Understanding the Human Action Cycle in User Experience

I’ve been putting off this look at the human action cycle because it’s got too much psychology in it for my tastes. Unfortunately for me, but not for those who aren’t annoyed when using it, it’s a standard concept for testing UX, primarily the aspects of aesthetics, UI and navigation flow especially. I’m an avid supporter of a set of concepts for “getting in the user’s shoes”, of which this is one, I just don’t much like this particular incarnation of the concept that much.

But, my opinion doesn’t matter, since most people actively embrace the human action cycle unquestioningly. Well, my problem with it is that it’s so convoluted and long winded. So, what I’m going to do here today is to go through using this cycle to test UI, and talk about what any given step really means.

I’ll be boiling this down and removing some of the fluff and convolution of this, because the way it’s clinically presented is just terrible and unnecessarily overblown. That said, maybe this more down to earth version will be something I can honestly say I like, hang what that says of my ego.

Part 1 – Goal Formation

A human first forms a goal they wish to achieve by taking actions. This bears mentioning in the case of UX because you must consider whether or not the design presents enough obviously available tools and sources of information for users to take what they know is doable, and form the proper goals to achieve through them.

Part 2 – Goal Translation

Now the user must transform their goal into a set of tasks which accomplish it. Does the UI have the proper layout, presentation and overall conveyance for users to figure out what set of tools or tasks are needed to complete the goals, and in what order they should be used?

Part 3 – Planning

Now that the user knows the tasks that must be done, they must order them in a sequence. Does the UI help users figure out orders, by the order they present things and prioritize them?

Part 4 – Execution

Executing these tasks is another story. Is the presentation and order of flow for the UI easy to learn, reuse and deviate within specific limitations in what is done, depending on the task?

Part 5 – Perception of What Happened

Now, does the user understand the results of each task they perform leading up to a goal? Does the program convey current activities, progress and other things so that the user has a sense of rates of doing things?

Part 6 – Weighing Intention vs. Outcome

Finally, the user will need to see what happened, and see where it does or does not match their original intentions. If the original intentions are possible, and they just failed to do it right, then they need to be able to deduce from the conveyance of the UI what they did wrong, and what deviations in actions taken they need to embrace to get it right.

For a good example of software that uses the human action cycle expertly, take a look at Photoshop, Adobe’s flagship graphics program. It pretty much was designed to work with user mentalities exactly this way.


Megan Wilson
Megan Wilson is user experience specialist & editor of UX Motel. She is also the Quality Assurance and UX Specialist at WalkMe Megan.w(at)walkme.com
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