From daily routines to big life events, technology is deeply woven into the texture of our lives. But even though technology gets easier to use with every passing day, it’s still falling short of what people need. And that’s because the way technology organizes the world doesn’t match how people think.
There’s a simple, fundamental reason for this mismatch: Digital products are generally pretty great at handling single tasks and moments in time—like booking an Uber or texting a friend—but people don’t just think about tasks. Instead, people think in terms of goals — the things they want to accomplish over time to fulfill higher-level needs. Goals shape who people are and drive everything they do.
No matter how far technology advances, this mismatch causes a host of pains that are hiding in plain sight. Take recent college graduate Sylvia*, for example. Not long ago, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that caused her to gain 20 lbs. “I never had to worry about going to the gym,” said Sylvia in an interview. “Then I had this massive weight gain and my doctor said I needed to work out.”
Sylvia was frustrated in her search for fitness classes. She pulled up her search history. “It keeps showing me yoga classes and I hate yoga.” There was more: “It’s impossible to find a class that works for my sister and me. And I have to keep updating my Excel spreadsheet to check if I can afford classes and still move in with my boyfriend.”
Sylvia was one person that we talked to over the course of a year-long user research project on personal goals, conducted on Google’s AIUX team (which is part of Google Research). Across eight studies — including surveys, interviews, prototype testing, and diary studies — we heard from more than 800 people across the United States about many different kinds of goals. This research revealed the deep-seated challenges people encounter in working towards their goals, and the changes that need to happen for technology to support them.
Here are the top takeaways.
Goals are diverse and highly personal. Yet truly personalized solutions are elusive.
The first thing to recognize is that goals come in different flavors. Ongoing goals, like managing mental health, require continual upkeep or habit. One-time goals, like remodeling a bathroom, have a clear end-point. Within each goal, people operate at different zoom levels, or “mindsets.” A person might be in an exploratory mindset considering the bigger picture, or in an execution mindset getting stuff done.
This creates four quadrants, or “goal states,” between which people oscillate. Each quadrant relates to different behaviors and needs. For instance, we noticed people who were exploring for a goal tended to conduct broad “how-to” online searches, while people who were executing had detailed searches. Someone getting a project done might need help managing time, while someone planning to buy a car might need advice.
It’s not just the state of the goal that can vary, but also its motivation. Take a goal like losing weight. It may seem straightforward and almost universal. But dig deeper, and people’s motivations vary widely. One person we talked to wanted to lose weight to manage a chronic condition; another wanted to spend time outdoors with their spouse; and yet another wanted to instill healthy habits in her son.
Because people’s goals are so personal, there’s no one size fits all solution. Meaningful assistance is different depending on what state someone is in, or what’s driving their actions. But digital products often don’t account for this variation, leaving people feeling overwhelmed by generic recommendations for new services and products. To help people navigate these diverse states and motivations, we need solutions that meet users where they’re at.
It’s hard to complete a goal, and even harder to recover from setbacks.
Our research showed that one of the hardest things about a goal was actually seeing it to completion.
One critical problem is that people lack the tools to track progress, manage their time, and stay disciplined. And productivity and motivation-based products don’t always hit the right pain points. As one person told me about a scheduling app: “Managing stress is such a stressful thing. You’re trying to get out of it, but…just opening [the app] when I’m stressed is hard.”
Reaching the finish line is especially hard in the face of “curveballs,” or unexpected events. Most tech products presume that the problem lies in a lack of intrinsic motivation, and focus on changing user behavior. But in fact, our research showed that it’s often external curveballs that sap motivation — even for the most driven people.
For instance, I spoke to Maddie*, a photographer who was tracking toward attainable budget goals, but gave up entirely after a car accident drained her emergency fund. In other cases, curveballs might be predictable, like bad weather or travel, but erode motivation over time. Or they may be major life events, like a move or career change, that makes it hard to resume a routine.
People need technology that can help them see their goals to completion by augmenting existing plans, noticing without nagging, and nudging at the right time. It’s critical to consider the “unhappy paths,” and design resilient, flexible systems that can anticipate and recover when things go wrong.
People can’t bridge across goals because information is siloed
People’s daily lives are complex, with dozens of context shifts and decisions per day. A single goal involves many touchpoints, and having information scattered across products is extremely common. (One student I spoke with used eight separate apps to plan for a concert.) Switching between apps is frustrating, and it’s hard for people to pick up where they left off across products and devices. All of this makes it difficult to stay organized with goals.
The problem gets only more complex when you consider that people are constantly making tradeoffs between the goals they have.
For example, I met Anjali*, a parent from California, who had many concurrent goals. Anjali’s health goals supported each other, but paying for wellness activities prevented her from saving money. And like many people, the things she felt she has to do (like cooking for her children) were at odds with the things she wants to do (like losing weight).
Such competing goals are everywhere. Travel or pay off student loans? Go to a better college or stay close to aging parents? These conflicts spawn guilt and confusion, often leading people to put all their eggs in one basket. And finally, it’s especially hard to see how daily tasks relate to bigger goals — for instance, how does eating out this weekend affect diet and budget?
Right now, technology products are divided by verticals like health, finance, or travel. But people care less about these boundaries and more about getting things done seamlessly. So how might we better align people’s daily tasks and broader goals? How might we organize the stuff of everyday life in a way that’s more intuitive, centralized, and easy to understand? And how might we allow people’s goals to become filters they can apply to the many decisions they make everyday?
We need a paradigm shift towards goal-centric design
A year of studying personal goals demonstrated how foundational these goals are to everything people do, and highlighted the incredible complexity of everyday life. Whether because they are deeply personal, intricately interwoven, or disrupted by unexpected events, goal journeys are rarely a straight line.
It’s this complexity that makes designing for goals a challenge. These challenges can’t be addressed with a new app, device, or product feature — we need a paradigm shift that starts with deeply understanding how people think about their lives. From there, technology must align itself to human goals, not the other way around. It’s going to take a lot of collaboration, breaking down familiar models, and years if not decades to get there — and of course tech products are only one slice of supporting people’s needs. But a more goal-centered approach can unlock a new level of meaningful and helpful computing for humans.
*Names have been changed and scenarios have been modified slightly to preserve participant confidentiality.
Illustrations by Tabitha Yong.
Special thanks to Cliff Kuang for helpful feedback throughout.