Mobile websites and applications (apps) give travelers immediate access to:
- All of the content available on the Internet.
- Data and content that our phones can sense about the local environment.
Mobile apps, in particular, are turning confused tourists into knowledgeable “instant-locals,” providing content on the fly for decisions about where to stay, what to eat, and what to do.
That sounds great, right? Well, as somebody who oversees mobile apps for a global, multibrand hotel company, I can tell you that making sense out of all this content and data is HARD. I have overseen the design and delivery for mobile apps that have been downloaded more than 800,000 times across 6 different continents in 5 different languages and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in gross revenue. For any app, I can testify that the most difficult decision we face is: What content we should present to the user? We could potentially give users an incredible array of content about our hotels and the users’ stay. To make matters worse, on mobile phones we have the constraints of an impossibly small screen and lots of competing real-world distractions. Imagine a train or subway passenger trying to figure out whether a satisfactory hotel is available at the next stop. She needs our content to be easy to access and relevant to her decision.
So, how do we avoid overloading our mobile-wielding customers with content? How do we decide what content is most relevant, especially when a customer is using a mobile phone? That’s where situational awareness comes into play.
Introducing Situational Awareness
Situational Awareness is a field of research within cognitive science that Dr. Mica Endsley defines as “the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future,” (Endsley, 1995). In short, situational awareness is knowing what is going on around a user and what is most important to the user’s current goals.
You can imagine how handy this research would be for helping airline pilots, nuclear plant operators and emergency responders. These people regularly face more content and data than our limited human cognitive abilities can process and can quickly succumb to information overload. If not addressed, the result can be a wrong decision or even the inability to make a decision at all–and then disaster. Today, travelers looking for a hotel room in an unfamiliar city are at risk for being inundated with content so that it hinders, not helps, their decisions. So, I decided to apply research from situational awareness to travelers who are in need of hotel rooms. If we can provide our travelers with the highest level of situational awareness, then they can confidently make good decisions.
You may never need to define the content structure for a hotel-finding app, but Situational Awareness can help you define a content structure anytime you are building a mobile app to help your users make a decision or accomplish a goal. Now, lets look at how you can structure and aggregate content to build Situational Awareness for users.
Understanding the Levels of Situational Awareness
Users can become aware of their context, or situation, at three levels. Each level builds on the previous one. Let’s walk through each of these levels and use finding a hotel as an example.
Level 1: Perception
At this level, a user might know where they currently are and where a hotel is. The user knows the basic facts but still doesn’t have a good picture of how long it will take them to get to the hotel. A study of airline pilots showed that 76% of Situation Awareness-related errors could be traced to the lack of this level of basic information (Jones and Endsley, 1996).
Level 2: Comprehension
At this level, users will comprehend how long it will take them to get to the hotel based on how far away they are from the hotel and what their transportation options are.
Level 3: Projection
At this level, a user can leverage information to make a prediction about how long it will take them to get the hotel at some future date. For example, they may know if they go to Boston during St. Patrick’s day and they have to cross a parade route then it is going to take longer.
You can see how these levels progressively build on each other. To project how long it will take a traveler to get to a hotel, there are multiple things that they must comprehend, including how far away the hotel is. To comprehend how far away a hotel is, they must know several basic facts about their location and the location of the hotel.
The higher the level of situational awareness that our users can achieve through the content we present to them, the easier it will be for them to quickly make confident decisions to accomplish their goals.
To understand HOW our pieces of content build on each other, we must visualize their hierarchical relationship. Fortunately, we have a tool to do just that.
Visualizing Situational Awareness with a Goal-Directed Task Analysis
We can tie all of this content and data together into a Goal-Directed Task Analysis (GDTA), a powerful artifact to visualize and measure situational awareness. I know what you’re thinking. User task flow analysis is nothing new. Why is GDTA different? GDTA helps you plan displaying the right content at the right time for the right situational awareness. GDTA maps the best way to combine content and data to help users comprehend quickly–and then make a decision.
What’s the first step in constructing a GDTA? Map the goals of our users and the decisions that our users must make to accomplish those goals. See Figure 1 as an example. (Note that this is just a mapping of a demonstrative subset and not a complete mapping of all potential goals.)
The next step? Build a hierarchy of content that users will need to achieve maximum levels of situational awareness to make those decisions. See Figure 2 for a hierarchy of content for the decision “Is the hotel in a good location for me?”
Now that we have a hierarchy of content created in our GDTA, we can use it to ensure that we are presenting content to our users that will provide them with maximum situational awareness.
Tips for Applying Situational Awareness to a Mobile Phone Application
I have used GDTAs over the past six years to inform the content strategy for mobile websites, native smartphone apps, native tablet apps and tools designed to be used in the field by the US Army. With all this experience under my belt, I want to share some practical tips for applying the tenets of situational awareness to a GDTA and, ultimately, to a content strategy.
- One Goal = One Screen
Don’t make users dig through multiple places in the app to gather all the content they need for a single decision. All key content for a decision should be shown on the same screen. For example, in all of the hotel details pages that I plan, I always include those key indicators for allowing a user to accomplish the goal of picking a hotel that is right for them: price, distance, photos and amenities.
- Machines Should Consolidate Content, Humans Should Make Decisions
The thing that I have found most useful about the GDTA is it keeps me focused on consolidating content into a unit of information that gives users at-a-glance situational awareness. It’s the only way to help users focus on making decisions and not waste their time trying to make sense out of the content. The higher level of situational awareness that we can achieve through a technical solution, then the better we will be able to aid the user. For example, consider the content piece “Projected time to get to to the hotel.” I would present the user with a single message: “It will take you 33 minutes to get to the hotel from the airport on the day your flight lands”. And the bonus? This “rolled-up” content provides not only provides maximum situational awareness, it is also ideal for a small screen.Unfortunately, an accurate system projection of this complexity is rare. I have yet to come across a technical system that can calculate this timing projection with any degree of accuracy. That would be borderline artificial intelligence. So, barring that, I try to present Level 2 pieces of data together so that users can more easily make the jump from Level 2 Situational Awareness provided by the content we have available to Level 3 Situational Awareness by applying human intelligence. In this case, I would display the distance to the hotel as well as basic traffic advisories.
- Let Users Drill-down for If They Need More Confidence
Users tend to have a lower level of confidence in a system’s Level 3 projections, so it is a best practice to let users drill down to see the underlying Level 2 and Level 1 content. Following our “time to the hotel” example, I would let the user tap on the system-projected time and give them a pop-up message with the Level 2 content presented:
- the hotel is 10 miles away by car.
- traffic is heavy.
- there are currently no special events.
If the Level 3 projections are accurate, then users will learn to trust them over time and not be as reliant on Level 2 content.
- Prompt Users to Revisit Decisions Based on Changing Conditions
Conditions will constantly be changing in an environment as dynamic as a large city with lots of hotels, so travelers may need to re-evaluate their hotel decisions based on certain critical triggers. For example, if there is heavy traffic congestion then a traveler may want to revisit their hotel decision and pick a new hotel that they can get to more quickly. Mobile apps are great, because they allow us to send out these critical real-time alerts and warnings through push notifications.
- Be Aware of In-App Content vs. Environmental Content
I always try to remember that we can’t present every bit of content or information to travelers in our apps. So, as I go through the content from the GDTA I try to think “Is this content they could easily get from their surrounding environment?” For example, we don’t include natural disaster information within our app, unless the disaster affects our hotels. It is relevant to users’ decisions, but users can perceive natural disasters easily from their surrounding environment. If a traveler is stranded because of a snowstorm, then he or she knows it is going to take longer to get to their hotel. However, if the hotel that the traveler is trying to reach is closed or damaged, we should notify the traveler.
The Bottom Line
Situational Awareness gives us a research-proven method and model for making sense out of the flood of real-time content that travelers access thanks to mobile devices. The GDTA gives us a powerful artifact that visualizes how we should structure content to make travelers fully aware of their situation–and quickly. I find GDTA tremendously helpful for deciding what content we need to gather and present to users. The GDTA also informs technical and design decisions to consolidate and present content so that users can accomplish their goals. I focused on travelers and hotel-finding in mobile apps here, but the problems of information overload on a mobile device are coming to life in almost every industry and domain. Fortunately, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel because GDTA is a robust model ready to help us.