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What is ‘User Intent’ and How Can We Apply It in Web Design?

Google separates user intent into three categories:

  • DO (A user wants to accomplish a specific goal, like rent a movie or file some paperwork with their State.)
  • KNOW (A user is looking for a class of, or a specific piece of, information, like what $56 is in British Pounds or why trickle-down economics doesn’t work.)
  • GO (A user wants to get to a particular website regardless of what they can do or learn there, for example, someone wants to read the latest XKCD What If? Regardless of what they’ll learn or accomplish by doing so.)
  • Why is this relevant? Because as web designers and content creators, it helps us define what we’re doing with our website. Each website should focus primarily on one of the three major archetypes of user. Consider: caters exclusively to ‘GO’ users. caters 90% of it’s design to ‘DO’ users. Wikipedia is 99% ‘KNOW’-based.

    Think about the differences in design between those three massively successful Internet entities. All three have a few things in common: they’re very good at putting the important part at the top, more or less in the middle of the page. Google puts the top-ranked site on…well, the top. Wikipedia always starts each article with a short summary of the subject matter. And eBay starts it’s page with multiple methods of finding the item or category you’re looking for.

    But that’s just the beginning. Let’s look at the smaller options that each intent can benefit from.

    If you’ve got a website where people are supposed to DO something, you have one of two setups. Either there’s only one thing from them to DO, and every element of the page is designed to encourage them to DO that thing (i.e. sales pages), or there are a lot of things to DO and your elements exist to help them find the thing they actually want to DO (i.e. flash game portals). So the design elements that attend a DO site are either focal (to draw attention to the one thing to DO), or, in more cases, navigational aids.

    KNOW-based websites are primarily concerned with two things: helping people find more related knowledge, and helping people consume knowledge more easily. Most of the former is in the form of hyperlinks, though news sites and their ilk clearly benefit from “recent article” and “top article” side bars. KNOW-based sites also benefit a lot from RSS feed buttons, subscribe-via-email buttons, and social media buttons that allow users to spread the KNOWledge.

    GO sites are all about organizing the information — and being able to reorganize information in a way that your users can easily understand and use to easily understand the information they’re looking at. Clickable buttons that show different sets of links, graphical snapshots of the pages the links lead to, and most of all filters that can cut the irrelevancies out of a given search are the critical design elements to consider in a GO page.

    With an understanding of what the “intended intent” for a given page is, you can leapfrog a few steps ahead in the design process and do so confidently knowing that you’re not sacrificing usability to do so.

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