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Designing with purpose: Why intent matters
An intent, although invisible, serves as the foundation that imparts meaning to your design.
In late 2016, Netflix introduced a new feature that auto-plays trailers, referred to as "video previews." This feature sparked rants on the internet, as people felt that Netflix was robbing them of their blissful moments of quietly browsing for what to watch next.
Even a Star Wars director and media outlets like Polygon1 and Kotaku2 discussed it, and Reddit users shared hacks to bypass the preview3. According to Stephen Garcia, the company's director of product innovation of Netflix, the feature is intentionally designed to give more information and reduce browsing time4. They wanted people to spend more time watching and less time scrolling.
Netflix wasn't bothered by the criticism until early 2020 when they introduced a setting allowing people to turn autoplay off5. What took them so long to provide a remedy to the users? Aren't they listening to the users? Is their UX simply bad? I don’t think so. They stood by their decision despite the uproar from users, simply because they believed in their intention—perhaps the reality in the data they have speaks differently. At least for me, I didn’t find it disturbing. I love watching video previews, especially for shows or movies that I have watched—seeing Joey say “Je m'appelle Claude” makes me laugh and want to watch the full scene again.
This isn’t about who is right or wrong, or which one is bad or good. It’s a matter of perspective. Netflix’s intention could be perceived as negative; they seem to want to seize your attention and overlook your sanity for the sake of their business. But I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. What I want to highlight here is, that when you have clear intentions, you are resilient; you can explain to others why you think it is right to maintain your position, and you don’t rush into altering your design simply because someone else has expressed a differing viewpoint.
Let’s take a look at another example: Snapchat. If you are a Snapchat user or have ever tried it, what do you think of Snapchat’s user experience? Do you find it easy and fun to use, or did you have difficulties understanding the features and navigating? If you feel that way, then you are not alone. I, along with many people on the internet, have ranted about its bad UX6.
Have users left Snapchat and preferred something easier to use, like Instagram or TikTok?
Here are the numbers showing how Snapchat is still growing and going strong.
Snapchat has 383 Million Daily Active Users as per the latest figures. It is an increase of 51 million, or 15% year-over-year. snapchat+ (Snapchat's subscription service) has 3 million subscribers. Snapchat claims that advertisements on the platform can actively reach 634.8 million users.
The reason is Snapchat's unique and somewhat puzzling design actually helps it stay popular among its main users—teens and young adults. This unusual design is like a code that young people are willing to crack to be part of the trend and to stay connected with their friends. Plus, it’s pretty rare for teens to bump into their parents on Snapchat!
From these two products, we learn that there isn’t a single definitive answer for successful design. Sometimes what we’ve been thinking of as good principles could be mediocre or even detrimental solutions to the product you are designing. 'Good' or 'bad' could be blurred lines, So, how can you navigate design decisions with your team?
Your intent helps others understand your design
When someone asks, "Why did you choose to use an outlined button instead of a filled one?" and you don’t have a solid answer, it might indicate a lack of clear intent in choosing the button variant. You might find yourself pulled in different directions, and as people make suggestions, your design could start to change. If you let this go on without pushing back a little by explaining your reasons, you might just end up going with what everyone else thinks is best. Ultimately, this can make you spend a lot more time on your design.
Clearly articulating the intent behind your choices enhances the understanding of your design. Your reasons should make sense so that others can understand and support them.
Take a look at a little framework that I wrote about, reinforcing your design with reason and evidence.
Align your intent with your team early, be more focused, and save time
Let’s say you’re adding a new feature to the home screen, and you want people to find it easily. But where should it go? The home screen is already full of different things. Knowing what you want to achieve, or your intent, really helps at this point.
Before jumping into designing screens, you and your team can decide how important this new feature is compared to the others. Should people see this feature right away, or can it be placed somewhere lower? Maybe it’s so important that it needs to stand out. As you can see, there are many different ways to design the additional item on the home screen. Without having clear intent, you could end up exploring different avenues aimlessly. It’s important for you and your team to always be intentional from the beginning. This way, your team will be more focused from the start. When you and your team are clear on the intent, visualizing how the screen should look becomes much easier, thus speeding up your process.
How to nurture the practice of having intent in the design process
Having a clear intent can and must be integrated into every stage of the design process, ensuring that every design decision made and method used is purposeful.
Earlier in this series, I wrote a post about beginning a project with a Statement of Intent by IBM, which allows for clear direction in the design process, focusing on user needs rather than on predetermined solutions or methodologies. It’s solution-agnostic. This approach also guides your design efforts to align with the desired outcomes while maintaining flexibility and adaptability for creative exploration.
As you begin to detail the concept and the content in a wireframe, you can use an intent frame to emphasize understanding the purpose behind each element you include. Instead of immediately detailing elements, content, or functionality, start by considering the purpose of the element you want to include.
Lastly, wherever you are in the process, practice reflection in every action you undertake and every decision you make to inject intent into everything you do. Always ask questions.
Why do you want to do usability testing? What doubts you? What do you want to learn?
Why do you use a switch component instead of a checkbox or radio button? What makes it more effective and efficient?
Why do you need to assemble your team and do co-creation together? Would it be different if you did it alone?
Pause. Reflect. Have a clear purpose for everything you decide.
How can we navigate design decisions within our team? When all things seem right, how do we draw the line? Clarifying our intent gives everything we do weight, helping us establish rationale in our process and making our visual piece into a thoughtful representation.
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