Expectations : The potential of anticipation

Design is about the future and a better tomorrow. This is the reason why we get out of bed in the morning. Humans believe that progress is about making things better and design plays a unique role in facilitating how the future is explored by observing and collaborating with others to make it a reality.

If you ask people if they want a better tomorrow, most would say they do. Yet, if you show them a glimpse of that better tomorrow and they see some of the details, they may start to take issue with the perceived ramifications of that tomorrow. The future brings new objects, environments, messages and behaviors as improved value and the pace of life switches to a new normal. What if a new product or service has no real precedent and therefore no related expectations, what role do people’s expectations play in evaluating these new products and services?

Bridget van Kralingen, Senior Vice President of IBM Global Business Services highlighted the importance of expectations when she stated “The last best experience that anyone has anywhere, becomes the minimum expectation for the experience they want everywhere.” Her statement recognizes that specific expectations do not necessarily reside within a specific situation or experience, but can jump to other unrelated experiences by making a connection between the two.

When you have expectations, it pre-reads a desired benefit and also determines how much time and effort will be invested in something. This motivation is propelled by an increased probability for reward when anticipation is in alignment with a desired outcome. L. J. Savage in 1954 developed the concept of subjective expected utility which used expectation of an outcome though knowing the value of an outcome and the probability that it will occur.

Expectations have two specific attributes :

• confident anticipation or pessimism
• pre-conceived opinions of what will likely take place

Expectations can be positive, in which specific feelings, desires and benefits will be secured. Expectations can be negative, in which the inverse is felt and procrastination and dread seeks avoidance or to prepare for an undesirable outcome. Expectation and anticipation work together because it is a modus operandi of our habits. If something happens that is not at all expected, it is a surprise and informs future expectations.

Our past, present and future become a continuum and we use all three to inform what we will invest in to secure desired benefits, or to avoid unwanted consequences. Expectations are attached to the baggage of the past. The very reason why one has expectations is that they are built on past similar experiences, or are used as analogs that port over to another similar situation. Our forever present is a mediation between reminiscing about our past and projecting a foreknowledge of our future.

These concepts and thoughts are coordinated through the brain’s executive function which use our skills to organize information to control our behavior. Since we only have so much motivation and bandwidth, we will selectively invest resources informed by our anticipation future benefits. Based on our experience, drive and mood, we will invest our attention and resources in something that will likely fulfill our expectations of gaining benefit, or reduce losses.

If expectations are a natural way for humans to determine what to invest in, and to use it to differentiate from one thing from another, why doesn’t the design community focus more on people’s exceptions?

Design in many ways is about proposing and building expectations of better futures. Designers mediate what is not working about the present, learn about the past, and concrete with people to project on a desired future in order to reframe and improve it. John Chris Jones, the British industrial designer articulated why successful design is difficult : “The act of designing is difficult because designers are given problems to solve by using current information to predict a future state that will not come about unless their predictions are correct.”

The question is how can designers use the expectations of various stakeholders more effectively to challenge or reinforce assumptions and orthodoxies to reframe anticipated outcomes? By capturing people’s expectations, anticipations and fears about the future, designers can make informed predictions about what they are thinking about and then develop relevant products and services that reduce pessimism and increase optimism.

This can be done several ways:

  • actively explore people’s anticipation or pessimism about the future which is more than listing their assumptions of what they they think they know or want
  • define what specific benefits they are seeking
  • use direct observational techniques to link current behaviors to their expectations of desired improvements
  • link tradeoffs between perceived benefits of better futures vs. undesired outcomes
  • identify current expectations for future expectations and behaviors

There are limits to understanding expectations and shaping them. Because expectations link to intent, they can continually shift and it may be difficult to track these changes. This is where prototypes and walk throughs can help put people into a situation to see how their expectations shape their reactions and behaviors. There should be an emphasis on what were your expectations going into the prototype and how were they met or unfulfilled after an interaction?

Expectations can be mapped to three areas : constant expectations or ones that do not change; transient expectations or ones that do change based on new information and experiences; and new & degrading expectations or ones that are fading and ones that are emerging.

Expectations are important to understand as it creates the bridge between the past, present and future connecting beliefs, behaviors and desires. Design’s ability to understand the theory of mind and mental models of people directly informed by what people say their expectations are coupled by what people do to secure those expectations can bridge current problems to future value.

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