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The benefits of project and process framework can be applied to every part of existence.


Designing for the Unknown: Information Seeking for the Ignorant User

I’m currently in the process of redesigning a client’s help portal, and had the opportunity to meet with one of the company’s implementation specialists for feedback on the client journey. Implementation teams are some of my very favorite folks to work with - I’m always inspired to take action after hearing their unique and powerful insights into the customer, especially customer struggles.

“I would say one of the biggest issues with our help site, especially for new users, is that the user doesn’t know what they don’t know, so they can’t search for it. Additionally, they might only know the result of an action they want to take, but don’t know the term or feature name to look for,” she said.

In her excellent article Four Modes of Seeking Information and How to Design for Them, information architect Donna Spencer addresses this very issue. (I highly recommend any UX or UI designer read the article in its entirety!)

Don’t Know What They Need to Know:

The key concept behind this mode is that people often don’t know exactly what they need to know. They may think they need one thing but need another; or, they may be looking at a website without a specific goal in mind.

This mode of seeking information occurs in a number of situations including complex domains such as legal, policy, or financial. For example, a staff member may want to know how many weeks maternity leave they are entitled to, but may need to know the conditions surrounding that leave. We should read the terms and conditions of new products and services as there maybe important restrictions, but they are too often buried in legal garble that we don’t read.
— Donna Spencer

You’ve likely experienced this issue first hand many times. Perhaps a friend told you about an excellent book on a new method of workflow improvement, but you cannot remember the author or term. Where would you even begin to look? Perhaps you’d do a general search on workflow improvement books, or a top 20 list that might narrow it down. Of course, the easiest thing to do would be to text your friend, but users of websites and help systems don’t have the luxury of texting developers, and you wouldn’t want them to (after all, deflection is what it’s all about, right?).

So how can you address this information issue? Ms. Spencer offers three excellent suggestions:

  1. Clear site navigation

  2. Related item links

  3. Search tools

Since the user doesn’t know what they need to know, it is is critical that there are always avenues for exploration - you don’t want the site user to reach a dead end and become frustrated.

For my help portal project, we implemented the three solutions above as well as a user journey page (clearly noted in the top navigation) which guides users on a learning path specific to their role. In doing so, we were forced to think about the information which was critical to a user’s success in a way that was approachable, understandable, and relevant. It was here that the implementation team was able to offer amazing insight which guided our wire-framing and content strategy.

Have you addressed this problem in one of your projects? What was your solution?