Language is Giffy

A pretty awesome thing happened last night/this morning: we learned that "gif" was intended to be pronounced "jif." But that's only the beginning. The backlash on Twitter was phenomenal (just search "gif," you'll find it), with people from all over the world vehemently arguing that the correct pronunciation is in fact "gif" with a hard G. Some cited common sense and common language structures, while others turned to what the acronym stands for, Graphics Interchange Format—hard G in "Graphics" means hard G in "gif."

The exciting part is not necessarily the opinions or reactions but rather the underlying motivations for these expressed opinions. We're at a time when the residues of postmodernism and poststructuralism are firmly embedded into our cultural reality. From a linguistic perspective, Wimsatt and Beardsley ushered in a new way of thinking about literary criticism when they announced the intentional fallacy, which drastically changed the ways people thought about literature and art. They argued that the author's intention, or perceived intention, is both unknowable and completely irrelevant to textual critique. Even if an author can tell his/her readers, "this is my intention, this is what my text means," it is irrelevant to the overall value of that text. All that matters is the reader's individual interpretation.

I distinctly remember having an almost visceral reaction to this idea when I first encountered it about 10 years ago. How could the author's intention not matter? Isn't that the basis of what it actually means? My opinion is just that; what are the facts? But of course, the beauty of literary arts is that facts don't matter all that much, or at least factual systems are pliable and adaptable.

Following Wimsatt and Beardsely's lead, Michel Foucault examined the author function as a power structure built into the text itself. And finally Roland Barthes killed off any notion of intention or authority when he declared the death of the author. Once an author creates a text and puts it out into the world, s/he is effectively dead, or at least his/her function as an authority figure over the text is over, leaving only a free-floating object of interpretation without inherent meaning, value, purpose, etc. until someone interacts with it. 

Fred Jameson, when he articulated the mechanics of postmodernism, later called this notion the "textualization of the world." When modernism moved into its "post" iteration, the world began to be viewed as a series of texts, objects with no inherent meaning, reliant on the interpretation of those who experience it. 

Given the amount of outspoken opinions on the gif question, it seems as though these ideas are becoming common knowledge, even if people can't necessarily trace them back to their roots. Our reality is a system of signs in which the semiotic dimension of language plays itself out. Language is a mostly arbitrary system, composed of social agreements between its users. 

So a gif is a gif. 

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.


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 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. 


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. 

  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.


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.

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.

Reframing Disruptive Products: a case for behavioral and contextual design

"The very condition of deconstruction may be at work, in the work, within the system to be deconstructed. It may already be located there, already at work." Jacques Derrida

The condition of deconstruction within any given product is always present within the product. Like the inner kernel of the Real that Lacan circles around, or the evil genius that plagued Decartes, there exists within every system the conditions that threaten its own deconstruction. It is designed into the system as a necessary part of its overall functionality; within every feature requirement, sketch, test, iteration, logo...are the necessary and sufficient means of deconstruction.   

Why would this be so? Why would designers purposefully include a threatening imperfection into a system? It's because this imperfection that is necessary for deconstruction is also necessary for success: users.

Positioning users as central to a product's success is a completely accepted and encouraged view within the design community. However, that centrality is implicitly related to the positive functions of the user: early adopters as the means to initial success, understanding motivations and pain points to design proper solutions, etc. Design is always for something or someone else. But it is rare to hear anyone talk about the negative and deconstructive aspects of users.

We should be careful not to confuse deconstruction with destruction. While similar, they are two different concepts. Perhaps a simple differentiation is to say deconstruction is related to an evolution, even if radical, while destruction is an end that requires a completely new beginning. Users are the source of continuous product evolution; they deconstruct the products they use.

I take it back. Users are not the conditions of deconstruction: they're behavior is. To be more specific, we design systems both for users and for their behaviors. Whether it is to make a behavior more or less likely, or to simply reinforce the frequency of an existing behavior, design outputs have a behavioral component at their core. We don't necessarily design for users, we design for their behavior. 

Derrida's quote above presents the idea that deconstruction is not necessarily the introduction of something new to perform deconstructive tasks. Rather, something already within the system can have deconstructive power if recognized as such; bringing awareness to the deconstructive potentiality enables the act of deconstruction. Similarly, products enable behaviors that (usually) already exist in a user's repertoire of available behaviors. The product does not give permission, or "allow" anything; it enables an existing behavioral potentiality by bringing awareness to it. Take Instagram, for example. Manipulating photos is not a new behavior. It only seems new because Instagram moved it to a public, ubiquitous space where one does not need special knowledge to edit a photo. And that behavioral evolution (the movement from professional photo editing to everyday mobile users) is both what sustains and deconstructs the product. 

New products do not disrupt a product ecosystem, behaviors do. It's a slight distinction, but I think it's important to recognize that any given product innovation fails if there is no resulting behavioral change. It might seem obvious. All I'm really saying is that when we say "users" we really mean "user behavior and cognition." 

Navigate to any major tech blog and it will be easy to find an article about a disruptive product within two minutes. What these articles--and therefore the cultural understanding--miss is that products are just tipping points for unpredictable user behavior. On one hand, existing behaviors are brought to a new medium. Early humans drew pictures on cave walls to express their identity, customs, rituals, etc. Now social media enable users to express the same material with greater frequency and create linkage between activities to express context. On the other hand, technology can tweak behaviors to create something new. The concept of money and physical value are relatively old, but digital money is new. The switch from physical to digital necessitated a change in both behavior and cognition. Users accustomed themselves to thinking about money even more abstractly: pixel arrangement on a screen represents quantity which represents value in a positive correlation which represents the concept of currency which represents how much stuff I can buy. The signifier of a number on a screen is many steps removed from our definition of currency, but we still understand what it means. And with mobile phones, we are able to complete complicated transactions across time and space in a way that is at the same time very different yet strikingly similar to trading a couple gold coins for a horse. Technology was the spark for behavioral evolution, but the behavior is most important.

So if user behavior is both the necessary means of success and the condition of deconstruction, how do we design against it? I think the answer lies in the combination of behavioral and contextual design--the difference being behavioral design concentrates on the mechanics and cognition that lead to specific behavioral patterns, while contextual design in concerned with the environment in which behavior takes place. The intersection of these design practices is where we find the most compelling products. And I think technology is finally catching up to the potential of contextual and behavioral design, opening up a new set of possibilities that take advantage of ambient data, behavior, and environment.

De-centering Design: a close reading of ZocDoc's home page

As design philosophies and techno-cultural movements attempt to place a higher degree of control and power onto the user, we’re starting to forget about the influence of authority and traditional advertising principles in the digital experience. Some of the philosophies and movements I’m thinking about include user-centered design, social marketing and its “democratization” of a message, and the advocation that customers and users are the most important source of insight for design decisions. 

While these movements have certainly made the internet a more user-friendly place, they present a problem within the context of branded experiences. Pleasing users might be a necessary element to the success of branded digital experience, but it certainly isn’t sufficient. We need to design experiences that cater to both users and brands by balancing users’ needs, wants, and desires against the system of meaning that brands are explicitly trying to create.

This is where semiotics comes in. As we move from traditional advertising to social marketing, there is a tendency to completely transition to one side rather than acquire benefits of both and form a new approach. Social marketing advocates are quick to abandon traditional advertising techniques in favor of these new social tactics. Semiotics can help solve this problem by introducing a sort of dialectical maneuver in which we realize pros and cons of traditional advertising, pros and cons of social marketing, and choose the best combination to solve core problems. I’d like to look at a particular service that is doing this quite well.


ZocDoc is a startup that was formed to address the frustration with finding a doctor or dentist and booking an appointment, which can be a daunting task, especially in large cities where the choices are seemingly endless. ZocDoc simplifies the process by providing users with access to a database of doctors and dentists they can easily search, filter, and book appointments. The service solves a very tangible problem for users: it takes a difficult and annoying process and simplifies it, thus decreasing frustration.

Appealing to users’ needs and wants is apparent in the homepage design. The calming light grey and blue tones are relaxing and aim to evoke a calming effect. The main form field where users search is presented up front, and promotional copy is kept to a minimum. What is most interesting about this page design is the image of doctors. Medical professionals are perceived, for good reason, as highly educated scientists who ostensibly have special access to the Truth. As such, they are intimidating, especially when that Truth is perhaps something that is undesirable to the patient--doctors can be the harbingers of very bad news. 

The doctors presented here are anything but intimidating. ZocDoc home page designers chose to assuage the users’ fear by presenting cartoon figures instead of real photos. Cartoon doctors are smiling and appear to quite welcoming. Their matching tie and clipboard signify a sense of uniformity across all doctors found on ZocDoc; the message is that all the medical professionals found on this site will be friendly and gentle. At the same time, this image also keeps the doctors’ authority in tact. Their crossed arms and hand-in-pocket stance point to a closing off of personal contact. Their demeanor is distant but still friendly, accessible enough to make you feel comfortable but still detached enough so that you won’t forget that they are in fact doctors.


These features are the result of taking what is known about users, determining their pain points, and actively trying to solve problems. But there is also evidence of a more covert advertising message spoken directly from brand to consumer. Notice the section in the bottom corner calling for doctors and dentists to create a profile. The benefit to joining is specifically positioned as a means to “expanding your practice” and “connect with new patients.” Instead of encouraging doctors to help make the appointment booking process easier for patients, thus addressing a user need, they are instead (literally) put on a pedestal and prompted to enhance their practice with customer acquisition. This message has very little to do with patient needs; it speaks to doctors (who are just another user group) within the context of both the doctor’s patient acquisition and ZocDoc’s monetization strategy. Either by ads on the site, paid profiles, or some other tactic, ZocDoc will eventually need to be a profitable entity, and this call for doctor profiles is a step in that process.

We can see that the image of the doctor is presented in two different ways depending on user groups: authoritative but friendly for patients, and an object of pride and respect for doctors. The patient-targeted version of doctors aims to counteract the hesitation involved in booking appointments, fear of possible bad news, and the perception of medical professionals as sterile and impersonal. The doctor-targeted version, however, is a bit different--golden, beaming, and placed on a pedestal to admire. The message is that doctors should see themselves as individuals with a a valuable skill to offer, and therefore have an obligation to make themselves available to as many people as possible. The image targeted to each user group will eventually lead back to ZocDoc’s brand objectives to facilitate these connections and make money from them.

It is clear that ZocDoc is heavily invested in user needs. The most successful digital experiences will incorporate similar techniques of addressing rational and irrational user attitudes while scaling the service through elegant positioning and communicating messages that support brand objectives.