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A Comprehensive Guide to Anticipatory Design

If you’re concerned that you might be losing potential customers because the online experience you provide forces them to make too many choices, then you’re ready to start thinking about anticipatory design. This approach to business web design relies on big data to relieve visitors of the sheer weight of decisions they might have to slog through before a final purchase. Let’s take a look at this revolutionary strategy for simplifying the online shopping experience.

What Is Anticipatory Design?

Anticipatory design is just what it sounds like. A form of design that anticipates a user’s needs and offers the correct solutions. Rather than forcing him to scour the website for his needs , this approach is a direct response to the problem of decision fatigue. Decision fatigue occurs when the brain is so overwhelmed by options that it succumbs to the easiest solution – leaving your site. In an online shopping scenario, this might mean a lost sale because the customer decided to walk away. It’s estimated that the average person is confronted with 35,000 decisions each day, many of which no doubt involve Internet usage. If you want to elicit a purchase decision from your visitors, the last thing you want to do is require a slew of unnecessary decisions from them.


How many possible pathways do your website visitors face?

Anticipatory design solves this problem by asking visitors to make as few choices as realistically possible. The clever use of big data — aggregated information that reveals Internet users’ past choices and interests — makes it possible to auto-populate pages with attractive and relevant recommendations. This eliminates the user’s need to go through endless lists or decision trees to get to the item they want, making it more likely that they’ll buy from you.

Anticipatory Design in Action

Anticipatory design has been alive and kicking longer than you might realize. In fact, the concept got its start in the brick-and-mortar world of physical design as early as 1950, when Buckminster Fuller created the outline for a comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science course which was later offered at MIT. As described by Fuller himself, the concept involves “introducing into the environment new artifacts, the availability of which will induce their spontaneous employment by humans and thus, coincidentally, cause humans to abandon their previous problem-producing behaviors and devices.”

In translating this strategy into online commerce, a few major brands got a head start out of the chute, notably Amazon. Amazon’s use of data about your previous visits and browsing habits enables it to post featured recommendations and related items right on its homepage for your next visit. If these products are exactly what you had in mind for your current shopping trip, you’re all done, with no further decisions necessary. Even if they’re not, they might anticipate your interests and desires closely enough that you might be inspired to buy something else you hadn’t planned on. “(Come to think of it, I really do need one of those.”)

Netflix is another example. From the very first moment you begin browsing the list of movie or TV titles, the company’s website is collecting that data and using it as a springboard for customized title recommendations. The more titles you select (and the more of them you rate or review), the more accurate those recommendations become. These popular anticipatory designs are still relatively crude “first-generation” examples, in that they sometimes have the side effect of throwing more choices at you than you originally hand in mind. This is especially true if an anticipated choice comes in a seemingly infinite range of possible variations.

Some online programs and apps get around this problem by aggregating all your data, not just your shopping history, to solve specific needs and problems. For instance, Google Now, a digital assistant app available for iOS, Android, Google Glass or desktop computers, uses every available scrap of information pulled from emails, calendar entries and other digital input. As a result, it can remind you of probable upcoming appointments, recommend restaurants based on your location and dining preferences, and even make sure you book that important flight.

Digit.co does for finance what Google Now does for daily scheduling. By analyzing all your online financial data, from account balances to spending habits, it can automatically divert sensible amounts of money toward savings.

Peapod’s latest grocery shopping app includes a “recommendation engine” called Order Genius that generates personalized shopping lists and menu suggestions (based on previous purchases, of course) to make online ordering almost effortless.


Anticipatory design can even fill a shopper’s grocery basket.

What to Expect Going Forward

However impressive they may seem, all of these examples represent the infancy of anticipatory business web design. That’s partly because the process of big data aggregation, interpretation and implementation is still a work in progress. As devices and software continue to converge toward complete cooperation and compatibility, it will become easier for online companies to build practically “decision-free” interfaces. If you’re a shopper, the site will instantly recognize you, figure out why you’re probably there, and provide the most satisfying solutions with amazing accuracy, all without any further user input.

We’re not quite at that point yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Enterprises now understand that data becomes exponentially more valuable when it’s shared with other data, and this understanding will drive developers to create new protocols and platforms that make big data collection and interpretation as natural as any other online process.

How Do You Join the Game?

Even though the technology is still evolving, it’s never too early to think about putting anticipatory design to work for your business. You might start by examining your current website to see how much unnecessary decision fatigue it’s currently promoting. Simplify the decision trees that run through your site, and streamline the number of choices your visitors have to make. Once you’ve cut out those extra questions and fixed choices, you’ll have room to auto-populate the pages with suggestions based on existing user data.

Reducing the number of questions you ask your site visitors may require you to ask yourselves some pretty important questions. View each page with an eye towards smoothing the user’s path. At what point does the lack of choice become stressful instead of helpful? Where would a few alternatives be better than a single recommendation? How much time and effort does each anticipatory feature save? How seamless is the final overall experience? The answers to these questions will help you bring your online presence into a new era of efficiency and profitability — the Anticipatory Era!

Any major upgrade to your business web design is an understandably daunting step and you should have a plan in place to avoid common mistakes.

Where should you start? If you want to make sure you’re covering all of your bases, download our free white paper on the subject!

You’ll learn what every successful website needs:

  • Proper planning and important considerations for a website redesign
  • How to “take inventory” of your current on-site and off-site assets
  • How to redesign your home page for maximum effect
  • The importance and how to develop a content strategy
  • How to develop your landing pages for more conversions
  • Great, insightful and forward thinking article Jason. I was thinking along the same lines as one day websites will know which referral source we came from – Facebook, twitter or which search term we used in Google and ‘anticipate’ more precisely what we, the customer want.

    The website can then automatically customize itself to ‘focus’ on those keywords, products or campaigns we used thus ‘reducing’ our decisions and focusing like a laser on that which we are primarily interested in and hopefully dramatically increasing conversions.

    Very insightful. Thanks again!

    • Sure thing and thanks for commenting. We already make use of dynamic content in a lot of our marketing efforts. It allows us to do everything from welcome a specific user or use their name in the content itself, all the way to custom search results or sorting based on their previous browsing or purchasing habits. It’s certainly exciting watching this technology evolve and putting it to good use.