Intention vs. Interpretation: What Matters?

This post was originally published over at UXBooth.

Both interaction designers and information architects want to design objects with a singular meaning. It’s 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.

Intention

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.

Interpretation

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 bases 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. 

Elucidation

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. 

Care

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

Application

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.

INTENTION

Giving more consideration to our intentions as designers puts us in a better position to create their manifestations. 

  1. 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. 
  1. 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.

  1. 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?
  2. What else affects 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 contexts, heavily influences interpretation. Knowledge of context helps mediate the ambiguity that different environments create.

INTERPRETATION

The next step—often overlooked—is to examine how users interpret those manifestations, to consider the direct, indirect, and contextual interpretations of our work:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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 like context-aware systems, natural user interfaces, and pervasive computing 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.

Comment

Thomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt is a user experience strategist and researcher based in New York City. His specialties include user testing, ethnographic research, facilitating product ideation workshops, and interaction design. He is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary theory. Professional and academic interests include theories of context, semiotics, embodied cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of technology. Thomas has worked and consulted for agencies, startups, and Fortune 100 companies on projects ranging from mobile and tablet design to NUI design to new product development within innovation labs.

On Semiotics and the Experience/Interface Question

This post is part of a larger discussion around UX and semiotics in preparation for FutureM. My thoughts are incomplete and fragmented. 

It’s an irrelevant question for anyone involved in the UX community, but those peripherally involved or just starting out can sometimes struggle with the difference between experience and interface. Don’t UX designers just create what a web page looks like? Isn’t that an interface?

Of course, the answer is “no” on both counts. They are different, we think; the question is how. Some argue that the interface is physical whereas the experience is…well, experiential. That is to say, the interface is the thing that is experienced, which presupposes that the user is consciously aware of the interface and its function. While this view might be accurate in some situations, relegating the interface to the physical realm is problematic when one considers pre-conscious or even non-conscious interfaces. 

It also imagines the interface as something we can point to, something tangible and concrete. This might be true for visual interfaces but not for auditory, haptic, etc. Think of a smartphone. Where is the interface? It is the screen? The icons on the screen? The point at which the user’s finger comes into contact with the screen?  The same is true for a voice interface. Is speech itself the interface? Or speech only in the context of voice input? “There is no there, there.”

Think of a book versus a Kindle. With the book, we can point to the physical object, flip its pages, and read its words. The written words on the page, the physical ink and paper, are what signify meaning to the reader. This relationship is a bit different within a digital interface. The words in a Kindle screen are not necessary physical; they are experiential insofar as we can sense them, but their physicality is in question.

So if the interface might not be the physical object or the tangible aspects of the experiential context, how can we conceive of it in a meaningful way?

I don’t claim to have a good answer to this question, but I think we can draw some conclusions from semiotics. Specifically, the difference between signifier and signified seems to be an important distinction for digital systems.  If we can think of a signifier as the “thing” that creates meaning, then the user interface becomes whatever we can identify as the source of meaning, whether it is the physical screen, the user’s interaction with elements on the screen, the biological perception of symbols, etc. Saussure described the signifier as the sound-image. But this definition is flawed in terms of digital interfaces, as they might go beyond the sensory limitations sound and image. But if we extend Saussure’s characterization beyond linguistics, sound-image might become something like “source of perception.” The interface is anything that evokes meaning as a result of its perception.

The user experience, on the other hand, is the user’s interpretation of the interface--just as the signified in Saussure's model is the mental concept of a signifier. It is what you think of when you read the word "book." If we can agree that the interface is that which creates meaning, we don’t necessarily assume that meaning is controllable or teleological. It just is. However, the notion of manipulating outcomes or moving toward a desired end is inherent in the design process. We are attempting to make one outcome (or a set of outcomes) more probable than another, whether it’s a purchase, improved usability, a behavioral action, etc. So the difficulty of experience design is crafting an interface that is both usable and able to elicit a certain action or perception on the part of the user. It gets even more complicated when we think about how branding plays a role in this system—not only are we trying to promote a behavior and/or perception, we are doing so in a way that meets standards of identity across experiences.

Reframing conceptions of interface and experience offers designers the opportunity to differentiate themselves in terms of what they create. Interface designers focus on the meaning-making elements, while experience designers are concerned with the interpretation of those elements and how they interact with each other in a system. It also allows interface designers to think about how to best communicate between interface and user, and experience designers to think strategically about how interface elements affect system-wide experiences and influence user perception and behavior.

Comment

Thomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt is a user experience strategist and researcher based in New York City. His specialties include user testing, ethnographic research, facilitating product ideation workshops, and interaction design. He is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary theory. Professional and academic interests include theories of context, semiotics, embodied cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of technology. Thomas has worked and consulted for agencies, startups, and Fortune 100 companies on projects ranging from mobile and tablet design to NUI design to new product development within innovation labs.