Nov 27

The ‘Can’ versus ‘Will’ Hack

The Island of 'Will' and the Shark-Infested Waters of 'Can'

There are a million ways you can hack your brain into better habits using language. Changing your words, grammar or how you write sentences will have a huge impact on your behaviour.

This post is about just one - the difference between ‘can’ and ‘will’.

There are two areas of user experience design where this can make a big difference - avoiding edge cases and getting things built.

Avoiding Edge Cases

If you listen carefully to the language of software developers, marketers in large companies, and even some designers, you often hear them talking about designs in terms of what people ‘can’ do with them:

  • ‘The user can navigate this video using four different control sets’
  • ‘People can send this page to a friend or share it on Facebook’
  • ‘Users can get to this content by registering with the site’

This is design by wishful thinking. And it leads to wasting time on edge cases. When discussing whether users ‘can’ do something it’s difficult to rule anything out. Like your mum said, just because users can jump off a cliff doesn’t mean we should design for it…

The opposite? Make sure everyone talks about what users ‘will’ do:

  • ‘Our primary persona will use the chapter navigation for this video’
  • ‘Customers will rarely share content and will copy the URL if they do’
  • ‘Users will not see this content because they will not register’

These are stronger claims and they are screaming out for evidence. As soon as you start talking like this, everyone in the room wants to see the research. Which is perfect, because we all want to be making design decisions as a result of research. Right?

So that’s my first language hack. Talk about the user, or persona, or customer, in terms of what they ‘will’ do.

Getting Things Built

I do lots of strategy work. It’s immensely frustrating because you do great work, come up with a beautiful solution and then tell the client how they ‘can’ implement your shiny ideas.

But guess what? Most strategy work sits on the shelf.

Lots of designers moan about clients at this point. But if designers talked more about what clients ‘will’ do, not what they ‘can’ do, we’d see more progress. Here are some starting points…

Clients will do things they can understand. It’s amazing how many designers, me included, provide work that makes no sense without the designer in the room. Communicating your work is as important as doing the work in the first place. (Honestly, I always forget this!).

Clients will do things that suit them. It’s up to designers to understand the client and offer appropriate solutions. There’s no future in understanding the solution and offering appropriate clients. Which means the best solution is not always the right solution. Seriously.

Clients will do things that are their idea. This is my favourite. Get your client involved in the whole design process, from watching user research to sketching design ideas. They will never stop you being a designer, but you’ll learn loads about what they want and you can trace their ideas in the final output. And they’ll glow with pride.

So my second language hack is to talk about what clients ‘will’ do, not what they ‘can’ do. Take responsibility for action!

Final Words

The difference between ‘can’ and ‘will’ is tiny. But it will make a huge difference when talking about design. Let me know how you get on.

Say hello on @myddelton. And yes, this post is an oversimplification to make a point - there are some instances where talking about what people ‘can’ do is a good thing. Just not mostly.