Purpose and Familiarity: 2 Keys to Unraveling User Expectations

September 3, 2015

Many factors contribute to the success or failure of a user experience. There are a myriad considerations when determining your approach. When and where will it be used? Who is the audience? What business goals must be achieved?

Good user experiences enable people to accomplish tasks – and to do so in a way that both pleases them and meets their expectations.

But user expectations are not always obvious or consistent. Users may expect no feedback for one interaction yet expect a dedicated page of feedback for another. Unraveling these kind of complexities is what we do at Crux Collaborative – and we’ve identified two keys to predicting user expectations.

In this article, I’ll discuss how the user’s purpose and familiarity work together to form their expectations – and how we use that information to create great user experiences.

Identify the User’s Purpose

The first thing to consider is why the user is interacting with your application. Are they performing a task that will impact their life in a significant way, such as finances and healthcare? Or is it a less vital task? We define these as critical or non-critical.

Identify the User’s Familiarity

The other key consideration is whether the task is familiar or unfamiliar to the user. Is it something they do many times per day or one time per year? We define these as frequent or infrequent.

Purpose: Critical vs. Non-critical

How critical a task is

The more critical a task is, the more it will affect us – particularly our finances, health, or ability to make other decisions moving forward. This is a key factor in our expectations of a user interface.

Critical Tasks

Critical tasks have a higher impact, such as making a purchase, paying a bill, or choosing a type of health insurance.

User expectations of critical tasks:

  • to receive some instruction or information about what to do
  • the ability to see how far along we are in the process
  • the opportunity to review our decisions prior to finalizing them – particularly when there will be a direct impact on our finances or our access to healthcare

Non-critical Tasks

Tasks that are non-critical, such as viewing status updates or gathering information come with a very different set of expectations.

User expectations of non-critical tasks:

  • be able learn how to do them quickly
  • be able to repeat them easily and with little effort
  • have the interactions be simple and easy to initiate

Familiarity: Frequent vs. Infrequent

How frequently you complete a task

How frequently we complete a task is a key influencer on both user needs as well as user expectations.

Frequent Tasks

Because of the understanding we gain with repetition, we expect the things we do frequently to behave in certain ways.

For example, we have certain expectations of how an email application should behave, or the way a given social media app notifies us of the likes and mentions we’ve received. In these type of interactions, we expect quick and easy actions to both information and common actions.

Infrequent Tasks

Because we are often nervous and unfamiliar when we have to do something infrequently, we have a different set of expectations around those types of interactions.

For example, when we are setting up a new account or register for the first time for a service, we have a high need for feedback and confirmations letting us know things are going well and that our actions and choices have been successfully submitted.

It would be irritating to receive a confirmation message/window of each “like” as you scroll through your Facebook feed, but it is reassuring to receive a confirmation when we submit a payment for a bill.

Different Combinations Equal Different User Needs

The combination of frequency and criticality also plays a role in our expectations about how an interface behaves, particularly around the speed at which we want to complete a certain action.

In our work at Crux Collaborative, we have found that the overwhelming majority of research participants prefer “slower” user experiences when it comes to critical actions they take infrequently.

The same elements and interface behaviors that support and improve experiences we engage with frequently often become a source of frustration and confusion in different, less frequently accessed experiences.

There are 4 distinct combinations of user experiences and user expectations based on a user’s purpose and familiarity that we’ll address.

Four distinct combinations of user experiences

1. Non-critical/Frequent User Experiences

Checking our email. Looking at Facebook or Instagram. These are examples of non-critical/frequent user experiences. Typically, experiences that fall into this category are informational, but also include a degree of interaction. Most experiences that fall into this category don’t impact our finances or health, but rather our understanding, mood, or level of stress.

Non-critical Frequent

When it comes to non-critical/frequent experiences, users expect:

  • the ability to immediately identify what is “new”
  • to be able to scan a lot of information quickly
  • single step or simple and fast actions that enable us to take common actions quickly and easily
  • the ability to go from broad, high-level access to a lot of information to deep, detailed access to a single piece of information or component

2. Non-critical/Infrequent User Experiences

Visiting a band’s website. Learning about a museum we might visit on vacation. These are examples of things we do infrequently that are relatively non-critical. Typically experiences that fall into this category are educational, entertaining, and don’t have a direct impact our finances.

Non-critical Infrequent

When it comes to non-critical/infrequent experiences, users expect and are open to:

  • the unfamiliar, unusual or unique
  • interfaces that encourage exploration and unfold over time
  • interfaces that are non-linear and don’t provide a lot of feedback
  • little to no feedback in response to the actions we take

3. Critical/Frequent User Experiences

Paying a bill. Requesting an Uber. Making a purchase online. These are examples of critical/frequent user experiences. Typically, experiences that fall into this category involve a greater amount of interaction and have at least a small impact on our health or finances.

Critical Frequent

When it comes to critical/frequent experiences, users expect:

  • patterns that are intuitive, familiar, and easy to learn and use
  • quick and simple confirmations built into the process
  • consistent behaviors for similar functions
  • similarities across different experiences that do the same thing (for example, check out functionality)

4. Critical/Infrequent User Experiences

Applying for a loan. Selecting and enrolling in benefits for the year. These are examples of critical/infrequent user experiences. The hallmark of these experiences is the degree to which they impact our finances, or healthcare options coupled with the fact that we lack comfort and familiarity with them due to the infrequency with which we complete these tasks.

Critical Infrequent

When it comes to critical/infrequent experiences, users expect:

  • stepped processes
  • clear and frequent opportunities to confirm, edit, or cancel
  • decision support tools and readily accessible help content
  • limited amounts of data to review and process in a single view/step
  • multiple opportunities to review and approve the information entered prior to submission

Different Interface Behaviors for Different Types of User Experiences

Whereas a non-standard approach to navigation might work well for a entertainment site, it would be unwelcome for an email client.

Quick access to an overview screen that displays all available data and the fast, single-step actions of a social media site would quickly become overwhelming for someone trying to complete a loan application online.

While it may seem like a good idea to make a site or application “more like Amazon”, “more like Facebook” or some other interface of which we personally may be big fans, it won’t necessarily be the right choice for the users of that application.

It’s common to bring personal preferences for the applications you use frequently to the work when designing experiences that users will use infrequently. It’s also easy for groups who are reviewing an approach or design to recommend approaches or solutions that don’t match the familiarity and expectations of end users.

When determining what approach to take with an interface, it’s important to ask:

  • Is the task the users will complete something they are familiar with?
  • Will they use this multiple times a day? Once a year?
  • Will the actions they take impact their finances minimally or significantly?
  • Will their ability to understand the information being presented limit the choices available to them and their family moving forward?
  • How big are the repercussions if they make a wrong choice while using this?

Having a solid understanding of frequency and criticality upfront helps guide the user experience approach and decision making throughout the project.

At Crux Collaborative, we have spent over a decade honing our skills in helping organizations design effective and successful user experiences. If you’re interested in talking about the type of user experience to best meet the needs of your next project, we’d love to chat.

By Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.

View Mahtab's Bio


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