There is a wonderful section in the book “Made to Stick” that applies 100% to interaction design. It is the section on what is called “Commander’s Intent”.
The book describes Commander’s Intent as a tactic the U.S Army uses to prioritize decision making. As you might imagine, it’s impossible to devise and communicate a strategy at the start of a military operation that holds throughout the engagement. Too many things change along the way: the situation becomes more or less intense, the enemy introduces some difficult variable, the battle morphs in some other unpredictable way.
Commander’s Intent is a simple goal made at the beginning of an engagement that holds throughout, no matter if the situation changes. Instead of describing in detail a step-by-step, day-by-day strategy of how your battalion is going to take over the mountaintop from the enemy as the initial conditions might suggest, you simply say “We will take control of the mountaintop within ten days”. This leaves autonomy in the hands of the commanders on the ground, the people who know a lot more about the situation as it changes during battle. No matter what happens there, the Commander’s Intent will hold.
You arrive at a Commander’s Intent by asking a simple question: “If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must…”. The answer to this question becomes the overarching goal of the mission and allows all who work on that mission to prioritize each action they make.
It turns out that asking this question of each screen we design is extremely valuable. “If this screen does nothing else, it must…”. This can help designers focus completely on the most important action the screen is designed to support, even as design conditions change as the result of user testing and feedback. Even though the screen may change over time, with designers emphasizing some parts or de-emphasizing others, the original purpose should stay intact over time.
Some tips when using the Commander’s Intent in design:
- If you don’t know what the one purpose of the screen is, then get rid of the screen.
- If you think a screen has two primary purposes, you can probably break it into two screens.
- If something on the screen doesn’t support the one purpose, get rid of it.
- If the one purpose does not add to a positive user experience, then get rid of the screen.
In most cases bad screen design is caused by a lack of prioritization on the part of the design team. Commander’s Intent came out of a completely different world, but can nonetheless help designers ruthlessly prioritize the decisions they have to make.