Delightful discovery – navigating the unknown

8 February, 2017    

The world is full of wonders yet to be discovered.

Good navigation often results in discovery – ask John Mandeville. Sometimes we want to encourage and support an explorer mindset in our audience.

We create new content, features and services. Information architects must be able to empower actors to find them. My second category focuses on discovery.

Delightful Discovery sees actors getting knowledge, learning, gaining sight or finding out about something previously unseen or unknown. It’s “delightful”. And that word isn’t wanky marketing speak or lazy alliteration. Discovery can be tiring and un-nerving. It is more likely to see periods of doubt and uncertainty – see Jonh Mandeville. Considering how you make discovery more delightful should improve your designs.

Like my Motivated movement category, Delightful discovery has three behaviour sets. The sets help you think about the needs and motivations of actors.


When I was younger I’d put on my wellies, grab a hat and a stick and have an adventure*. Well-designed digital places should be able to inspire the same ‘compelled curiosity’ that the off-line world can.

Exploring promises more than it demands. It encourages risk-taking – sometimes by managing and minimising risk – other times by increasing motivation. Exploring is sometimes playful. Sometimes it involves challenge – it’s not always straightforward. But straight forward isn’t always the best route to get where you want to be.

Exploring will see the actor screen a large coarse set of information. It’s relatively unstructured, seeing varying degrees of direction. There is unevenness and inconsistency in confidence as the actor pivots, sometimes falteringly, through a structure or space.

Exploring will usually begin with, at best, an ill-formed need. Sometimes there won’t be a specific need. But exploring will usually result in conditioning and the identification and refinement of an information need. Exploring can transition into Browsing and Navigating – but it doesn’t have to – depending on the mindset of the actor.

Exploring will involve sweeping followed by directed movement. There might be points where links are followed, only for the actor to return to a previous location to re-orient themselves in the structure. The actor will be conditioning themselves – detecting signals of interest or change.

Exploring may also be carried out through unordered monitoring as an actor passively expands their knowledge or understanding of a structure or domain.

Exploring involves conditioning and movement.

Information:Affordance = 55:45, learn and move.

* I still do.


Turn to face the change. Ch Ch Changes.

Monitoring enables the actor to discover updates or expand knowledge. It occurs when the actor has a well-defined and bounded interest or target. They identify and develop strategies to improve their knowledge or access to information about this specific area of interest.

Monitoring is active, where an actor returns to trusted sources for updated information. This may be at the smallest level of refreshing a stream or view to check for updated information. Or it may be at a wider service or product level to check for changes. Active monitoring involves conscious and deliberate behaviour.

When it’s well designed, Monitoring will often lead to a more focused and motivated behaviour. These might include exploring, or more usefully browsing and navigating.

Passive monitoring is often conscious and deliberate, but involves less active effort on the part of the actor. It’s often enabled by a specific action – like subscribing to a service or feed – but at some point doesn’t require the performance of an action as the monitoring is automated. A good example might be push notifications based on some preference or subscription. Passive monitoring enables an actor to expand their knowledge and understanding with little effort. It’s similar to Passive discovery below. But the need for a conscious act to begin the monitoring earns it’s place in this set.

Information:Affordance = 90:10, “Oh really! I didn’t know that.”

Passive discovery

I once found a £5 note on the walk to school. It was the best day ever.

Sometimes we find something unexpected, often while looking for something else. Passive discovery might sound like the sort of thing that’s difficult to design. But serendipity is at the heart of lots of delightful products and services. Design decisions can increase the likelihood of this being a characteristic of your product or service.

Passive discovery is reliant on targeting, recognition and movement. Your design needs to spark the interest of the actor to pull them into movement towards a new, but now-identified target. Through the movement a need is identified and satisfied almost simultaneously. Passive discovery is delightful – it feels like you get something for nothing.

Information:Affordance = 55:45, “Spark my interest.”

Flow and progress

I’ve written before about how the psychology of the optimal experience helps me think about navigation.

There’s a sweet spot between ‘challenge’ and ‘motivation’ where a user can feel as though they’re performing with skill. For me this is the key differentiating factor between designing for Movement or Discovery.

Movement implies that an actor can judge their progress. Their motion through a structure gives them a sense of achievement as they move towards satisfying their need. Their behaviour has a pre-defined goal – occasionally vague or coarse, but nonetheless directed.

Discovery interrupts and surprises. The moment of identifying and satisfying an information need are close. It’s harder to judge or recognise progress. So during exploring you must find other ways to motivate the actor.

Most digital products and services should be able to support both sets of behaviour. For users who want to “make progress”, you must provide the ability to move with this intent. But it would be a poor world if there were no surprises. And you often need the ability to expand an actor’s horizons through your own design and intention. Discovery does much better job of supporting ‘unknown item’ discovery – so it’s an important set of behaviours to understand.



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