Pabini Gabriel-Petit approached me for an article in UXmatters in May, and in July published Intention-Focused Design: Applying Perceptual Control Theory to Discover User Intent. Below is the article as it appeared.
At this point in the development of the field of user experience, I’m assuming that most good UX professionals know how to tailor sites or applications to user profiles, create personas, and tell a compelling story that drives user process flows. But sometimes we encounter a situation that’s a bit more challenging: we’re asked to design one product for very different users—or even users with seemingly conflicting goals.
Without a unifying narrative, such challenges can result in compromised user experiences. A client, or even a UX designer, may find it simpler to either target the most valuable or common user profile or to design very different process flows and interactions for different users. These approaches aren’t necessarily bad, but integrating them gracefully is difficult without a shared context. Intention-focused design is a specific UX strategy that can help you to discover hidden and shared user narratives.
Perceptual Control Theory and User Intentions
You know you’ve got a good piece of software when people use it for purposes for which the designers never intended or designed for.
Psychology is the UX designer’s friend. We use it all the time. Our process flows and interfaces apply learning, perception, and cognition theory. Decision-making research, gamification, and emotional appeals evoke the appropriate response to the stimuli we provide. But the most useful framework for understanding users that I’ve encountered is a little-known system called Perceptual Control Theory (PCT). The invention of William Powers, an engineer with degrees in physics and psychology, PCT is based equally in cybernetics and psychology. It has recently been gaining ground as a useful framework in areas such as education and psychotherapy.
The basic premise of PCT is that human behavior is not about the behavior itself, but about reinforcing desired perception. William James said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” William Powers suggests that behavior is not just about agreement, but about constantly refining our experience to achieve an agreeable level of perception.
For example, a bagger at a grocery store who packs items carefully—cold with cold, fragile on top—may be reinforcing a self-perception as a caring, careful person. An executive who signs the order for a layoff may be reinforcing a self-perception as a strong, dominant person. A voter voting against his own interests may be reinforcing a perception of himself as a moral person. A programmer who writes elegant code may be reinforcing a self-perception as being a particularly rational human.
PCT suggests that a person starts off with a desired reference point for her experience. (This may change over time.) She compares her environment to that reference point and takes action to bring it closer to her desired perception. She compares the result to her reference point and acts accordingly. If something external, called a disturbance, interacts with her environment, the same comparison of input and reference point recurs, resulting in the appropriate output, or behavior. This feedback loop is the core of PCT. As Powers wrote, “Control is a process by which a person can maintain some controlled variable near a reference condition by varying actions that oppose the effects of disturbances.”
In UX terms, users actively work to optimize their own experience as much as possible. Let’s take a look at how a user-focused PCT feedback loop works, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. A UX-style PCT user feedback loop
PCT goes further: it reminds us that what we think a person is doing and what they think they’re doing can sometimes be very different. Powers demonstrated this very simply at a presentation to the American Education Research Association in the 1990’s.
Using a large, knotted rubber band, a chalk board, and a piece of chalk, he asked a volunteer to maintain the knot over a dot, while also holding a piece of chalk there. Powers then pulled the other end of the rubber band around in a large circle. Although Powers took care to move deliberately and not too fast, the volunteer’s chalk described a smaller circle on the board. Powers then asked the audience what the volunteer had done, and they replied that he had drawn a circle. But when Powers asked the volunteer what he’d done, he said he had held the knot over the dot.
The volunteer neither expected nor intended to draw a circle, but worked to maintain the knot’s placement. However, despite hearing the instructions and watching the demonstration, the audience had seen the visible evidence of the volunteer’s behavior, the circle, as the primary object. An analyst looking at the behavior without having heard the instructions might easily take the circle to be the purpose of the exercise.
PCT is valuable to UX designers because it helps them discover what users actually think rather than what we think they think.
Several design challenges benefit directly from intention-focused design. Next, I’ll discuss how to apply intention-focused design when we’re asked to transform a site or application.
Occasionally, a UX designer or creative team receives a request to completely re-envision a site or application. Perhaps the company’s business value is changing, or the site has to adapt to the mobile world. Yet the site may have a strong following of users who are content with the site as it is, so resist change. Often UX designers offer users a more usable interaction, then are surprised by a vehement negative response. It’s a truism that users resist change. The PCT insight that people desire equilibrium at their personal reference point goes to the heart of this.
A person’s desired reference states operate in a hierarchy of importance and awareness. People work to maintain equilibrium at different levels of being. I’ve adapted this hierarchy for a compassionate animal lover from a 1982 diagram from psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier:
- System concept: Be a compassionate person.
- Principle: Be kind to animals.
- Program: Walk the dog.
- Relationship: “Dog walkingness” sequence: Keep the dog from running into traffic by pulling on his leash, tightening his choke collar. (I know, I know. Wait for it.)
- Transition: Pull on the leash.
- Configuration: Fingers around the leash.
- Sensation: Friction of the fabric against your fingers.
- Intensity: Muscle tension.
The animal lover simultaneously compares all of these perceptions to an expected, desired reference point, but those that are lower in the hierarchy can change in response to new information—provided they match the deeper expectations of system and principle. But I know that choke collar is bothering you, so let’s provide our dog owner with new information: choke collars are painful to dogs. The animal lover’s self-perception as a compassionate person and the principle of kindness to animals trumps maintaining equilibrium in the “Walk the dog” program or “dog walkingness” relationship. A new program appears: Buy a walking harness.
You have to address not just the level of environmental equilibrium, but the deeper levels of purpose and self-perception. Not doing this can result in debacles like the Netflix separation of streaming and DVD viewing. Had anyone at an empowered level said, “Customers don’t want DVDs or streaming video, they want movies and entertainment,” they might have averted the loss of customers. Great design actively engages purpose and self-perception to change the user’s environmental expectations, effectively resetting their equilibrium to a new state.
The Hidden User
Sometimes a site’s users are not the only participants in its narrative. For example, the medical software company I work for provides software for quite a few highly specific user personas: nurses, therapists, schedulers, billers, marketers, and more. Some of these are not only very different, but initially seem to have conflicting interests.
I struggled with this when I first began—looking for the underlying hook that would tie a good, user-centered design together; chunking out different user activities; getting data from customers and coworkers who knew them deeply. But it was a PCT analysis of their intentions that exposed their shared narrative. Part of every persona’s internal script was a hidden user the persona focused on every day: the patient. From then on, patient first became the design mantra, and I’ve set aside all design that doesn’t center on that hidden, absent user.
A retail site offering educational toys and tools for children offers another example of a hidden user. Parents, educators, and others are on the site, but the purpose they all have in common is a better-educated child who enjoys learning. That child is the absent user, providing the context for a taxonomy based on age, special needs, specific curricula, and other factors driving customer intention.
When designing solutions for user activities, it is very easy to fall into the common-sense trap. Anyone trained in experimental methodology knows that common-sense assumptions are often proven wrong. For example, in a study of the likelihood that drivers would call 911 or otherwise act in a dangerous situation, the results were surprising.
Someone looking like a small child walked beside a rural road, a suburban road, and a busy highway. Common sense might make people expect more 911 calls from the busy road, because more people were there. But the opposite occurred: the more people were present, the fewer calls or offers of help they made. Analysis revealed that drivers on the little-used road figured there might not be anyone else to help, so they took action. Drivers on the busy highway figured someone else must’ve already called, so took no action. The response on the suburban road fell in between.
My favorite example of a common-sense design mistake is the typical business mental model for sharing user-generated content. Viewing users as single units in a much larger pool of users, who touch only some of that pool, businesses place a user at the center of an ever-expanding circle of sharing: user, friends, site members, public, as shown in Figure 2.
But users don’t perceive themselves that way. They experience themselves as the horizon between their self and their world, and they adjust how they share according to a greatly varying series of needs. With a friend, they might share dreams and romantic details, but not the physical details of a medical problem. With a doctor, the opposite holds true. Both kinds of data are intimate details, but shared intimacy is not the same across the board. Different groups of people receive different kinds and levels of information.
Figure 2. Typical behavior-focused business concept of a user’s mental model versus an intention-focused model
Here, the user’s system concept might be a desire to be likable to as many people as possible. As a result, the user might share only information that is appropriate, to avoid putting people off by sharing too much. Of course, people vary, and context should always drive analysis of user intentions. LiveJournal got this years ago, offering highly customizable, user-created groups years before other social networks—but the social circles of Google+ are hands-down the best design implementation of it.
Intention-focused design deliberately empowers users as active, goal-driven participants in shaping their experience. In this article, my goal was to introduce the concept of Perceptual Control Theory at a high level, showing why it redefines our basic understanding of user analysis beyond site interactions and immediate goals to deeper levels of intent. As examples, I showed three strategic uses of intention-focused design: getting a handle on site transformation, discovering hidden users, and empowering users through design.
In my next article, I’ll dig more deeply into how to look for user intent through testing and analytics. A less strategic, more tactical discussion of intention-focused design will follow.
Carver, Charles S., and Michael F. Scheier. “Control Theory: A Useful Conceptual Framework for Personality—Social, Clinical, and Health Psychology.” APA Psychological Bulletin, 1982, Volume 92, Number 1.1.
Powers, William T. Behavior: The Control of Perception. 2nd ed. Montclair, NJ: Benchmark Publications, Inc., 2005.
Powers, William T. “The Nature of PCT. Control Systems Group. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 1995. Retrieved June 1, 2012.
Paul Bryan, of the LinkedIn UX Strategy and Planning group, contributed There is no such thing as UX strategy, on UXmatters. Bryan’s clearly got a handle on the subject, but some of the user responses (“This UX Strategist role should be a skill of a PO;” “I thought we decided there was no such thing as UX Strategy…and that UX was strategy?”) revealed a widespread lack of understanding on what it is and who should do it (and no, it’s probably not product owners. A PO truly gifted in UX is not only extremely rare, but has many non-UX roles to fulfill. Adding this to their plate is the wrong call.)
While I agree with Bryan’s thesis that there should be better understanding and use of UX strategy, but in the article he behaves as though this is a goal. Having seen UX strategy happen and consciously done it myself for the better part of a decade, I submitted the following comment:
It is real, and it’s happening in some places. I think the reason for the confusion lies in lack of definition about not simply what UX means, but what strategy means.
For me – and I’ve been doing user experience under one title or another for over 14 years now – UX is “everything that is the case;” it’s everything the user experiences in the context of your brand. Designing good UX is not possible without understanding product strategy; designing great UX is not possible unless product strategy integrates UX strategy. Frequently the only person who can do that is the UX designer, unless you’ve hired product people with design backgrounds, which is rare. User experience rests on the three pillars of user research, usable IA/UI/IxD, and purpose-driven vision. You have to understand your users’ goals, your client’s goals, and be able to bridge them.
So there are different flavors of UX strategy, and a good UX strategist uses them all at different times.
- Brand-integrated user experience design that is not only usable and delightful, but actively furthers the brand. For example, it’s not enough to simply provide a space for a promo on a page; the UX designer should help drive which promos will not hurt the purpose of the page, and may even increase user value and enjoyment. You have to integrate the web, print, TV, off-site advertising, enewsletter, and other items to have an integrated UX strategy. (Yes, this does actually happen at times.)
- UX evangelism strategy. Figure out how to get people thinking in user terms. At a highly numbers-driven social network, I introduced them to the concept of measuring not just user-generated content (UGC) but user-generated activity (UGA), lumping it all under user-generated experience (UGX). Product owners and others measured UGA on their own, which forced them to think from the user’s perspective.
- Research-driven UX strategy. In the example in the second bullet, UGX became a strong driver of overall UX strategy – we consciously presented activities to users in a particular order, based on user research and testing, designed to both optimize their experience and increase the ROI on their activities. We also studied communication patterns of UGA and UGC, determining where the best user value and ROI lay there as well.
- Road map strategy. As user advocates and researchers, UX strategists can contribute significantly to road map work. For example, putting on our analytic hats we can show product strategists how to objectively measure concepts they tend to consider intangibles, such as competitiveness. We can also show how UX focused strategies such as the ones above can be integrated into their road map for the benefit of both user and company.
- Last but certainly not least, there is perspective-drive UX strategy. Here, the underlying narrative/perspective of the users on the site should drive UX strategy. For example, examining user personas recently to get the unifying “hook” behind a software app, I realized that while the users themselves were very different in many key ways, they were all concerned with the same ultimate goal. It’s actually not in the app itself, but putting that goal first in my design immediately became the underlying theme/narrative behind all my UX choices. If a design choice doesn’t further that goal, it’s probably the wrong choice, and it’s out.
These are some of the many aspects of UX strategy I’ve used, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. While which ones work for you depend on your role, good UX designers should probably consider all of them as much as possible in our work.
Thanks for the great conversation-starter.
There’s an exchange in the film Little Voice which left a deep impression upon me as a designer.
In the pre-caller ID era, a woman has missed a call. She recently had new phones and service set up, and a phone technician visiting tells her to dial a code to get the number she missed. She dials the code, hears the number, and immediately says, “So you don’t get the name, then?” In other words, she’s just been told about a useful new service she didn’t even know existed, and already she’s disappointed and has an improvement.
This is one of the many reasons I don’t believe in pixel-perfect design. UX is about constantly reaching for perfection, not settling back and presuming you’ve accomplished it. The moment “perfect” UX encounters a user, the user and the environment change in response to it, and “perfect” needs to evolve.
Google gets this. Geek.com reports that Google+ is already responding to user critiques and feedback.
You may think Google could sit back and watch the Google+ network grow, but that would be a mistake. The search company has realized it can’t just watch what happens, it needs to respond to users quickly in order to keep them happy and the network growing.
Nice to see they’re not resting on their laurels. Intelligent designers evolve ;–)
P.S. Thanks to Shannon Brown for sharing the link—on Google+, of course!
I am thrilled to see Andy Herzfeld’s social circles concept implemented so beautifully in Google+. My semi-educated guess is that empowering users to define access to themselves according to their own purposes and needs—in context—will build engagement and strong loyalty. Why? Because it comes naturally.
Too many social media-based sites, including many social networks, provide only lip service to how users think about groups, let alone user privacy empowerment. A user is seen as one of their members, and the business creates a mental model in which the user is the center of a series of widening circles. “Empowerment” of user content privacy is typically limited to enabling permissions control within those circles.
Users don’t see themselves that way. People think of sharing information in terms of a constantly changing algorithm of need, purpose, and ability. We trust some friends more closely than others; we have acquaintances who know a great deal about us whom we barely know. It’s my belief that these clashing mental models are one of the primary reasons social media and social networks fail to engage.
Click for larger image.
Some examples of groups which don’t fit the standard business mold:
- Trusted acquaintances. To get a job, we may need to share detailed background information with people we barely know but must trust out of necessity: human resources, drug testing representatives, recruiters. We also share a great deal with doctors, literally putting our lives and health in their hands, without knowing them very well.
- Interest-based friends. We have friends with whom we choose to share everything, but we frequently have friends with whom we limit sharing to specific interests. Colleagues and fellow hobbyists are examples.
- Family. These people know a great deal about us simply because of frequent close contact, which typically leads to close bonding and sharing. But as with interest-based friends, we may prefer to share some things, not all.
- Unknown people. In a world in which job-hunting is becoming a lifestyle, people are sharing for an audience they don’t know yet. Potential employers, recruiters, customers, and business partners are often deliberately targeted by job-hunters.
- Untrustworthy people. These may be ex-spouses, stalkers, etc. Some social networks allows you to block specific users, but many do not, and most sites which employ social media to enhance their business do not.
Natural grouping also allows sites to make the most of niche parts of their audience. Too many times I’ve seen sites imagine the majority of their users to be their primary audience, neglecting more highly focused and engaged groups. These long tail segments of the audience were typically grouped more narrowly, and interacted between themselves much more highly than the generic larger groups, but were neglected because of their size. My recommendation in this situation? Don’t neglect smaller active segments, learn from them. Enabling natural grouping allows the larger, generic audience to begin to sort itself into smaller, more actively engaged segments. In other words, don’t cut off your long tail to spite your site.
A few sites have allowed natural grouping, with great success. Back in 2003, before Facebook even existed, LiveJournal introduced easy-to-create custom friend groups to control content privacy. For example, my custom groups include writer friends, fellow techies, female friends, specific users, and more. LiveJournal also allows users to filter their friend content according to these groups. It’s more than a blog, it’s a social writing platform. This, along with a highly usable interface and solid branding, creates an experience that still commands a great deal of loyalty from a strong user base. It’s not Facebook, but it was never meant to be.
Google+ is likewise not Facebook. Nona Aronowitz at GOOD observes,
I see Google+ as serving a completely different function. Facebook and Twitter can mobilize, organize, and disseminate information. It can and will continue to help journalists, politicians, and activists do their work. But sometimes you just want to hang with your friends, and when that can’t happen in real life, something like Google+ could be the next best thing.
Users are constantly tweaking their output—what they say, what they share online, what they do—to optimize their personal experience of the world. Designing for this provides a more natural way of interacting with others online. Online social networking shouldn’t have to be the end of privacy, or limited to artificially preset circles; it can be an extension of our normal behavior. Herzfeld and Google+ get that.
P.S. Since late 2008 I’ve been advocating natural grouping, empowering users to control access to themselves by their own purposes and needs. Some of the above was shared in a 2009 presentation, Designing for purpose.
Aronowitz, N.W., 28 June 2011. Could Google’s new social network actually improve our social lives?, GOOD.
Dash, A. Blog. Twitter.
Ong, J., 28 June 2011. Google gave original Mac designer free rein on new Google+ UI, AppleInsider.
Nobody wants a fragile user experience. The thoughts that come to mind when you imagine such a site are probably buggy, not very usable, difficult to navigate, limited compatibility, and most definitely not user-friendly.
Now imagine a robust web app. This site would work across most if not all browser and devices, “gracefully degrading” when necessary. It would be usable, useful, and user-friendly, fulfilling the promise of site for the user. Bugs would be a rare event.
After reading Nassim Taleb’s antifragility discussion on Edge’s World Question Center, I think we can do better. As Taleb envisions it, an antifragile system is one that is “beyond robustness,” one that not only withstands disorder and change, but loves those things. Taleb provides an example:
Just as a package sent by mail can bear a stamp “fragile”, “breakable” or “handle with care”, consider the exact opposite: a package that has stamped on it “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly”. The contents of such package are not just unbreakable, impervious to shocks, but have something more than that, as they tend to benefit from shocks.
So let us coin the appellation “antifragile” for anything that, on average, …benefits from variability.
In this and following posts, I’m going to discuss what the characteristics of an anti-fragile web app might look like. These include (but are not necessarily limited to):
- A self-refining interface. The more browsers, devices, and user preferences it’s exposed to, the better it can refine itself, and predict or suggest the ideal UI for a given user with a given browser or device.
- Self-refining taxonomy. A content strategy that benefits from variety and size. I’m convinced that in the post-Google, post-UX, post-social media world, semantic information management in all forms will be the next big thing. (Note: by post-Google, post-UX, etc., I don’t mean a world existing without those things. Rather, I mean the world that has thoroughly incorporated these and similar game-changing concepts and is ready to grow from there.)
- Simplicity of structure, allowing flexibility of response.
- Loves change. Learns from being used for new and unexpected purposes, adapting the new ability or use to improve or expand existing features.
- The broader and more varied the audience, the more information there is to develop targeted content and interfaces.
What on earth is a self-refining interface? A self-refining interface is one that adjusts itself to user needs, either at an aggregate or individual level. Ideally it would do both.
Today we have a plethora of interfaces with which to browse the web. Notepads, smart phones, PDAs, laptops, televisions and more are used to present online information. There are even a few awkward-looking wristwatches receiving online updates, heralding the arrival of the smart gadget. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports a sharp increase in adults using mobile devices to access the internet, as well as other online activities. Cell phone ownership is stable, but using phones for purposes other than phone calls is going up, up, up.
This marks the beginning of the end of pixel-perfect web design. No longer is there a single fold, above which content cues should reside; no longer can a company focus solely on meeting their audience’s needs by designing for the top three browsers across the top two computer operating systems. Graceful degradation is going the way of the dodo. Instead, we need evolutionary designs, adaptable to a variety of niches.
Companies who have already focused on this typically seek to determine the device being used by a particular user, then serve them content optimized for that device. Unfortunately, with the broad variety of devices in use, it’s difficult to accommodate all of them. Alternatively, they offer a “mobile” or “text-only” link, optimized for users with low bandwidth or smaller mobile devices. Again, we have only a couple of optimizations, and as user trends change, the developers behind a given web application or site must run to keep up.
Built-in design adaptability might work in many cases. For example, a combination of incrementally sized, wrapping modules and liquid layout could flexibly accommodate both broader and shorter resolutions (the Xoom’s resolution, for example, is 1280 x 800). Navigation could be persistent, but fly out on mouseover. Tricky to do, but not impossible. There is no “graceful degradation” because all resolutions are intended to happen. But this is merely robust.
What if the web application itself took this optimization a step further? Imagine these scenarios:
A site that actively analyzes user system demographics and develops UI and navigation options for a variety of interfaces; users can select their preferred default. Depending on the intelligence of the system, these could be based on persona types, or actually customized on a user-by-user basis.
Proactively personalized interface preferences. Based on a user’s interaction behavior, the site infers their content and navigational preferences and presents or suggests an interface matching those. Do they like clicking on tags? Perhaps a tag cloud-driven navigation should be integrated into their UI.
To be honest, I’m not certain what a truly antifragile user experience would look like. But I know we’ll never get there if we don’t think about it; and thinking about it will bring us more robust UX along the way.
Smith, Aaron (7 July 2010). Mobile Access 2010. Pew Internet & American Life Project. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Mobile-Access-2010/Summary-of-Findings.aspx
Taleb, Nassim M. (2011). Antifragility—or—The Property Of Disorder-Loving Systems. The Edge Question 2011. Accessed 17 January 2011.