One of the first things to ask when approaching a problem is, “what is the user trying to achieve here?”. Closely followed by “how do they currently do this?” and “should they even need to do this?”.

The last question is particularly crucial when delivering functional online service. Putting the user in control doesn’t have to mean endless steps and decisions. More often than not, the less decisions the user needs to make, the better their experience. The theory here is that by reducing the number of potential interactions, there is less pressure on the user when making a selection. Asking the right questions only when absolutely necessary has the potential for users to feel increased confidence in the services you provide.

This all sounds great, but how do we arrive at the point at which we know what it is the user is looking to achieve, and what to ask of them in order to do so?

User research and behavioural insight techniques give us hints at the areas we should be addressing, a couple of which we’ll delve into.

There are a myriad of research and testing methods that will increase user understanding, each suited to varying degrees of change and optimisation. Gathering quantitive user feedback from surveys, for example, is a useful method for capturing an initial response, but this approach will often only touch the surface of the user need. This is typically a result of the dialogue occurring outside of the interaction in question, bypassing any subconscious decisions that may be observed through more immersive methods.

Behavioural observation exposes us to a great deal of insight that is often challenging to uncover with alternative techniques. Whether that’s through remote viewing or in-person sessions, investing time into observing user behaviour provides an unrivalled environment for learning and discovery.

If there’s one thing you should be doing, it’s regularly watching users interact with your product.

It’s important to note that depending on the nature of the user’s task, there is a perceived duration expected for successful completion. For example, transactional processes that gather payment details would need to work harder to instil a greater feeling of confidence and security. So whilst we aim to reduce the number of steps the user must take in order to fulfil a task, the perception that sensitive interactions take a certain amount of time should be a primary consideration. Ignoring these factors could have a negative impact on the user’s sense of trust in the product.

This is not to say that these interactions should always be intentionally extended, it’s more a case of playing to expectations and experiences in the physical world. Having empathy for the user forms a large part of how these decisions are made.

Providing the user with what they are looking for is about learning behaviour and identifying emerging patterns. In order to reduce unnecessary decision making and overwhelming choice, we must anticipate the user’s scenario, previous activity, and ultimately, their primary need. Retaining focus on that primary need will, in itself, result in a clearer path for the user to take. The detriment of this narrow focus is the potential for leaving a forceful impression. Success here lies with gentle suggestion coupled with visible benefits of completing the task in a certain way. Introducing absolute clarity around what the user will need to know before commencing could dramatically reduce feelings of uncertainty or doubt when attempting an interaction.

Delivering the user’s intended outcome will lead to meaningful experiences.

An interesting technique that is often employed to reduce excessive up front confirmation is to allow the user to undo their choices for a period of time after performing an action. This is of course dependant on the severity of the interaction, but the point remains: well directed journeys shouldn’t have the user second guessing themselves. Preserving state is another time saving technique for those users who may be subject to interruptions. In this scenario it’s worthwhile considering the length of the flow if users are encouraged to return at a later date for completion. Functionality of this nature would be most useful when the user must actively switch contexts in the physical world to gather information required to complete a task.

Building that deep understanding of the user comes from identifying signals through an array of methods that grasp specific scenarios and behaviours, enabling you to empathise with their situation.

It’s completely acceptable to make assumptions on user segmentation early on as a way of guiding initial decisions. As you build up a clearer image of your users, you should be prepared to actively prove these theories wrong in order to focus in on delivering a suitable product that addresses their primary need.

Many techniques will help you reach an appreciation for genuine user intent, but the simplest and often most effective entry point is always asking why. Disproving suboptimal processes and letting go of preconceptions about user behaviour can be a challenging yet worthwhile task. Addressing the user’s core reasoning for seeking out a particular service is crucial, even if this means questioning those behavioural assumptions that, on the surface, appear to be true.

The key principle to keep in mind is not to lose sight of the reason people are using your service. By continuously delivering small improvements there is reduced risk to the product, with the added benefit of identifying behavioural signals faster. Always be open to pivoting functionality based on user insight, as their need should be the driver for all decisions you make.

Fundamentally we are solving problems. We are providing solutions that we feel best match the user’s scenario with only the product standing between us. Why wouldn’t we try to deliver the best experience possible?