Both interaction designers and information architects want to design objects with a singular meaning – a noble, albeit impossible goal. The best we can hope for is to create more consistently meaningful experiences. To do that, designers must better understand the interplay between designer intention and user interpretation: the ways that we can influence – but not dictate – user interpretation.
Consider the design of a voice-based interface. Because users can say what they mean in any number of ways, there are many situations for which designers cannot account – especially in the first iteration. Designers proactively create a set of interactions that users might accomplish, but the diversity of “common” speech patterns prevents a more prescriptive, task-oriented solution.
Clearly those designing voice-based interfaces intend for users to accomplish something. So how might designers shape their interpretation? To better answer the question, let’s examine some problems encountered defining “design” and then borrow some thinking from literary studies. Finally, we’ll explore how these considerations affect the everyday work of information architects and interaction designers.
The word “design” is problematic. Colloquially, we tend to think of design as the purposeful creation of some thing – a physical object, an experience, or even a conceptual argument – whereas etymologically, we can trace “design” back to Latin. There, it connotes purpose, choice, and designation.
If we push the etymological boundaries a little, we might think of it as the deification of an object (de-), or the association with god-like qualities. The designer is an intelligent creator that crafts things according to his/her intention. A final perspective points to the designer as someone who sets meaning elsewhere. Intention is so powerful here that the designer does not even consider variation in interpretation; the designer’s intention is the final meaning.
The problem with all four of these interpretations is that they are incongruous with the principles of user-centered design. User-centered design holds that user experience – to say nothing of designer intent – is the most important element of a design system.
In order to reconcile the disparity between intent and interpretation, it’s useful to borrow from literary critics, those with a long history of interpreting things (albeit from a textual perspective).
In 1946, critics W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published a paper called The Intentional Fallacy arguing that “[the] intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” Instead, they believed that the only reasonable factors that could serve as the basis of critique were direct-textual material (e.g., the work itself), indirect-textual material (e.g., inferences), and contextual material (e.g., history). In other words: a literary text should be judged on its content, its merit, and history’s perception – not intent!
Contemporary HCI researcher Clarisse Sieckenius de Souza stands on the other side of the fence. Working within the realm of semiotic engineering, she sees a direct relationship between a designer and user, one facilitated by a “designer deputy.” To de Souza, a designer communicates intent through an interface. The user then interprets that interface to accomplish certain goals. It’s a one-way conversation.
Although their opinions diverge, both Wimsatt/Beardsley and de Souza’s are both “correct.” How can that be? The former – a critic’s perspective – concerns works of art, whereas the latter – a researcher’s perspective – deals with objects of utility.
For better or for worse, web design provides avenues for both art and utility. There are certainly elements of a bank’s website that are more artistic than utilitarian, for example. And, as such, we need to recognize that the interplay between designer intent and user interpretation is a spectrum rather than a dichotomy.
Don Ihde, a philosopher of science and technology, ruminates on this in his essay The Designer Fallacy and Technological Imagination (2008):
[T]he designer fallacy is ‘deistic’ in its 18th century sense, that the designer-god, working with plastic material, creates a machine or artifact which seems ‘intelligent’ by design – and performs in its designed way. Instead, I hold, the design process operates in very different ways, ways which imply a much more complex set of inter-relations between any designer, the materials which make the technology possible, and the uses to which technologies may be put. Ultimately I am after a deconstruction of the individualistic notion of design which permeates both the literary and technological versions of the fallacy.
Ihde goes on to suggest that the most interesting use cases are the unanticipated ones. Designing a utilitarian system demands a level of intentionality, a very narrow definition of success. Art objects, however, have a more ambiguous aim. They’re designed such that emergent properties create results, which in turn creates more emergent properties, more results, and so on.
As designers, we must accept that intention, at the very least, cannot be the central focus of a successful design output. Any object is always more than merely an object. Context gives it meaning. While our intention may affect the “in the moment” relationship to an object, later examination leaves much more room for emergent meaning creation.
Because meaning created through emergent systems has the potential to regenerate itself ad infinitum, those of us designing experiences must exhibit care for how intentionality effects that meaning thusly created. I emphasize care, here, in a manner close to the way Heidegger might – as for him, concern is not the same as keeping in mind, but rather entails a specific way of being. Interface designers must concern themselves with both intention and interpretation.
Designers create systems of meaning. Artifacts are only physical manifestations of our intent. Once users put those manifestations to use, though, our original intent is no longer relevant. Associated meaning is now part of peripheral thinking about these objects.
Insofar as the designer can influence the creation of meaning after the initial interaction, we must think of the design object not as the end of our process but rather, in a strange sense, only the beginning. No interface – no object whatsoever – is valuable in-and-of itself. Value is derived from user interpretation before, during, and after the interaction.
As the complexity of technological systems continues to grow, designers need to consider novel, long-form approaches to their design problems. Considering both intention and interpretation throughout the design process provides clients a more well-rounded approach, one that blends theory-based hypotheses with practical validation (or invalidation).
To that end, we might consider the following questions:
Giving more consideration to our intentions as designers puts us in a better position to create their manifestations.
What are we assuming?
Intention is shaped by the assumptions we make. Being aware of these – and working to validate (or invalidate) them – helps ensure that our intentions as a designer do not conflict with those of our users.
What’re our design principles?
Design principles frame a team’s approach. Enumerating goals, listing requirements, and brainstorming user stories are all statements of intent. Clarifying these helps us focus on defining aspects of the solution rather than better framing the problem.
What does our work affect?
Even when creating something relatively simple, like a landing page or the information architecture for a small website, the things we design have an impacts far beyond their initial experience. Think in terms of systems. How is the element we’re designing affecting all the other elements in the system?
What else effects our user’s perceptions?
No design solution is an island. As user-centered design (and the emergence of an experience-driven economy) has successfully proven, solutions conceived without consideration of context rarely succeed. Context, especially the boundaries between them, heavily influences interpretation. Knowledge of context helps mediate the ambiguity that different environments create.
The next step – often overlooked – is to examine how users interpret those manifestations; to consider the direct, indirect, and contextual interpretations of our work.
What is the direct textual material we’re designing?
These are the “content” comprising our interfaces: physical objects, screens, images, buttons, text, audio clues, etc. Look at the actions they afford. Do they match our design intentions?
What is the indirect textual material?
How do users interpret our objects? What inferences are they making? Are they interpreting the artifacts in the same way as we are? Alternate, unintended interpretations are not necessarily a bad thing; they can often lead to new opportunities and angles.
What are the contexts in which this product is used?
How are contexts different? What are the effects of these differences? Think about your design object not as a static thing but rather a piece of a larger system of meaning, one that is constantly in flux. Objects are interpreted in vastly different ways according to the contextual spaces in which they exist. Contextually-aware design works to understand the differences between situations—cognitive, geographical, emotional, informational, etc.—and create products that fit within these differences. A thorough understanding of intention and interpretation is necessary to achieve this end.
But what does it all mean?
The systems we design are becoming increasingly complex. As technology continues to afford new behaviors and incorporate new sets of data, designers have a multitude of potential solutions at hand. Advances – such as context-aware systems, natural user interfaces, and pervasive computing – will change user- as well as designer-behavior. With new intentions and many-more interpretations to consider, designers have a responsibility to re-examine this critical divide.
During my years in an agency, I've seen the spectrum of tool experimentation. I've heard passionate user experience designers argue in favor (and equally as often, against) Axure, Balsamiq, UXPin, Invision, Photoshop, you name it. We've tried it. Usually, the outcome is something out of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: the tool is too robust, or too simplistic, too slow, or too buggy, and no one's happy.