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Goal Challenges and Tool Challenges

by Jared M. Spool

Originally published on medium.com on December 7, 2015.

For both seasoned professionals and infrequent travelers, booking a flight is a pain in the buttocks. Finding a flight that will meet the needs of the traveler and not cost a fortune can be taxing, even for those who do it every week.

Let’s say we’re trying to fly from Boston to Sydney. No direct flights, means we play games with a connection. Which route is best? Will we get there in time for dinner with our sister? We have an important meeting that morning at the office. Will we have to leave early? Hope this isn’t too expensive.

Hipmunk, a web site and app, tries to make the challenge of finding the best flight easier than other travel sites. And, it does a good job of it.

Hipmunk’s designers came up with a novel method for displaying available flights, using ‘swim lanes’ to put each flight up for comparison. Then they sort them by a proprietary ranking system they call Agony. This combination let’s you see the best flights quickly, by visually scanning all the details.

hipmunk app screenshot

Hipmunk uses swim lanes and sorting by agony to help travelers book the best flight.

Designing for Two Types of Challenges

These days, collecting all the necessary details to make a smart flight purchase is very challenging. These are challenges external to Hipmunk’s team, yet they’ve done a good job of using it’s novel visual display and sorting algorithms to reduce those challenges. We call these goal challenges, because they are inherent challenges the user faces in the meeting of their goal.

But novelty comes with a price. Because people aren’t familiar with this display of their information, they need to learn how to read it. When it comes time to customize the information, such as to indicate flexibility in departure times or to hone in on only non-stop flights, the user needs a method to control the display. If Hipmunk’s users are distracted by controlling the interface, they can’t pay attention to the thing they came to do: book the best flight.

Hipmunk’s designers don’t want more challenges because of their interface design choices. When they do, we call these tool challenges. Tool Challenges are obstacles created by the designers, due to their choices in the design.

An important design goal for any productivity tool is to simplify goal challenges without creating any new tool challenges. Any productivity tool, whether it’s to schedule appointments, identify supply chain backlogs, or discover new chemical interactions, have goal challenges. These tools need to ensure they don’t also add tool challenges.

Turning to Game Design

Designers of Productivity tools aren’t the only ones who have to find the best balance of goal challenges and tool challenges. Game designers do too.

In game design, you want the user to focus on the challenges inherent in the objectives of the game. Yet, to play the game, it has to be easy to manipulate the game pieces on the board, to ensure the player doesn’t get distracted by the mechanics.

Take a puzzle game like Two Dots. The basic play of the game is simple: draw a connection between two or more dots. Each level of the game adds challenges to accomplish that, which is what makes the game fun for its players.

Two Dots app screenshot

Players connect dots to clear the level. The game designers need to keep other challenges to a minimum.

Two Dots’ designers also needed to put in tools to control the play of the game, such as changing levels, turning off the sound or music, and adjusting colors for color blind players. These tools must be easy to find and use, not a challenge like the game play itself.

Game designers are experts at ensuring goal challenges remain in the users’ focus, while ensuring that tool challenges are minimized or eliminated. By studying how the best game designers have made these trade-offs, we can learn how to improve the productivity tools we’re designing.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.