The Importance of Knowing User Intent

By Jordan Julien

Published: October 22, 2012

“There is subtle, but important barrier to applying empathy to design that lies in our perception of the user.”

Users don’t always know exactly what they want. Sometimes they know only that they want help figuring out what they want. This makes figuring out user intent particularly challenging for marketers and product manufacturers.

Intent and Empathy

There’s no question that empathy is one of the most important traits of anyone who is a UX professional. However, there is subtle, but important barrier to applying empathy to design that lies in our perception of the user. I frequently encounter colleagues who, though they may have a much keener sense of empathy than I do, consider users to be like a school of fish and UX design to resemble manipulating the physical barriers that influence the school’s movements.

Averaging the likeliness of users’ interacting with a system in any particular way eliminates the nuances that are associated with any particular user. Rather than trying to develop empathy for a group average, I try to relate to the various needs and intents that individual users might have while interacting with a system. This lets me create flows that fulfill those needs, while throttling the number of distractions and competing messages.

Classifying User Intent

“Some level of user research is necessary to define the various needs that any system must accommodate—especially a complex system.”

Some level of user research is necessary to define the various needs that any system must accommodate—especially a complex system. This type of research relies heavily on exercising anthropological skills—such as observation, asking probing questions, and interpreting user behavior—throughout the design and development process. For example, to make any substantial enhancements to an email system—or design a completely new communications system—I would start by observing how people are currently staying connected to the information that matters to them. User research may also include studies involving usage of the system your UX team is designing.

Note—Many organizations either don’t understand the value of user research or aren’t capable of selling the value to their clients. This obviously makes discovering user intent more difficult. I’ve come to refer to doing UX design without user research or usability testing as guerrilla UX. In my experience, many UX projects focusing on communications end up requiring guerrilla UX, while product design projects tend to include research and testing. However, in my view, attempting to identify users’ intent using whatever tools are available is still a valuable approach—even if the tools are limited to Google searches, social media, competitive products, and my own experience. On an agile development project, user needs and intents generally get captured as user stories.

To determine how to approach any given user intent, I have found it helpful to map the various identified needs and intents into a four-quadrant diagram like that shown in Figure 1, which has the following quadrants: Explicit Specific, Explicit General, Implicit Specific, and Implicit General.

Figure 1—Four-quadrant diagram of user needs and intents

Four-quadrant diagram of user needs and intents

In this diagram, the two axes represent the explicitness and specificity of each user intent. That is to say, a researcher has identified all user intents from either a user’s explicit statements or implicit thoughts. Each user intent is also specific—if users know what they want—or general—if users don’t know what they want.

It is useful to include such a four-quadrant diagram on each page within a set of wireframes to remind readers of the most important user needs, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2—Wireframe with a four-quadrant diagram (PDF)

Wireframe with a four-quadrant diagram

Here are some simple examples: A Web site’s home page might need to accommodate a large number of implicit intents. Therefore, it should persuade users to explicitly state their needs and intents. In contrast, a Contact Us page would need to serve more explicit intents, but it may also be necessary for it to accommodate other, implicit intents.

What Does Understanding User Intent Let You Do?

“If you know user intent, you can simplify a user experience. But if you aren’t sure, you’ll need to design the user experience to figure it out.”

Being aware of user intent is one thing, but really knowing and understanding the nuances of users’ intents and how they translate into design decisions is another. Generally, if you know user intent, you can simplify a user experience. But if you aren’t sure, you’ll need to design the user experience to figure it out.

Provide Dynamic Content

If we know about particular types of user intents because users have stated them explicitly, we can serve up exactly what users want and need. Detecting user intent should become easier as technology becomes more advanced. Thus, at some point, all user experiences will deliver exactly what users’ need—possibly even before they’re conscious of what they need.

Today, we can at least start users off on the right foot by serving up dynamic content that is based on the information to which we already have access. For example, if a user were to view a product detail page on the Crate & Barrel Web site, we should be able to do the following:

  • Detect where the user has come from. If from a search engine, ensure that you incorporate any important keywords—for example, price or dimensions on a product page—to add saliency to the information for which the user is searching.
  • Detect the user’s physical location. If there are shipping charges, add a quick estimator with the user’s location prepopulated in the form.
  • Detect the user’s name. If a user is signed into Facebook, use its tools to add personalization.
  • Detect a user’s previous interaction history. Based on what users have looked at, as well as their behaviors on the site, ensure that each landing page automatically targets messaging to the user’s interests.

The better we know a user, the more dynamic the content on a Web site can be.

Deliver Contextual Notifications

“I think his name was Clippy.”—Darrell, The Office

“With the use of push notifications on mobile devices, as well as social networks like Twitter and Facebook constantly pushing content to users, many people now want to receive contextual notifications—as long as they perceive them as being helpful.”

One of the first contextual notification systems appeared in early Microsoft Office applications in the form of an Office Assistant known as Clippy. This approach was annoying and, ultimately, ineffective, so Microsoft removed Clippy altogether from Office 2007. However, the valuable notion of providing users with contextual notifications hasn’t gone the way of Clippy. In fact, interest in providing such notifications has grown.

With the use of push notifications on mobile devices, as well as social networks like Twitter and Facebook constantly pushing content to users, many people now want to receive contextual notifications—as long as they perceive them as being helpful.

The great thing about the time in which we live is that there are some really innovative things happening regarding teachable computers. As we teach our systems how to correctly interpret user behavior, contextual notifications will become one of the most useful communications mediums ever.

Inform Communication Strategy

If you understand users’ needs, you can ensure that you’re communicating the right message to users, through the right medium, at the right time. Or, at least, you can increase the odds of that happening. Through the process of coming to understand user intent, it is possible to extrapolate when users will underutilize certain media, as well as when you should add certain media to the mix—especially when considering what channel to use to deliver media.

Help Cut Waste

“By allocating resources for conducting both up-front research and pre-launch usability testing, then tweaking your design according to the results, you can avoid the significant costs of your potentially needing to rebuild large portions of a Web site.”

By allocating resources for conducting both up-front research and pre-launch usability testing, then tweaking your design according to the results, you can avoid the significant costs of your potentially needing to rebuild large portions of a Web site.

There are many examples of how not understanding user intent has cost companies lots of money—but you probably don’t have to look any further than your own doorstep to see this. How often have you added or changed your design halfway through a project because you had forgotten something important or hadn’t realized something? Such changes actually cost a lot of money when you add them up—in terms of both labor costs, as well as lost revenue.

When you can rely on user research to help you determine user intent, the burden of your needing to remember feature ideas and understand specific details tends to be lighter. So, instead of your worrying about remembering to include certain features, you can focus on evaluating how well a design solution fulfills your users’ intent.

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