The Chain of Intentions in Interaction Design

Design is purposeful. Interaction is intentional.

There’s a chain of intentions in Design. They are connected by interactions and justified by purpose. Structuring the flow of those intentions is a critical part of design.

Intention Vs. Purpose

For clarity, let’s first differentiate intention from purpose. We can loosely define intention in design as the goal of the immediate actions taken by a user, while purpose narrowly as the eventual goal in business or user sense, such as solving a business problem or meeting a user need. Although the actions realize the serving of purposes, they don’t necessarily and directly reflect them — they reflect intentions.

Saving a record of transaction by tapping the “Save” button is an intention, while keeping the transaction on record for verification or as evidence is the purpose business-wise.

What you want to do doesn’t necessarily reveal what you want to achieve. And vice versa.

Two Types of Intentions: Functional and Purposeful

You click a “Read More” button with both the intention of opening a view of some details, and that of reading more of it.

When you press the pedestrian crossing button at a traffic light, your intention is to make sure the button is pressed, while your purpose is to cross the road safely.

When a user searches for “return policy”, his intention may be to know more about it, while his purpose might just be to decide whether it’s worth the hassle to return that annoyingly loose pair of gloves.

We never can tell with common people. Some intentions in design are more equal than others.

So it helps a lot if we differentiate two different types of intentions:

  • Purposeful Intentions: directly relevant or related to the purpose of the design, which usually directly reflects business goals or user goals.
  • Functional Intentions: indirectly relevant due to the nature of the technology. They are derived from the limitations of the technology used for the purpose.

Purposeful intentions are like the main plot of a story – their twists and turns push the drama forward. Functional Intentions are like style, genre, subplots, or visual effects – they are meant to enable or enhance the dramatic and narrative design in both an artistic and a practical way.

There’s a fine line between the two types of intentions. Sometimes an identified intention is both purposeful and functional. The whole point of the dichotomy is not to draw an absolute line, but to provide a thinking tool for us to elaborate and make design decisions.

Functional Interaction and Purposeful Interaction

Interaction with functional intention is Functional Interaction. That with purposeful intention is Purposeful Interaction.

Consciously or not, users have different expectations on those two types of interactions.
Chain of Intentions in Interaction Design.002
User Expectations
Functional Interaction
Purposeful Interaction
Time Spent
Conditional (minimal or maximal)
Minimal while significant
Psychological Needs
Relevant but meaningless

As listed above, the differences between functional interaction and purposeful interaction are straightforward.While there are two thing to note here:

  • In a purposeful interaction sequence, the expected time spent can be minimal or maximal. Sometimes users enjoy the moment more when it lasts longer, especially when the purposeful interactions signals the achievement of something.
  • The effort taken should usually be minimal. However, in purposeful interactions, the effort should, at times, be significant enough for users to justify the outcome as well as a sense of achievement. Sometimes achieving too easily brings less satisfaction.


Planning the Chain of Intentions by Sequencing Interactions

There are often likely much more functional interactions than purposeful ones, so the sequencing of interactions usually aims to keep the users on track, avoiding confusion and interaction failures, or engage them in a dramatic way.

Here are some common patterns:

Chain of Intentions in Interaction Design.003

Chain of Intentions in Interaction Design.004

There could be problematic chain of intentions/interactions that lead to interaction confusion or failure.

Here are a few questionably bad patterns:

Chain of Intentions in Interaction Design.005

Most of the questionable patterns can be easily fixed by a mindful and elaborate designer. Perhaps the challenge lies in identifying the problems rather than coming up with the solutions. Fortunately, careful user test should often be enough to identify those interaction issues.

What Does That Mean to Designers

As a framework, the functional-purposeful dichotomy is first and foremost a thinking tool. It’s meant to be used for elaborating design situations and for making design decisions.

It helps us decide when, where, and how much to:

  • Optimize on effectiveness and efficiency
  • Focus on fluency, pace, or engagement throughout and across the user flows
  • Provide assurance
  • Reward user actions
  • Reduce or promote distractions

A decent interaction design always goes with elaborate planning of the chain of intentions. And when done well, the experience delights the users with senses of achievement and meaning.

Design is purposeful. Interaction is intentional. Intention is full of influence, which designers are responsible for.



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