basically just lean back to focus on your driving.

	Waze reports
The different types of reports available in Waze (Image credit: Waze) (View large version)

Like Waze, there are many other products and services harnessing the power of anticipatory design. Because developers and designers are making an extraordinary effort to incorporate these principles, we should expect them to become the norm rather than the exception. In this article, I will introduce ten examples of great anticipatory design patterns that we can bring into our own projects.

A Checklist To Get Started With Anticipatory Design

Having learned what so many others are doing to bring in anticipatory design principles, you’re probably wondering how your own product can benefit from these ideas. Once again, the best approach here is to simplify. Rather than looking at the entire user experience flow and trying to target everything at once, focus on how each individual step can be improved. The checklist below will help you get started.

For each step in your user experience flow, consider the following:

  • Is there a way to make this task simpler for users?
  • Are we giving users too much information that might be confusing?
  • Is there a way to avoid asking this question and pre-fill it with existing data? Consider sign-up forms that could pre-populate with OpenID credentials, for example.
  • Can we suggest a course of action based on previous preferences?
  • Can we save the user some time by using templates that have been created before?
  • Is there any extra value that we could add given the user’s action in this step?
  • How can we prevent the user from making a mistake here, or provide alternative options before the mistake is made?
  • Which medium would be most effective to share the instructions related to this task? Should we create text-based instructions, audio guides or a video?

Anticipatory Design: The New Standard

Modern users expect seamless, uncomplicated solutions to their needs and wants. Stuffing a product or service with vanity features is no longer viable. As the market moves towards simplicity and no-brainer user experiences, anticipatory design is no longer something you can afford to ignore. Look at the examples and consider the checklist above to spot opportunities for improvement in your current user experience. If you are starting out from scratch, you have a unique opportunity to embed these principles from the outset. Regardless, keep this idea close to heart:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”

— Albert Einstein


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