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Designing a service with “What were you thinking?”

Jo Hopkins


Interactions start with questions, more specifically people asking something of you / your design / your solution. We should, as designers, be considering our people’s reactions to their environment and experiences as well as their interactions as ‘users’.

To go with a complete cliché for a moment — and I hope you’ll indulge me — we can always begin with “What’s my motivation?” (I know… I know… Stay with me for a minute) If we understand the questions being asked, we can better provide the answers, and I don’t necessarily mean in a purely transactional sense.

For example

If you were designing a better take-out coffee experience, think about where the motivation starts for your target audience (your people).

When does the idea of “I’ll just grab a coffee”, or similar, hit them?

And when it does, what’s the first question they ask themselves — what motivates them to pick your solution?

“What if the first hurdle to getting your product or experience into the consciousness of ‘your people’ is to be the answer to their first question?”

How would that look?

Is their first question:

  • “Have I got time to grab a coffee?”
  • “What time’s my next meeting?”
  • “Where’s the nearest café?”

How do these questions change your first interaction with your customers?

If it’s “have I got time?” the over-arching design question could be;

“How do we save time for our customers and become the coffee-house for the time-poor?”

Take that question and run with it for an hour.

What opportunities are there within your existing service or concept to make this transaction even smoother and more efficient — from your customer’s perspective?

Then consider what the next questions are they will ask? Build your question-journey.

There are two approaches to this play;

  1. You can time-box and work through each question you meet as you go through your journey

2. Run through a scenario calling out all the questions across the journey before exploring opportunities.

Either way, there may be angles you wouldn’t have considered from a purely action-based / interactive plotting of the journey.

Where does this game come from?

It comes from my work producing theatre tours; a great way to develop a character’s relationship with their audience is for the actor to understand why each action is taken. It’s important for an actor to always play each moment as if each interaction and reaction is new, no matter how many times they play it.

One of the theatrical techniques to explore the motivation for each action to achieve a relatable outcome/journey is called ‘Thought tracking’.

Now, this concept will be familiar to any of you who have carried out user testing where you’ve asked your people to speak aloud what they’re thinking as they explore your concept solution. Because, well… that’s what it is…

Within a scene an actor is asked to articulate the thoughts that navigate them through the scene or how they make their decisions. Understanding their inner dialog helps illustrate what drives them to take each action, and in-turn help the director to help construct the right journey through the play.

This approach of articulating the unspoken motivation and narrative helps to understand the context and cause-and-effect of their interactions or reactions throughout.

What’s this got to do with design?

Well… There’s a great phrase I heard once in a rehearsal room:

“Audiences want to be surprised by what they expect”

I think this resonates with designing interactions;

Our audiences — now, more than ever — expect a certain level of personalisation and understanding of what’s expected, without over-stepping that line into invasive or creepy.

The question for us as designers is how can we tap into this precarious balance of expectation without remaining ‘basic’ (Kano model).

What if we bring that ‘Thought tracking’ into the design process at the same point we’re constructing the user journeys?

If we consider the questions and thoughts that cause our target audience to engage in the first place, can we make their experience more delightful than basic?

Another example could be improving the car parking experience;

  • How does your solution for paying-to-park differ for your people who think about where they’re going to park the moment they make plans, to those who consider it when they get close to their destination on the day? Does it alter?
  • How do you help them find a space if they’re running late?
  • Do you flag to them before they get there that they need cash because there’s no card-paying system?
  • Do they care how far they have to walk to get to their final destination?

…All these are questions which people ask themselves, or the service, before they interact with a specific interface or product.

So why not give it a try? See if asking these questions upfront and plotting them against and around your journeys helps you to really see these moments of engagement through a people lens, rather than a user lens.

Can this motivation cliché help improve an overall service experience?



Jo Hopkins

Product designer, UX/CX consultant and Visual thinking practitioner