7 Stages of User’s Action in Design

Or why do we need to know about the human mind when designing products?

Eugen Eşanu
May 29, 2018 · 5 min read

Everything we design nowadays, from chairs to web applications, we make it for people. And understanding the human mind is a crucial element during the design process. Failing to do that, we make products that are difficult to use, clunky and hard to understand. But somehow we still neglect the human mind. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have so many bad products on the market. Wouldn’t we?

Most of us think that we already know human mind or behaviour and it’s easy to adapt to their needs. Do a little bit of research, quick lab test, and we know everything. But we don’t.

In reality, we know only the conscious mind. And that is everything we see the person is doing. But there is much happening in the subconscious that determines a person’s actions. To analyse that will take us a lot of time and resources. So to make stuff easier to understand, Don Norman, director of The Design Lab at the University of California, suggested the Seven Stages of Action. These stages should make our job easier at understanding human actions and intents when interacting with products.

Let’s take an ordinary life example: reading a book

Suppose I am laying down on my bed and reading a book. It is getting late and the sun goes down. The light is getting dimmer and I feel the need to get more light, otherwise it becomes hard to read.

My current activity is reading, but my goal becomes: I need more light to be able to see.

How do I do that? I have many choices: a) I can open the curtains for more light; b) Turn on a nearby light; c) Or leave the book for tomorrow morning. In the planning stage I analyse all the possible scenarios I could take to achieve my goal. Let’s say I choose to turn on a nearby light.

But even then I have to decide how I do it. Do I ask someone? Do I do it myself?

And finally I must execute. Meaning I go and turn on the light myself.

If I did this kind of activity before, most of my actions will be subconcious. But if I am not skilled enough, I have to go through a learning curve and all my actions will be concious.

So what are the seven stages of action? You gave only four of them

The seven stages of action are a bridge between what we would like to do and all the possible actions to achieve our goal. As mentioned above, you saw only four. Because the rest, three of them, depend on the context. This divides the actions into 2 parts, conscious and subconscious.

The Goal is the first step in the process. After we set a goal in our mind, we must do it. There are three stages of execution:

  1. Plan (the action)
  2. Specify (an action sequence)
  3. Perform (the action sequence)

After we performed the actions to achieve our goal, our mind evaluates the situation. And it follows these 3 steps:

  1. Perceiving what happened
  2. Interpreting what happened
  3. Compare the outcome with the goal

This is a simplified version of how our mind works. But the framework is useful for any design process, wether digital or physical. The framework helps you to understand how a human performs actions.

Are these seven stages for all behaviours or tasks?

Yes and no. The model is simplified, because there are many actions we undertake on a daily basis that may be interrupted at any moment.

For example, you walk down the street and are heading to the bookstore. You want to buy a new book. But then you see your friend through the window of a coffee shop. And you subconsciously change your goal and are going to greet him and see what he’s been up for lately.

We are not machines that follow a strict routine all the time. Even the most careful planners have sudden changes on a daily basis in their schedule. So we start adjusting our daily goals around new opportunities or change of plans. We also have to take this into account when designing.

What about radical ideas that introduce new products?

Another important aspect of these seven actions process is that we must analyse the environment. Where is the action happening? Once you define it, that is the place of opportunities to make product enhancements. But then the trick is to develop observational skills or as other people call it — empathy.

As I already mentioned above, with the change of plans when going to a bookstore, you have to keep in mind different scenarios that may happen.

Knowing how people use a particular product is crucial, but most important is their goal. So when introducing new products on the market, you have to ask first of all, what is their primary purpose? What do they want to achieve with this product? This is also called root cause analysis.

Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt once pointed out:

People don’t want to buy a quarter inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!

Levitt’s example shows that people are looking to perform a specific action or achieve a goal rather than buying the object itself. But if we dive deeper into questions such as:

Why do you need that hole? You will find out that he wanted to hang shelves on the wall. Shelves for what? For books. But why hanging the books on the wall when there is an e-reader? This way you went straight to the root problem. And after that, you can start applying your seven stages of action in design and come up with new solutions.

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