Adaptive Design: What It Isn’t And What It Can Be

Adaptive design has sometimes been (mis)understood by designers to mean adding some features to a website or application that will allow users to customize the interface to suit their needs.  However, in order for the concept of inclusive adaptive design to really work, we need to understand more about what it isn't.


What adaptive design is not

User customization option
Giving the user the option to customize settings to suit their needs seems like an empowering move but it’s based on the idea that it’s the user’s job to recreate the interface to suit his or her needs. In fact a recent test conducted by User Interface Engineering revealed that less than 5% of users changed their computer settings. The reason: they assumed that the programmers delivered the product settings as they were for a reason and felt that they were not in a position to change them. Providing users with customization options and calling it inclusive or progressive turns out to be a waste of time.

Assuming users know what they want
A baby cries. Some assume that the baby is fussy or agitated and try to comfort him/her but what if the baby is neither of those things and is still crying. The baby is given a toy but instead of crying, it puts the toy in its mouth. After a while, it starts to cry again. Much like the baby is unable to verbalize “I want food” in a way that caregivers can readily understand, users may not be able to verbalize what they need from a site or application.

So now that we've got a pretty good idea of what adaptive design isn't let’s take a look at the other side of the coin

What adaptive design can be

Adaptive design should monitor the user’s behavior
Let’s take a look at the crying baby example.  While the baby was unable to speak the words the caregiver needed to hear, its behavior did provide a clue. Putting a toy in its mouth could be interpreted as hunger. Again, the same concept applies to users. They may be unable to verbalize what they want which renders the customization option moot. Their behavior, however, can be a blueprint that shows designers what they need. What are their search terms? Do they bounce from their landing page quickly or not quickly enough? There are many metrics that truly adaptive design can identify as behavioral patterns.

Growing in skill with the user
Imagine a video game that assesses the player’s expertise and adds challenges accordingly. Regardless of what level the user accomplishes, if s/he is progressing slowly, the game adapts itself to match that expertise.  Adaptive design anticipates and grows with the user where traditional design relies more on the product regardless of the user’s expertise.

Visibility of elements based on relevance
One of the best features of the iPad and iPhone is that when certain elements are necessary they become visible. A great example is the keyboard. A traditional computer has a keyboard whether you need it or not. On an iPad, the keyboard option becomes visible when you are typing a search term or a message.

Again, there are many contextual elements that make design adaptive. Admittedly, this type of design may be a more adventurous take on inclusive design but it goes a long way to creating a more positive user experience through better design.

So what are your thoughts on what adaptive design is and what it can be?

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