Objective-based design

Usability guru, Don Norman, has a great list called “The Seven Stages of Action” that describes the psychology behind how an individual preforms a task.

More recently, I’ve seen companies constantly competing for user conversion, but adding more and more functionality to their products. As designers in this process, we are tasked with squeezing all available functionality into an interface that does not properly map to the human decision story line.

The Seven Stages of Action are a great way to evaluate whether or not your functionality falls in line with the way people naturally behave. It helps create a story line that can be used to assess user desires and challenges.

As an example, let’s use this model to understand why someone might want to sign up for Google mail.

Don Norman’s Seven Stages of Action

  1. Forming the goal
    “I would love to find an easy way to stay in touch with my family.”
  2. Forming the intention
    “I heard email is great for keeping in touch with people.”
  3. Specifying the action
    “I think I’ll try Google mail to keep in touch with my family.”
  4. Executing the action
    User signs up for Google mail
  5. Perceiving the state of the world
    “Sending email through Google mail is very easy!”
  6. Interpreting the state of the world
    “My family is able to send back emails on their own time.”
  7. Evaluating the outcome
    “Google mail allows my family and I to keep in touch with each other, regardless of our schedules.”

I recently watched a webcast hosted by Digital Telepathy. They introduced and explained their collaborative white board process, which they call “Objective-based design,” to assist them in high level creation of the user experience. Objective-based design (OBD), from a human action perspective, is roughly inline with the the Seven Stages of Action. They use the phrases “When I…,” “I want to…,” and “So that…” to form the user’s story.

Here is an example of the same Google mail story line but using Digital Telepathy’s OBD process:

  1. When I [sign up for Google mail]”
    The can be considered both specifying the action and executing the action.
    Ideally, this would be second in the process, instead of first.
  2.  I want to [send emails to my friends and family]”
    This is forming the goal.
    The goal should be first. Although, from a product perspective, the user has found a product already in line with a goal. So in this case, the goal is an afterthought to the action.
  3.  So that [we can easily keep in touch without having to use the phone]”
    This is forming the intention.

However, Digital Telepathy’s OBD process does not follow this model sequentially as you will see below. Building off their model, we could improve on it, using Norman’s model to make it more logical for human action.

You might be thinking “OK, now she’s just being picky. What does it matter what order they’re in?” It does matter. My action is possibly very different based on what my initial goals are. The OBD process assumes that users have been exposed to a product and are using it’s offerings to define a goal and intention. But what if users haven’t been exposed to your product? What if they simply have a goal in mind?

Understand the human decision making process can help your company align your product story line with the way people behave with goals. Although Digital Telepathy’s Objective-Based Design thinking is a nice take on an old classic, I think it makes certain assumptions about the usage and literacy of online users. A great story always starts with a spark, and the spark is a user’s goal, not your company’s product.