How Anticipatory Design Drives Customer Conversion

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Francis Pilon

Users think they want more choices… until they’re all laid out in front of them.

One of the hottest new design trends that’s crossing over into eCommerce is Anticipatory Design, an ideology that anticipates user’s choices before they make them. This may seem like a 1984 mandate on the surface, but in practice anticipatory design is actually more liberating than the alternative.

Here we’ll talk about how this strategy applies to eCommerce, and can even streamline the sales funnel to get to a purchase faster. We’ll start by explaining why it works, or rather, why having too many choices isn’t as good as it seems.

Decision Fatigue, Cognitive Load, and Hick’s Law

Don’t Make Me Think is both the title and takeaway message from Steve Krug’s seminal book that changed UX design forever. The book explains how the more thought a user must put into a task, the less enjoyable it becomes.

This idea harks back to some scientific findings of the past, namely Hick’s Law and cognitive load. Hick’s Law is fundamentally the basis of anticipatory design: it proves, empirically, that the more options a person has, the more time it will take to decide.

Hick’s law shows how decisions tax a person’s cognitive load–another scientific concept from yesteryear. As this article by Danny Halarewich describes, cognitive load is any strain on a person’s working memory, the total amount of mental facilities they have available at any given moment. Too many choices put too much strain on these facilities, causing cognitive overload.

Through these explanations, you can see how excessive choices is a burden to your user, and can even irritate them.

This phenomenon is also known as decision fatigue, and even Barack Obama has to deal with it. His solution? He pares down the number of decisions he makes during the day, to the point where he wears only two different colors of suits. Not wasting energy on picking an outfit keeps him on the ball for presidential decisions with a little more consequence.

To sum it up, making decisions isn’t a bad thing, but the number of decisions should be trimmed down to only the bare essentials. Therein lies the heart of anticipatory design.

Personalization + Slippy UX = Anticipatory Design

Companies like Netflix and Amazon paved the way for anticipatory design, with their innovative customization options and smooth UX design. First, they take customer data from user ratings, browsing history, and past purchases/views. Next, they anticipate user preferences and incorporate them into a streamlined user journey. The result is an interface hand-tailored for the user in question.

It’s no secret that users enjoy personalization, and in fact 74% of online shoppers get frustrated when content is not related specifically to them. Personalization in eCommerce means knowing which products your shoppers are interested in from whatever data you have available: past orders, browsing history, geographic location, the date or season, and trends from other shoppers.

With new shoppers who are essentially blank slates, you can still promote products related to the one they’re currently viewing. Amazon does this well with their “Frequently Bought Together” and “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” sections. Even with no prior knowledge of the shopper, they still offer some degree of personalization.

Anticipatory design just takes personalization and adds a smoother, more refined UX design. Remember the goal is to reduce your shopper’s cognitive load; personalizing their options isn’t enough, you also have to present them in a way that’s easily digestible. More often than not, this involves stripping away the choices that aren’t relevant to them.

“Slippy UX” is a concept born from designing the digital interfaces in automobiles. As Jake Zukowski explains, automobile UIs have a unique problem in that users need to focus on them as little as possible so they can watch the road. For car UIs, too much cognitive load could lead to serious accidents.

So they incorporate a slippy UX, a minimalist system for the easiest usability possible. This includes “glanceability,” a visual setup so simplistic, the user has only to glance at it to understand all their options and how to execute them.

While necessary for car UIs, slippy UX is still useful for general web design. Users always appreciate an efficient setup, with all the inessential, distracting elements already removed — and when the elements that remain are personalized to their preferences, that gives them a UX they’ll want to return to again and again.

The Nest Thermostat is the epitome of Anticipatory design. During the first week of use, the device monitors and learns the user’s prefered temperature at different times throughout the day. Nest is then able to recreate these conditions automatically, turning itself off at times when the user is likely not at home, and even adjusting for seasonal changes.

Knowing the right temperature-timing combination is the personalization, and adjusting itself automatically without input is the slippy UX.

Anticipatory Design Checklist

Author and content strategist Laura Busche anticipated the popularity of anticipatory design, and outlined a checklist for determining if and how a UI can incorporate it. We’ve taken her procedure and adapted it specifically to eCommerce.

First, outline each step in your typical user journey, writing out how your user goes from arriving on your site to completing a purchase. Then, for each individual step, ask yourself the following questions:

Is there any way to make this easier for the user? Is there any inessential information that the user doesn’t need? Can we pre-fill any sections with existing data? (Especially pertinent to checkout forms.) Can we suggest the next action based on past experiences? Will using a template created beforehand cut down on time? Is there a significant chance the user can make a mistake here? If so, can we provide alternative options to avoid the mistake? What’s the most effective medium to communicate? Videos, text, or audio? (Product videos are almost always a good idea.)

Once you know where to include anticipatory design, the next step is figuring out how.

Best Practices for Anticipatory Design

Here are some expert tactics we’ve gathered on anticipatory design to help get you started:

Research your shoppers. If you have any questions about what your shoppers want or don’t want, sometimes it’s best to just ask them directly. Conducting user interviews, or perhaps including a survey on your site, can shed some light on what your customer base’s personal preferences are.

As a starting point, take a look at these facts and figures about acceptable personalization, compiled by Accenture. It shows the results of a study of real online consumers on where they draw the line between personalization and a “too personal.”

Don’t say no. According to one of the findings in the above study, avoid telling your shoppers what not to buy, even if it’s in their best interest. People don’t like hearing “no.”

Renew expired products. If any of your products expire or need periodic renewals, anticipate this and send your customers a message when the time comes. This can also be useful for consumables, such as groceries or pharmaceuticals.

Walgreens even offers extra incentive to shop with them, with discounts and free shipping on top of anticipatory auto-reorder. These features are designed to make their clients’ lives easier.

Segmentation. Creating shopper segments allows you to better organize both your customer groups and the content (or product recommendations) you deliver to them. Colin Eagan runs through the process in his article for A List Apart; in it, he includes his four core content segments:

Alerts Simplifiers Cross-sells Enrichers

Combine rules-based and algorithm-based approaches. A rules-based approach works on user segments, delivering specific content based on what group the user belongs to. An algorithm-based approach, however, works more with learning a user’s behavior during their visit to the site: if the user looks at five types of eye shadow, the system will recommend more eye shadows.

The research and advisory firm Forrester recommends using both, starting with one and then working towards a hybrid.

Suggest related products. Some products can be used together, though this can escape your users while shopping. For example, if a product requires batteries, you could mention this when adding it to the cart.

As pointed out by Laura Busche, the writer behind the anticipatory design checklist above, Fandango sometimes offers a free ebook version of the source material for the film a customer bought a ticket for. This extra perk strengthens the bond with the brand, and assures the customer receives a gift that they’re genuinely interested in.


Remember that anticipatory design isn’t about making your shopper’s decisions for them. It’s about stripping away the distractions so that the only decisions they make are relevant to them.

Anticipatory design combines the skills of personalization and proper UX design, so be sure to incorporate the fundamentals when applying it. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Anticipating user actions takes some critical thinking.

About the author

Matt Ellis is a design writer and online content strategist. He's been writing professionally for over 10 years, with the last 5 focusing exclusively on online marketing through content creation and distribution. For his professional work, visit his website Matt Ellis.


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