How Planning a Trip Uncovers Human-Computer Interactions

July 2, 2019 | by Dan Wu

It is finally summertime. Are you going on a trip? If so, your planning process may very well lend itself to a lesson in human-computer interaction.

Let’s say you’re going to Paris. Your primary goal to get the ball rolling is to purchase flight tickets. When this primary goal comes to your mind, how do you go about achieving it? It’ll most likely be broken down into actions that appear to lead toward the goal.

We can assume the process for this task would go something like this:

Primary Goal: Buy flight tickets to Paris.

Step 1: Visit a travel website. Still far from the goal.

Step 2: Search for suitable flights. This is a very normal, predictable step when visiting travel web sites. Your sub-goal at this point: Find the best flight for your needs.

Step 3: Browse the search results. Choose to view a flight from those listed. If none of the flights in the results list are suitable, you’ll return to Step 2 with new search criteria. You are not at the goal yet, but you still feel confident in getting there. And when you do find a suitable flight, your sub-goal becomes finding the lowest price among different travel websites.

Step 4: Open multiple travel websites and search for the specific flight that you chose in the last step.

Step 5: Compare the prices listed on these websites and find the best price for you. Your new sub-goal: Checkout.

Step 6: Go to checkout. Now you are getting so close to your goal that you can almost smell it.

Step 7: Confirm your flight details. Check everything—all correct? If no, back up; otherwise proceed. You’re almost done.

Step 8: Purchase your flight ticket with a credit card. Check your credit card information. Everything look okay?

Step 9: Print your e-ticket. Goal achieved.

Throughout this scenario, we’ve detailed the process of the instinctive human thought cycle: goal, execute, evaluate. 


Applying the Thought Cycle to Web Design

Over many decades, scientists studying human behavior have found a cyclical pattern that seems to hold true across a wide variety of activities:

  1. Form a goal, e.g., open a bank account, or eat a peach, or buy a new pair of jeans
  2. Choose and execute actions to try to make progress toward that goal
  3. Evaluate whether the actions worked, i.e., whether the goal has been reached or is nearer than before
  4. Repeat until the goal is reached

So, how can software, applications or websites support users in carrying out the goal-execute-evaluate cycle?

  • Goal: Provide clear paths for the user goals that the software is intended to support.
  • Execute: Software concepts (objects and actions taken on a web page) should be based on the task rather than the implementation. In other words, don’t force users to figure out how your software’s objects and actions help them to complete their task. Provide clear information at choice points to guide users to their goals. Don’t make them choose actions that seem to take them away from their goal in order to achieve it.
  • Evaluate: Provide feedback and status information to show users their progress toward the goal. Allow users to back out of tasks that didn’t take them toward their goal.


Providing an Information “Scent” Towards Goals

Let’s revisit your fictional trip to Paris. In this given scenario, making an affordable flight reservation is your goal, so your attention will shift to anything displaying the words “buy,” “flight,” “ticket” or “reservation.” A web designer or marketer might think phrases like “bargain hotels” will attract your attention, but they’re more likely to be noticed by people who are looking for bargain flights and hotel accommodations.

This tendency of people to notice only things on a computer display that match their goal, and the literal thinking that they exhibit when performing a task on a computer, has been called “following the scent of information toward the goal” (Chi, Pirolli, Chen, & Pitkow, 2001; Nielsen, 2003).

That means in our web design process, we consider the main goals of the target audience on a website and focus on providing a clear “scent” to guide those users on the best, most efficient path to meeting those goals.

Here is an example of good “scent” usage from Microsoft Excel, and a less-than-stellar one from Microsoft Word:


Microsoft Excel’s warning (A) when users try to open an already open file is much clearer than Word’s (B).

(A) is clearly related to the user goal and user action. (B) is not intuitive enough to articulate the relationship between this message and the user action, which is likely to cause confusion.


Meeting User Expectations

Users prefer familiar paths. Think about it, what would you do differently if you were in a hurry to buy that ticket to Paris? Would you still follow the steps in our scenario? Or would you open your most-used travel website or app, search for a flight, check out and be done?

Users typically have an expectation of how they will accomplish their goal and we have to consider that expectation. In a usability test session, a participant in the middle of a task said, “I am in a hurry, so I’ll do it the long way.” This may not sound reasonable, but it’s the truth behind how we function. He knew there was probably a more efficient way to do what he was doing, but he also knew that learning the shorter way would require time and thought, which he was unwilling to spend.

Once we learn one way to perform a certain task using a software application, we may continue to do it that way and never discover a more efficient route. Even if we discover a new route or are told that there is a “better” way, we may stick with the old way because it is familiar, comfortable and, most importantly, requires little thought. Avoiding thought when using computers is important. People are willing to type more in order to think less.


Exceeding User Expectations

People also often forget the cleanup steps after achieving a task’s primary goal. Let’s suppose you bought your ticket to Paris in a public library. After you bought your ticket, what would happen if you forget to log out of your account? Would your personal information be leaked? Would your credit card be stolen? These things always happen: We leave the drawer open after taking things out, leave stove burners and ovens on after use, forget closing parentheses and quotation marks after typing text passages, etc.

This is because our attention is a very scarce resource. Our brain does not waste it by keeping it focused on anything that is no longer deemed important. Therefore, when we complete a task, the attention focused on that task’s main goal are freed to be refocused on other information that is now more important. That means once we achieve a goal, everything related to it often immediately “falls out” of our short-term memory, i.e., we forget about it.

These end-of-task short-term memory lapses are completely predictable and avoidable in web design and development. When they happen to us, we call ourselves “absent-minded,” but they are the result of how our brains work, combined with a lack of support from our devices.

To avoid such lapses, we have to exceed user expectations. Interactive systems can and should be designed to remind people that loose-end steps remain. Designers should consider whether the tasks supported by the system they are designing have cleanup steps that users are likely to forget. If so, they should design the system either to help users remember or to eliminate the need for users to remember. In the given scenario, we could design a popup dialog when ticket purchasing is completed to ask users, “Would you like to log out?” Simple, but effective.

These facts are all at play, hiding behind every small task we complete. To be better web designers and developers, we have to keep them in mind to get a sense of how human actions and brains interact with computers and individual interfaces. We have to both meet and exceed user expectations in order to provide a substantial information “scent” and aid users through their own thought cycle.

Now, go plan that trip to Paris and see how well the sites you use cater to the user thought process.

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