User modes as the raw ingredients of digital experience

By Marek Pawlowski ( / bio) & Andrew Muir Wood ( / bio)

The best way to design successful digital products is by understanding how users’ behaviour changes according to their mode.

Modes can be defined as the common ways people engage with digital products depending on their intent, environment, time and technology constraints. Where more simplistic measures such as designing for a particular device type or screen size may fail, understanding modes can deliver design insights closest to the users’ true needs.

It is these modes which explain why a user’s behaviour may vary substantially from app to app and from time of day to time of day. There are times when people are explorers and times when they are consumers or creators or communicators. In each of these modes, design should adapt to their needs.

As a starting point, MEX are currently researching six modes:

  1. Explore: Discovering novelty on an evolving path
  2. Augment: Enhancing activity with additional layers
  3. Communicate: Exchanging meaning with others
  4. Consume: Absorbing and interpreting information
  5. Control: Simplifying life through commands and automation
  6. Create: Originating something with expressive or functional qualities

They are the focus of the next MEX event in London on 24th – 25th September, when 100 pioneers of user experience from design, technology and media come together to learn and define best practice.

In this essay we’d like to share some of what we’ve learnt so far and invite everyone – designers and technologists alike – to get in touch with feedback.

The concept of user modes as the primary determinant of design requirements grew from a necessary review of our own MEX initiative. We’ve spent 18 years exploring how people behave with digital. It started with a focus on specific devices. As that became insufficient, it grew ever wider as we sought best practice for experience design in a world where users interact with multiple devices simultaneously.

However, in early 2013 we were observing changes in user behaviour significant enough to make us pause and seek a new MEX blueprint to debate the future of digital experience design.

We’ve been privileged to host some of the most creative thinkers about digital user experience at MEX over the course of 13 international events, but we still found ourselves with fundamental questions about the validity of commonly accepted frameworks for building digital products.

These conceptual frameworks come in many guises: ‘mobile first’, ‘responsive design’, ‘context aware’ – even our own ‘multi-touchpoint design’, which underpinned our previous work on the MEX Pathways.

However, none seemed to provide a satisfactory set of principles for creating the digital experiences which will be native to users in just 3 or 4 years time. What framework can guide designers tasked with building experiences across the rapidly broadening landscape of wearable and embedded devices, as well as the more familiar touchpoints of smartphones, tablets, PCs and TVs?

For inspiration, we returned to the source of all good design: user behaviour. It became apparent that it wasn’t the type of device or the type of content, or even the age or experience of the user which led most reliably to accurate design requirements. Instead, it was a series of behavioural patterns, often overlapping or rapidly switched, but each sufficiently distinct to align with a unique approach to design.

Obvious examples started to emerge. Consider images, for instance. Two users browsing through a photo gallery have common needs, even if one is using a four inch smartphone and the other is using a forty inch wall mounted display. We could broadly call this a mode of consumption. However, if you take two users equipped with identical devices (say, a ten inch tablet), but one uses it as a photo frame in the corner of the room (a mode we could called augmentation) and the other casually searches for inspirational images on the sofa (a mode of exploration), divergent needs emerge. The device, media type and even the service brand may be the same, but the UX requirements vary because users are engaged in different modes.

Today’s commonly accepted models, where designers target particular classes of device or screen size, or focus on replicating existing visual brand elements, are inadequate if you aspire to building experiences truly integrated into users’ lives.

Of course, for this concept of modes to be useful, we must also recognise how rapidly users can switch their patterns of behaviour and facilitate these mode shifts. We must also be aware that the same behavioural elements will often overlap several modes.

The goal is not to classify services and apps with a single mode, but rather to understand how common behavioural traits can be grouped and used as shortcuts for to create overall experiences that respond when a user shifts their mode, regardless of device or demographic.

Staying with the example of images, we could classify a service like Pinterest as having ‘Explore’ as the dominant mode: most users engage with it in the hope of discovering new things, with no predetermined end point, often during periods of casual down time. This could guide designers toward a particular set of requirements.

However, it would wrong to design Pinterest solely around a mode of exploration. It also has elements of ‘Consume’ (because it can be used as a way of passively absorbing new images) and ‘Communicate’ (because it can be used to share images with others).

In fact, most Pinterest users we’ve observed migrate between these three modes, sometimes rapidly and at other times spending extended periods engaged in the same mode.

If we were to apply the principles of user modes to a re-design of Pinterest, it might lead to the introduction of something like a ‘lightbox’ concept. This would be a temporary cache where users could save images they discovered during a session of exploration, then go back to review them all in one go, add their own annotations and pin them to their public boards during a mode of communication. Currently Pinterest interrupts the user’s explorative flow every time they want to pin something, popping up a dialogue at a time when users might prefer to just tag something as easily as possible and review later.

Modes can guide design patterns across devices with different screen sizes and input methods, but it is important to remember they should be used in addition to, not instead of, other basics like ensuring content re-flows dynamically for smaller screens and UI elements are tailored for touch or mouse.

Indeed, we should be aiming for a point where no designer of digital experiences will consider visually responsive design an end in itself, but rather a basic expectation. It is how the flow of experiences built with those responsive techniques most closely aligns with users’ changing behavioural modes which will determine success.

Our initial set of six modes – Explore, Augment, Consume, Communicate, Control and Create – is by no means exhaustive. It is intended as a starting point and testing ground where we can invite all those with an interest in the next generation of digital experiences to debate the merits of this approach and contribute lessons of their own. We’ve also published a page examining each of the six MEX modes through a series of provocation questions and examples of apps and services which exhibit characteristics of each mode.

These themes will be at the heart of the MEX event in London on 24th – 25th September, where we’ve assembled a group of inspirational speakers, expert facilitators and creative participants to spend two days expanding the industry’s knowledge of digital design.

There are other ways to get involved too:

  1. Share: let us know what you think of the modes concept or if you come across apps and services which are examples of the 6 modes.
  2. Speak: have you worked on a project which deals with one or more of these modes? We’d love to talk with you and there are still opportunities to become a speaker at our next MEX event.
  3. Participate: join us for 2 days of learning and creating new ideas at the MEX event in London on 24th – 25th September. There are tickets (£1499 each) and sponsorship opportunities available.

To follow our ongoing MEX project, entitled ‘Ingredients of User Experience’:

  1. Twitter: follow @mexfeed and #mex13
  2. Blog: follow
  3. LinkedIn: join the MEX group
  4. Email: subscribe to the MEX Newsletter

Marek Pawlowski ( / bio) & Andrew Muir Wood ( / bio)

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