Lets face it, no matter how much you might love indulging in the UX process, there will never be a time when you will have the answers to all the questions you need in order to design an optimal experience. In an ideal world, the UX process begins with a contextual inquiry or an ethnographic study which leads us to designing user journey maps, personas, scenarios and storyboards or applying any other design/research methodology until we reach a point where the interface emerges from the process.

However, the truth is that not all of us are fortunate enough to have the time or the team to carry out all these activities. Moreover, there are always deadlines, designs that clients want to see, or just screen mockups that you need to provide to developers so that they can start building the product. Add “agile” to the equation and you are talking about even smaller timeframes to deliver progress. Amidst this crazy mess of digital design in a corporate environment, how to tackle designing experiences that not only appeal to end users but can also done in a reasonable timeframe?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in one magical word - Intent - a rarely talked about term when people gather to design experiences, but perhaps one of the most powerful guideposts in the design evolution of a product.

To support my argument, think about the following famous quotes that are probably ingrained in the minds of most designers of our generation.

A good designer creates what people want,  
a great designer creates what people need.  
Form follows function.  
Less is more.  

If you dig deeper into each of these quotes, you will realize that they share a common theme - that of designing for a user’s intent. Although the notion of intent is much more prominent in the first and second statement, the third statement is probably the only one that offers a practical suggestion towards intent based design. By emphasizing on minimalism, it forces the designer to not only think in terms of an end user’s intent but also prioritize them.

Given that intent warrants such attention in the grand scheme of things, and based on what I have written above, I want to propose a pragmatic approach to incorporate ‘intent’ into a design process.

A framework for intent based design

STEP 1: Identifying intent

The step of identifying intents can happen at various levels. For example, you can easily grasp intents early on during conversations with your clients/product owners. However, remember that these intents are likely to be biased to a limited set of stakeholders and not necessarily the end user. It’s a good starting point nevertheless, because it can help you chalk out the early workflow of the product.

Also,

There are known intents and then there are the unknown.

  • Make a list of the likely intents of the user before designing each workflow.
  • Segregate the list such that only the intents that are correlated to each other become part of the same/similar workflows. This will help you shape the specifics of each workflow that a user will go through in your application.
  • As you design your workflows some of them will intersect, some will converge while others will diverge. i.e. you will find that users would interact with a common set of screens in some of the workflows. For each screen at the intersection, you can now define the screen specific intents based upon the intent of intersecting workflows.

STEP 2: Prioritizing the intents

For each screen, every intent identified in Step 1 needs to be prioritized. There are several factors that can influence the this prioritization task depending upon your product, however the 2 most influential ones are

  • Occurrance frequency of the intent
  • Intent priority of the underlying workflow

At this stage in the process, you will begin to realize that the major points of interaction of every screen are beginning to emerge from the intents.

STEP 3: Intent pruning

Armed with a set of intents and their priorities, it’s time to achieve clarity. Now is when you decide what are the primary intents of each screen and what can be removed or represented through secondary interaction elements like menus or dropdowns, what goes above the fold, what goes below, what goes to the left, what goes to the right. This is where it is most important to remember our previous quote ‘Less is more’.

STEP 4: Wireframing

The final step in the process is creating the actual wireframe. The wireframe is nothing but a low fidelity prototype of the workflow and interface elements. The purpose of this wireframe is to establish a channel of communication between your clients/product managers/developers and your design team for the proposed solution.

STEP 5: Test, Rinse, Repeat as necessary.

By understanding and focussing on the user’s intent, it becomes much easier to argue in favor/against certain interface elements when a design is being questioned. I hope that the above 5 step framework can serve as a starting point for your team(or solo army) to treat intent as a first class citizen in the design process.

Cheers!
Ryan