Keeping UX simple with anticipatory design

By Richard Howe Posted Nov. 09, 2015 Reading time: 4 minutes

With web users increasingly time-strapped and suffering from information overload, there’s definitely a sense of relief when encountering a site where “less is more”, with fewer pages, fewer choices, and less to do than on your average site.

One way to simplify things for visitors to a website is to use anticipatory design, and here I’ll take a look at how it can work for you.


What is anticipatory design?

Aaron Shapiro from Huge defines anticipatory design as a method of simplifying processes by responding to needs one step ahead of the user’s decisions.

Anticipatory features have been around for much longer than you may realise. Basic features you’ll be familiar with include:

  • pop-up boxes;
  • in-app notifications;
  • recommendations;
  • geolocation.

All of the above boil down to users performing an action and being delivered a reaction to match it, with the aim of providing value, based on the users’ perceived preferences.

reduce the mental effort a visitor needs to apply…leading to a clearer understanding and experience.

Anticipatory design attempts to reduce the mental effort a visitor needs to apply to the information in front of them. The cognitive load for first time visitors is therefore minimised leading to a clearer understanding and experience.

It’s about moving away from creating an environment in the way that you want visitors to interact with it, and creating an experience based on the way that they want to use your site. That is the cornerstone of this principle.


Anticipatory design and data

In the world of anticipatory design, things have moved beyond the simple pop-up box, to the more advanced level of making a visitor’s time spent on a site more efficient.

In order to achieve the level of convenience that anticipatory design has the potential to provide, data must be analysed and converted into predetermined routes. This may come about through tracking previous decisions and inputs, or with data collected at the point of an account sign-up or checkout, for example. The result will be enough data to move towards automated decision-making, rather than just a personalised website experience.


Potential pitfalls

One of the problems foreseen with anticipatory design is with data protection and the storage of personal information. As an example, Google are at the forefront of anticipatory technology, but people often feel violated when they learn their data is being shared around on different platforms.

will your own visitors feel the convenience you are providing outweighs the amount of information you have on them?

So although the technology is available, will your own visitors feel the convenience you are providing outweighs the amount of information you have on them? It’s possible that anticipatory design could lead to negative consequences, especially if site security is given very little consideration.

Anticipatory design can also limit our own exploration. As choices become narrowed, the chances of us stumbling upon something unexpected are reduced. For example, Amazon will display results based on personal preferences and effectively tell you which book you should be reading. This could potentially lead to a situation where we’re unable to divert from a pre-set path once we’re on it; if you read crime novels, and only crime novels are suggested to you, will you ever discover sci-fi? Such a situation could be of particular concern for children, who are more easily persuaded and should instead be making their own discoveries. 


How can anticipatory design work for you?

Understanding your customers and their on-site behaviour can give good insights into their anticipatory needs. Today’s website user expects a straight-forward route through your website, and to be able to complete their goal as quickly as possible.

Spotting a good opportunity relies on an ability to understand your user demographic and the obstacles they face. To get you thinking about the practical implementation of this concept, consider the following opportunities to simplify your user experience:

  1. Can suggestions be made to a visitor based on past choices? Think about products the user may have previously bought, or pages they visited without taking action first time around.
  2. Can value be added? Perhaps introducing the visitor to products that compliment or enhance what is already in their shopping cart, or promoting a service that goes hand-in-hand with what they appear to be most interested in.
  3. Is it possible to pre-populate a checkout, login or email sign-up form field to cut down on the number of clicks to complete a goal?
  4. Can email invitations or reminders be sent to fit individual user patterns, rather than a mass-mail?

To summarise, the aim here is not to push the user towards making a decision, but for a choice to be made without any direct input from the user. Steps are minimised, and prior behaviour becomes the deciding factor in what the visitor is presented with, to provide an almost automated process.


Anticipatory design in action

Here are a few examples of how the concept is working to simplify decisions and make tasks faster and smarter:

Google Now

An intelligent personal assistant, Google Now delivers information to users that it predicts from their search habits and prior behaviour, as well as answering direct requests. If you have a restaurant reservation in your calendar, Google Now can add value by making suggestions for nearby photo spots and send you updates about weather or traffic conditions. Other features include birthday reminders, news updates, travel information, entertainment, appointments, parking, sports, hotels, and product listings.


Google Now makes recommendations based on past searches

Pandora’s Music Genome Project

Pandora is an internet radio site that creates stations customised for the individual user. Based on a single song of your choice, it pulls together playlists of songs that are similar in rhythm, melody, harmony, form, orchestration, lyrics and so on. In fact, there are over 400 musical qualities that the site draws on, and although the site isn’t new (it launched back in 2000) it boasts 250 million registered users, 81.5 million of whom are active listeners.


Pandora creates playlists based on your previous selections. Image: igeekable.com

Cook With M&S

Providing you with a range of tempting recipes (alongside beautiful photography and compelling copy), the Marks and Spencer app adds value by allowing visitors not only to read the recipe, but also create an editable shopping list of ingredients to purchase from their shop, which adjusts automatically according to how many people you are serving.

Each recipe has customer reviews and star ratings, as well as nutritional information, cooking time and level of difficulty. A nice touch is the built-in timer within the cooking instructions. With this app, M&S have made shopping and cooking simpler and a lot more fun.


Cook With M&S builds a shopping list which adjusts to the number of people being served.


In summary

No matter how your website operates, the important thing to consider with anticipatory design is what will make your users’ visit easier? What will simplify tasks, reduce the time they spend filling in online forms or clicking through unnecessary pages? Collecting and analysing relevant data securely, then putting yourself in the shoes of your users will allow you to create a stress-free, simplified experience where less really is more.