Purpose-driven Design

Purpose-Driven Design Cover

One of the first things I usually have to figure out when working on a new product is: what is its purpose?

By purpose I’m not merely referring to what it will do (or the problem it will solve), but rather, how the user will go about accomplishing their desired end goal. This how element has to do with whether the purpose is to lead/entice the user to explore, discover, and go where no woman has gone before. Or whether the purpose has to do with facilitating a familiar subject or task (making it easier or more manageable, and hopefully, fun).

Knowing this purpose early on in the project – if only vaguely – helps both the User Experience and Design teams gauge the type (and quantity) of bells and whistles that can be incorporated into the product. Bells and whistles being the interactive elements that result in things popping up, sliding in, spinning around, or sounds going off each time an action is performed.


The World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s Together app is a good example of an exploration-focused, gesture-driven app. The app wants the user to learn about the lives of endangered animals and the work that the WWF is doing to help these animals.  And it delivers.

The app launches with an army of origami giant pandas coming into the main frame. From there the user is prompted to explore the world of pandas.

WWF Start Screen

As you continue your journey through the app, other screens, such as the one below, allow fragmented navigation: slide up/down on the left, the middle, or the right segment, to learn about the various threats pandas face.

WWF Threat

WWF Threat Fragments

If you fancy going for a spin, then you can spin a globe and learn about endangered species in the 4 corners of the world.

WWF Globe Spin

Since this app journey is one that keeps on giving, there’s even a screen that uses interaction to teach the user about bamboos and the panda’s diet (swipe across a set of bamboos to see them crumble to bits and eventually regrow). Yet another screen shows you how to make your own origami panda (or jaguar, or any of the 16 animals that the app currently focuses on)

WWF Bamboos

All these interactive elements lend themselves well to this sort of app because there is no “work” being done by the user. No data input is required from the user. And with no user input, that also means no need for error verification and management of elements that could go wrong as a result of bad input. So from a design perspective, it’s a great opportunity to not only teach the user about endangered species but to add an element of adventure via the smart of use of interactive elements.  You feel a little like you’re out in there with the jaguars and monarch butterflies.


Fun as it is, exploration isn’t something we do everyday. Most days we’re putting together our to-do list, picking up kids from school, paying bills, or trying for the umpteenth time to learn a new language. Learning a language can be tedious so a fun yet efficient tool that facilitates the task is most welcome. The very popular Duolingo app is a good example of a “facilitator” app.

Compared to the WWF app, this one is low on the bells and whistles (though there is a fun horn sounds every time you complete a lesson!). The goal here is to get the user up and running with basic language skills. There’s no beating around the (bamboo) bush. You pick the language you want to learn and you immediately jump into the first lesson (or test out of it).

The main screen shows you all the upcoming lessons. No discovery or surprises. You know exactly how many lessons are left to complete. You can look ahead to see when you’ll learn terms related to clothing and when you’ll learn how to formulate questions:

Duolingo main

While in a main section, you see exactly where you are and can see how many more lessons are still to come. No surprises:

Duolingo Lesson main

The notion of avoiding surprises continues while you’re in a lesson as a progress bar is present at all times to show you how many questions you’ve answered and many more are coming up:

Duolingo Lesson progress bar

The interface is light, fun, and to the point. No mysteries or major surprises. It’s all very functional, geared towards making sure the user doesn’t confuse “gato” with “gateau”.

What does it all mean?

Now this is not to say that apps geared towards facilitation cannot make use of interaction. They certainly can. Weather app Solar and to-do app Clear are almost entire gesture-driven. Both apps are also quite limited in the number of actions they allow and the complexity of these actions. So it’s easy for the user to retain the few, key gestures.

Solar 2  Solar 1
Solar relies entirely on gestures for accessing weather updates

Clear main screen_cropped
Clear provides several gestures for managing your to-do list

But if one were to build a tablet-based accounting app for a small business, it would be tricky to cover all the actions a user might want to do, simply with a few swipes and spins. And if one did manage to create such an app, then the learning curve could be quite high for the user too (a gesture for creating an estimate, another for editing it, another for sending it, another for creating an invoice, yet another for paying employees, etc.). There is also the question of standardization – a swipe to the left would have to have the same meaning across all apps (or at least all apps within the same “family, such as to-do apps). If the same action will lead to different results within the same type of apps, this can add to confusion and frustration for the user

So while interactive elements are fun and all the rage, they should be handled with care. Define your app’s “higher” purpose first :) Then you can better determine just how far you can go with interactive elements.

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