Anticipation: The Often Unopened Window of Opportunity in User Experience
Feb 5, 2014
Take a moment to imagine you’re a kid again, maybe nine years old — going on ten. Can you remember your tenth birthday? Hitting double digits was a big deal and I’ll bet you let everyone know it during your final days as a single digiter. It’s very likely you remember the excitement leading up to your tenth birthday better than you remember the day itself, and there’s a good reason for that. Studies show that anticipation of a big event has a significant impact on memory. In fact, areas of the brain responsible for converting short-term memory into long-term memory are activated during a period of longing (the same is true for dread, but anxiety is no fun so we’ll just focus on anticipation).
I’ve been thinking a lot about the psychological concept of anticipation and how it relates to user experience and, more broadly, brand experience.
It’s normal for movie producers to tease viewers repeatedly in the months (sometime years) leading up to a premier. Techies and gamers live for the next big wave of magical gadgets and nearly self-aware consoles, but when was the last time you heard about a bank or a professional association or a software company stirring up that kind of buzz for their new web site or mobile app?
I posted this question to the various social networks I’m a part of a few days ago:
Would you rather know that a particular web site you use is in the process of being redesigned or would you rather find out on launch day? Why?
The answers I received lay along a spectrum that on one end reads “Surprise me. Under-promise, over-deliver,” and on the other end reads “Knowing beforehand primes me for a positive experience.” There is certainly merit to the “under-promise, over-deliver” motto, in that great products should beget great experiences that speak for themselves. Even still, I have a theory that resonates with the “I’d like to know beforehand” crowd.
I’ve learned that not only does anticipation improve long-term memory of an event, people generally experience the highest levels of emotion about the event while they’re ‘looking forward’ to it. Therefore, I believe there is a huge window of opportunity in the anticipatory period leading up to the release of a new design that we should take advantage of by focusing on these four things, with the most important first:
Allowing every user to feel they are an integral part of the design process, even before you have a presentable design or prototype, by surveying different aspects of users’ anticipation experience.
This could be as simple as asking good questions, whose answers will inform your design, on your company’s social media accounts. Additionally, a study at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia demonstrates an excellent framework for the anticipated user experience. The framework explains which factors influence a user’s mental model of their desired product and their process of anticipating a positive experience with that product. This information can be used to more thoroughly evaluate a design (ask the right questions) in the very early stages of the design process.
Managing expectations of what differentiates the new design from the old, and why.
Remember all those times that Facebook changed dramatically and people wouldn’t stop whining about it? The best way to avoid this is to simply maintain an ongoing conversation with your users throughout the design process and keep them informed of what they have to look forward to.
Maintaining an image of vibrance and positive change.
Experiences filled with stale content, or project an image of apathy toward improvement, are far from ideal. A good concept to focus on here is that we need to put the idea of “human-computer interaction” behind us and think of our designs as a method of communication. This is “human-to-human interaction,” and the computer is simply the mouthpiece. The most effective way to position your company as alive and evolving is to make a concerted effort to reach out to your users and let them know you’re there, that you understand them, and that exciting things are happening.
Increasing brand awareness and engagement.
Focusing on the areas listed above this one will implicitly positively affect users’ awareness of and engagement with your brand. The idea here, again, is to nurture and maintain a valuable relationship with your users.
Crafting a really effective plan to bring your audience into the design process before the design is released will fundamentally change the way people experience your new design. Focusing on the four points above in the time leading up to a design launch will not only mitigate whiners, but facilitate a more inquisitive, excited and exploratory first experience as opposed to a this-looks-nothing-like-the-old-design-I-hate-it experience.
Ultimately, a good user experience is more than architecture, interfaces and interactions. It begins the moment you invite the first user to be a part of it, then leverages the powerful human experience of anticipation throughout the design and implementation process. This pattern will repeat as your design evolves, but make sure you keep the experience reliably vibrant.