Hello and welcome to Episode 7 of Front End Center – The User’s Goal is Down.
Let’s kick off with a little backstory for anybody not already familiar with the reference for today’s episode. In the book, Ender’s Game, two groups of students are required to engage in mock tactical battles in a zero-gravity environment. This environment is littered with obstacles and is a fairly large space.
Many students are quick to become confused and disorganized in a new environment, especially with the stress of high expectations placed on them. The few who rise above tend towards plans and goals as far outside the box as possible.
And then there’s Ender Wiggin. Rather than concoct tactics involving complex moving parts and opportunities to fail, he figures out how to keep it simple. From his team’s viewpoint, victory is as inevitable as falling “down” into the enemy’s gate. Forget traditional orientation and points of reference. Forego showing off by being a quirky genius.
Do what works.
Good front-end development resonates deeply with this idea. Except in our case, it’s that “the user’s goal is down”.
Rather like getting tossed into a large room with no gravity, the web is a blank canvas. The sheer possibility and creative potential can be paralyzing.
Tools and methods for designing, developing, testing, and growing are floating around everywhere. Some of them are incredibly helpful and will be crucial in reaching our goal. Others are lurking, just waiting to make us stumble or distract us at a critical moment.
Which are useful and which are problems depends on each person and situation. What we all share in practice though, is a single goal. We need to facilitate the end user.
I’ve seen strategies for meeting this goal take a lot of different forms, at many different scales. A lot of decision makers quickly spin out of control. The idea of “the user” is pretty big, and can seem intimidating. Instead of understanding and adapting, it can be tempting to attempt to serve every need of that uber-user. Provide tools and resources and links and widgets, until there’s no possible thing the user could want to do beyond what you’ve provided.
Losing focus like this is akin to pinwheeling helplessly from obstacle to obstacle, colliding painfully with each. Good luck maintaining control and getting ahead when you can’t even tell which way is up anymore. Some people might make it through the minefield this way, but it’s more likely due to blind luck than a repeatable strategy.
So what about the other side of the coin, and focusing exclusively on a singular goal? This approach isn’t incredibly off the mark, but it also introduces unique dangers. For Ender, making a beeline for the other team’s gate was a sure way to lose. Assuming none of the obstacles floated in the way, through sheer luck, there was an entire enemy team out there with the singular goal of preventing his easy trip.
Developers and designers who develop tunnel vision aren’t in such different positions. Learning more about a new technology is a great idea. Placing blind faith in a single language, method, or approach is a great way to miss seeing a train wreck until it’s already happening.
Designing interfaces with excessive minimalism doesn’t benefit anyone either. There are very few scenarios where I can ever imagine myself ever saying “It’s a good thing I ever only had one option available to me.” Simply removing content and navigation is not the same thing as keeping user goals in mind.
Even in a purely informational website, it’s important to allow the user enough space to approach and interact with content in a way that suits them best. You can’t cater to every need from every user, but you CAN provide a flexible starting point for users to tailor their own experience with.
So what does it mean that “the user’s goal is down”? It means to genuinely keep things simple and organized. Like Ender, you need to understand WHAT your user’s goal or goals are going to be. Are they signing up for a service? Is there critical information they need situationally?
We need to understand before we act, to avoid wasting efforts or restricting ourselves. Our goal isn’t to map the entire realm of possibility for a user, nor should we make demands that amount to “My way or the highway”. Instead, it’s up to us to shape an experience that orients the user to their goal, as easily as falling.
If there’s an action to be taken, make the method of doing so obvious and accessible. If there’s information to access, don’t obstruct or make it confusing.
Are there side goals or potential obstacles? While you’re heading towards that goal, are you going to be blind-sided by an unexpected obstacle like needing a mobile interface? Or are you going to factor in your environment in advance, and design an interface that focuses on mobile users’ specific goals as needed?
No one can anticipate every problem along the way, nor every need a user may have. What we can do is understand where we begin, where we want to be, and the simplest way to handle the journey in-between.
“The user’s goal is down” is NOT a singular solution, it’s a mindset. It’s a common frame of reference to use in a very complex and ever-changing industry. While you listen to the dull roar of other professionals trying to figure out which way is west and why the floor is now perpendicular, you are already sailing smoothly towards your goals. All that time, everyone watching you sees your efforts fall into place as naturally as if you were just letting gravity do your work for you.
There’s the starting signal. Everybody line up and get ready to jump. And remember… see you next week on Front End Center!