Invisible Goals

Brian McKenna
If your product doesn’t account for additional goals in your domain, you may be helping people work against their higher level goals without them realizing it. (Source)

In the first project on my first job, I was brought in to contribute to the redesign of a command and control center for the military (I won’t get into specifics about which one or for what; that’s largely irrelevant here). To start the project, the team did a lot of research to understand the domain, the goals of the system, and the decisions made in the domain. The team defined scope of several dozen goals that the members of this command center would be responsible for and their relationship to one another.

And although this was my first project and a lot of what we were doing and discovering was pretty novel to me, something particular caught my eye as we started going through this analysis. In our representation of the goals and their relationships, the team had identified some goals that were outside the scope of the project. These were higher-level goals which we would not support explicitly in the design, but the team had spent the time to uncover them all the same.

The one that stood out to me was the need to ‘Successfully Manage the Rules of Engagement’. We wouldn’t be helping the members of the command center manage these, since these are largely set in stone from high in the leadership chain. But the product team knew that it would be important to account for this goal in the analysis. It was valuable because every single decision made within that command center in all the lower level goals had to work within the confines of these rules. It was a constraint that needed to be known by users in the system. With that act, the team took an invisible goal and made it a key part of the system design.

When I look at a lot of products, I often see this missing. And I think a lot of products would be made better by working to uncover these goals and letting them influence decisions throughout the product.

Tangible examples

For a familiar example, let’s consider Instagram (most social media have similar issues). If we reverse engineer the user goals of Instagram, we can easily imagine that a prime goal for many is to stay connected with family and friends. The ability to share photos with, and view photos of, family and friends is a good way to help accomplish this goal.

It’s easy to see what goals Instagram is trying to support. It’s less obvious if Instagram understands how it fits into the larger context of a person’s world.

Another key goal users may have is to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and events. Getting updates from important people in life, such as influencers, enables this to happen. For the key goals that Instagram wants to support, the product is fairly successful.

But these have to be balanced out with other goals that people have. What other, higher-level goals might these goals be supporting? There are likely many, but I want to focus on one. I would argue that everyone has a goal of maintaining a picture of their self-worth.

Do the two goals I identified above fit in with that? You could make that case. Staying in touch with family and friends, and being in line with current trends can certainly increase a feeling of self-worth. But what about things that Instagram allows that contribute to a decrease in a person’s self-worth.

When you don’t know what higher level goals your product supports, you may as well be using this to make decisions.

Seeing posts where people only share the “best” version of themselves hurts a users view of self.

What types of pictures do we see all the time? People out in the world; Date nights; Vacations; Happy events. This may be a tiny fraction of our world, but it makes up a large share of what we perceive of others. How can our lives compare?

We also don’t see the 40 pictures the influencer took to get that one perfect shot, or the makeup artist that contributed to the look, or the lighting expert who set things up just right. We see the 1 perfect shot and wonder why our life can’t be that great.

I would argue then, that Instagram doesn’t support the goal of helping people maintain their self-worth, but is still having a large impact on it. This is a dangerous position to be in. Instagram helps us with one goal, but hurts us when it comes to supporting some of our other goals (often higher-level goals). They keep the goals invisible. And the singular focus on lower-level goals actually impedes our ability to be satisfied on higher level goals.

When we lose the larger context of our goals and our decisions we put our users at a disadvantage.

It becomes more of a challenge when we consider that the higher-level goals that we are trying to support may be competing with one another (like when you manage a budget) or even worse, conflicting with one another (this medicine relieves my depression but makes causes me to gain weight when I am trying to improve my physical health). When we lose the larger context of our goals and our decisions we put our users at a disadvantage.

Once you notice this, you start seeing the problem everywhere. Look at all the products that want you to sign up for notifications. There is definitely business value for them. In some cases, it may help you stay up to date on something that you care about. But what about all that it is blocking you from doing. Does it steal your attention when it’s needed elsewhere? Is it consuming your time that should be allocated elsewhere?

Is your shopping app helping you stay within your budget? Is your food ordering app helping you understand how your order will impact your health? Is that game you are playing helping you to realize that there is a whole world outside that you can be interacting with? Probably not. These are focused on conversion and time-in-app. These metrics work fine for the immediate goal, but don’t really help with the higher-level goals that people have. And this helps our short-term needs while failing to help us in the long-term. On the macro level, consider how many companies ignore the impact on the environment for their choices and its pretty clear that companies are often so focused on what’s right in front of them that they fail to see the bigger picture.

Imagine if we failed to take the bigger picture into account in the military project I mentioned earlier. Yes, we could have come up with a solution to help combat the enemy. But if we ignored the need to support the rules of engagement, it’s entirely possible that we would have supported people committing atrocious acts to do so.


It’s important that our products help people accomplish their goals. Failing this step is almost certain product doom. But, we also have to help people understand what goals these support. As I posted previously, there is never just one goal. And we get to choose which goals we explicitly support, which ones we acknowledge as constraints, and which ones we ignore.

Ignoring the goal doesn’t mean it goes away.

This is not easy, and you have to draw the line somewhere, but ignoring the goal doesn’t mean it goes away. It just means that we are likely shortchanging our users in some way. This is an incredibly difficult balancing act, but that’s why we want to be paid the big bucks.

Thanks for reading. For more of my ramblings on product design and UX, you can follow me on Twitter: @bkenna1 or here on Medium.

Brian McKenna

Written by

Designer. Product Manager. Been at this for 15 years. Live in Pittsburgh, but will always be a Chicago guy. Go Cubs! Can be found on twitter: @bkenna1

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