In IA Thought, Information Architecture
Summary: Daniel O'Neil explains the Action/Mastery Matrix and how it can lead to good web design and a joyful user experience.

In a recent post we argued that the feeling of Joy could be a useful metric for guiding good web design. We broke down the feeling of Joy into a mastery continuum, with poles of discovery and development:

  • the Joy in Discovery is the effortless integration of tasks for some grander, emergent experience; and
  • the Joy in Development is learning to master specific skills, either for their own sake or to achieve a greater goal.


We proposed that we could start to think about “good web design” and “bad web design” from the feelings associated along this continuum. Discovery activities should bring us persistent memories; the realization of combined tasks; and a surprised delight, whereas development activities will provide confidence preparation; embodied, timeless skills; and a feeling of accomplishment.

Good Design Feels Like This

Good Web Design Feels Like This

So, these are the broad feelings that we can associate with a mastery continuum. But we don’t just get these feelings from sitting in a chair; we interact with the world to bring this about. In short, we must take Action to Discover or Develop the world.

Digital interfaces are no different. We work with devices all the time to accomplish the things we want. But before we dive deeper into that concept, let’s flesh out the concept of Action so that we can use it to further our understanding of good design.

The Action Continuum

The simplest way to define the scope of action is whether or not we are intentionally acting on our own senses, or using our senses to affect something external in the world. A classic example of an internalized action is reading a book. This is not to say that internalized action is passive; far from it. But it requires a greater emphasis on attention, pattern seeking, and apprehension.


If we combine these two continuums, we get a pretty cool thing: a matrix of potential combinations of mastery and action.

The Action-Mastery Matrix

The Action-Mastery Matrix

Life Deserves Good Design

A fun thought experiment is to try to fit some real-world examples into each part of the matrix:

The pinnacle of externalized Discovery may be the spelling bee, where thousands of tiny skills mastered through effort and practice to create a single integrated performance of true perfection. An example of an externalized act of Mastery is knitting, where the act of learning and doing is in some ways more enjoyable than the finished product.

The classic internalized act of Discovery is reading. Meditation is an example of an internalized act of Mastery, where we simply sit quietly, count our breaths, and attend our body.

Action and Mastery Examples

Life is Action and Mastery

These acts are all examples of “good design”—a goal or task intimately associated with the right spot on the Action/Mastery Matrix. But what happens if we place these desired goals in a different part of the matrix. What if, for example, we try to experience reading but have to master a core skill first? What if we try to compete without the requisite physical and mental skills that come from practice and training?

Bad Life Design

Bad Life Design

Trust Your Feelings, Luke

Well, it is, unpleasant, for want of a better word. This is how do can quickly tell if an activity is properly matched against the right part of the Action/Mastery matrix? Well, the first is to work through thought experiments, but at some point it should be based on the feeling and sentiment a user has when trying to carry out that goal in the context of those activities.

Good vs Bad Design

Good vs Bad Design

The desired goal needs to match the level of Action and Mastery that best serves it, and if we listen to our feelings, we will get a quick test of whether or not we are on the right track.

So the next time you look at your website or application’s function, ask yourself: what is its purpose? Where does it sit in the world of Action and Mastery?

And when I try to use it, how do I feel? You’ll be surprised by what you discover.

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