Why Less (Options) is More - Anticipatory Design, pt. 1

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John Waldron

Updated Mar 16, 2023 • 8 min read

There’s every chance that you might not have heard about this exciting new trend in design.

It’s just starting to spread its anticipatory wings and take off in some of the most innovative dev houses operating around the world today. It’s being called ‘Anticipatory Design’, and is formulated on the premise that less (choice) is more.

Well, before we go any further, I think it’s only fair to inform you that the Netguru team are in the pro camp of anticipatory design, and indeed we are using it in brand new projects. However, we are always fair in our approach to information and are also very aware that such is the newness of the concept that the trends are still being formulated within the discipline – even as you read this article.

And so, we want to give you all the information. That is the advantages and benefits of anticipatory design, the disadvantages and counter arguments to the concept, and finally, in the second part of the article that we will publish soon, how you can get started with it yourself.

As with every new concept or idea, there is, of course, the usual scepticism and band of detractors mixed in amongst all the excitement and flag waving advocates. And so the question has to be, is anticipatory design the next big thing, or is it just the latest fad, soon to fade away once the initial buzz has died down?

But first, there’s a question that needs answering right from the outset – can you anticipate what it might be?

What Is Anticipatory Design?

In its broadest sense, the anticipatory design has come about to try and remove the tyranny of choice that has been imposed upon our modern consumption habits. With pretty much everything that we attempt to achieve or purchase via web, we are presented with an overload of choices, and thusly faced with an equally weighty load of decisions to make. Everything from gaming to shopping to finance to travel – the whole online world wants to present us with as many options as possible, as that has historically been the belief that this gives the greatest experience for the user.

So let’s think about this for a moment with an example. Say you’ve got a pretty loaded business day: a meeting across town at 11 AM, a lunch with an old colleague a meeting with a client dropping by with a load of sketches for a new app, buying a birthday card for your sister before you go home.

With apps and smartphone technology already in mass use, you can be sure that you don’t miss any of these crucial appointments. The Calendar app will remind you, and various travel apps will see you right as you make your journey across town and back again. As for booking a meal, we could possibly ask Siri to tell us what restaurants are in the area, and hopefully we won’t forget the birthday card now that we’ve been reminded to write one. In that case, Wunderlist should do the trick.

But, even with all this added convenience, you are still being presented with choices every step of the way. How, for instance, do we travel across town? And, as brilliantly thorough as Siri can be, your favourite little personal assistant hasn’t really done much to refine your choice of restaurant. And then, after lunch, do you get back to the office the same way you came? And, as for the birthday card, how do you choose what to get?

Enter Anticipatory Design

In the past, improved design has been all about presenting the user with a series of options to choose from. True, these options have gotten much more sophisticated over time (things like the personal recommendations from Amazon, for instance, or the ‘Discover’ options on the likes of Spotify), but, as consumers, we’re still forever presented with choice after choice after choice.

The underlying ethos of anticipatory design is to eliminate all of these redundant choices for the user. It goes beyond merely a suggestion and moves firmly into the realm of execution. To explain, I want to turn to the writings of Aaron Shapiro, CEO of the global digital design agency Huge. Stemming from psychologist Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice, a compelling manifesto outlining the paralysis and dissatisfaction a person feels when presented with too many choices, Shapiro brings Schwartz’s observations into 2015, and builds them into the concept of the anticipatory design.

“Conventional design assumes that the designer is creating something – whether physical or digital – that people use. With anticipatory design, the user’s job is to make the object accomplish very specific things while it’s up to the designer to make that process as simple as possible for the user or to make good use of that object and minimize difficulty. The anticipatory design is fundamentally different: decisions are made and executed on behalf of the user. The goal is not to help the user make a decision, but to create an ecosystem where a decision is never made — it happens automatically and without user input."

In his work, Shapiro presents an example of booking a flight. "Rather than being given options – airline, time, seat location – an anticipatory approach would be to automatically monitor the user's calendar, and book a ticket when a meeting is scheduled in a location that requires air travel. Seat preference, preferred airlines, the decision between price and a specific flight time are all based on prior travel behavior and payment information can be electronically transmitted.”

Let’s think about our example once again if you were at the mercy of applications conceived with the anticipatory approach. At 10:35 AM, Uber would have a car waiting outside the office, ready to take you across town to your meeting at 11. Based on combined lunching habits, a table will have been booked at a light lunch diner nearby at 12:30 PM, and both you and your friend will have been notified in advance of where we had to be. Your friend arrived by metro rail and had a good journey, which is pleasing to hear because thanks to proper scheduling you missed the heavy school-run traffic.

What is perhaps most pleasing about the day, however, is the fact that waiting on our desk is the brand new Stephen King novel delivered by Amazon as a gift for our sister, accompanied with a birthday card to sign – she’d put it on her wishlist, and now she needs wish no longer. All payments were automated. No decisions had to be made. technology had correctly anticipated our every move.

Examples Of Anticipatory Design

Elements of anticipatory design have in fact been around for years. Remember Clippy? That little friendly paper clip that would appear on Word every time you began to type, observing “It looks like you’re writing a letter” before asking “Would you like some help?”

Now, of course, Microsoft’s little word processing assistant, much like recommendations on Amazon and Spotify, was just a precursor – or an anticipation, if you will – to the sort of anticipatory features that we’re talking about today. But, nonetheless, it goes to show that we’ve all been using this sort of thing for years – anticipatory design has been inevitable.

What’s beginning to surface now, however, are true manifestations of the anticipatory approach. A great example is digit.co, which “helps people make smarter, automated savings decisions by connecting to its users’ bank accounts, assessing income and spending habits, and automatically moving money into a savings account. The service takes only what you can afford, with the goal of saving money, based on when bills are due and expenses become more demanding.”

Google Now is another great example. Moving away from the question-answering function of Siri, Google Now is a digital assistant that will pull “flight information from emails, meeting times from calendars and [provide] recommendations of where to eat and what to do based on past preferences and current location, the user simply has to open the app for their information to compile.”

In the second part of the article, coming soon on our blog, we will tell you who can benefit the most from adopting anticipatory design. We will also pinpoint the most important problems related to it and reveal our approach towards this trend.

Have you already had some experience with anticipatory design? And if so, what was your impression? Let us know about it in the comments below and if you liked our article, feel invited to share it with friends! Click here for part 2.

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John Waldron

John Waldron is a technology and business writer for markITwrite digital content agency, based in...
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