The meaning dimension

Designing significance

This is the second article in a series I’m writing about meaning.  In my previous article I introduced the critical importance of designing for meaning and how it can be applied to help us deliver a superior user experience. Essentially, by focusing on meaning we are centering on the many significant psychological factors that motivate us at an emotional level.

In this article I will expand on the importance of designing for meaning by introducing a model; ‘The Meaning Dimension’.  The aim of this article is to reinforce the importance of meaning in the design process and provide the reader with a model.  In later articles I plan to expand on this model and provide guidance on how to research and design meaning.

What does it mean?

Rorschach card number 2 (ink blots that are open to individual interpretation)Figure 1: Card II of the Rorschach Test.

In figure 1, the second card from the Rorschach ‘ink blot’ test is shown and I’ve always found these images (cards) interesting.  Rorschach cards have been used to provide psychological indicators about how people may respond in certain situations and have been widely used to examine personality, cognition and emotional functioning since their introduction in 1921.

What does Figure 1 ‘mean’ to you?  What is the significance of the image?  These questions are typical of what we would quickly conjure up in our minds without even being asked or prompted because the image is interesting.  We need to give the image meaning.

In fact, we cannot stop ourselves from giving the image ‘meaning’ and therefore making it meaningful.

I find this natural and immediate response interesting, even intriguing.  Why does it happen?  What happens when we look at a Rorschach image? What are the underlying processes?

The fundamental processes that generate meaning are useful to know and understand because we can use this understanding to better match design to behaviour.  The better the match the more significant the meaning.

Meaning will make the design feel good!

Meaning is the overarching concept under which all other user experience factors naturally sit.  Meaning is the apex and represents our highest need.  However, there is something extraordinary that can happen when we feel meaning.  There is a level of meaning we can attain that offers a moment of significance so real it is capable of changing the way we think, feel and perceive the world.  This is a ‘peak experience’ – a moment of truth.

So what is a peak experience? A moment in which your senses are heightened and your awareness is optimal.  Maslow described peak experience in his book the farther reaches of human nature:

Peak experiences are transient moments of self-actualization

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualisation represented the highest human need, however, I have translated the idea into meaning but kept the peak experience concept as being the pinnacle.  Whereas self-actualisation can apply to any aspect of human behaviour I feel the word meaning is more appropriate when designing interaction.

How does meaning work in a digital setting?

Let's imagine visiting a new website. The amount of time it takes for you to ‘get it' and know what to do is critical in determining whether you continue using it.  Therefore, 'getting' the design and instinctively knowing what to do will depend on the level of meaning you experience.

We accept things that feel meaningful more quickly and we will rate them as more honest.  We will perceive a site that is meaningful as easier to use.  However, there are also drawbacks, because if we expect a website to be easy to use and it isn’t, our expectations are not met.  If the site is well known, people will feel disappointed and rate the experience as negative.  This creates an opposite reaction and we rate the site not as meaningful but meaningless!

So what does a peak experience feel like?

The answer is really good and probably amazing.  The time you spend completing a website task will feel shorter and the experience will feel like a flow of the ‘right’ information at the ‘right’ time.  Surprisingly, regardless of the amount of information you will not feel confused or overwhelmed because the design has become meaningful - it's the right amount of information.

A peak experience makes the meaning you feel even more significant.

You will not have to think about what to do or scan around the page looking at the content trying to figure things out because it will be obvious to you what to do.

Peak experience feels effortless

The benefit of placing meaning as a central design goal is that if you are able to create meaning for your customers they will feel it.  Most importantly it will make them feel good.  The difference between a meaningful design and a design that evokes a peak experience may only be slight but the effect will be significant.

You will feel as if you are experiencing ‘truth’.

However, in reality the time you actually spent on the web page scanning the information may have taken you much longer than you realise.  Yet, this fact becomes irrelevant because the details and interaction become invisible – this is what a peak experience can do!  It can make the experience of using a website or application feel effortless!

A peak experience can change your perception.  Any organisation that focuses on designing peak experiences into their digital technologies will be supporting human behaviour so fundamentally and humanistically the resulting response will be more than just positive – it will be the only response; the natural response.

Modeling the Meaning Dimension

The Meaning Dimension represents a scale (continuum) of significance between the states of 'meaningless' and 'meaningful'Figure 3: The meaning dimension and the continuum of significance that exists between the states of meaningless and meaningful.

At one end of the Meaning Dimension our experiences are meaningless which can be represented by falsehood and provides us with little value.  When we complete tasks on sites that feel meaningless we are more likely to become confused and uncertain about what to do next.  That is, if we decide to do anything other than abandon the experience (which is the typical response for most of us) because people will quickly abandon any experience that makes them feel meaningless.  So, a good rule of thumb is don't make people feel meaningless!

At the other end of the dimension is a meaningful experience which can be represented as truth.  Websites that feel meaningful are supporting us emotionally and intellectually.  They support us acting with greater certainty and positivity, and ultimately encourage greater engagement.

The Meaning Dimension represents meaning as a continuum of significance.  Consciously, we exist and perceive the world somewhere between these two states - meaningless and meaningful.  Living between these two states can be challenging as the majority of our experiences are not perfectly meaningful, yet they are not totally meaningless.  However, our expectation will always be in favour of achieving a more meaningful experience over one that is meaningless.  In reality we can get very close to feeling 'truth' but we may just miss out.

Using a website is no different.  We experience a site and it either makes us feel meaningless or meaningful.  When the experience is meaningful we rate it as better, quicker and more accurately reflecting our needs.  The opposite happens when a site is perceived as meaningless because it feels slow, clunky and confusing.

However, because meaning can appear to be slightly out of our reach we should not be deterred from focusing on it, and achieving it.  It is better for things to be slightly beyond our grasp rather than completely beyond them otherwise we would be living in a world filled with more meaningless than meaning.  This would not lead to a positive response for any website user!

We will actively look to avoid or abandon a meaningless experience.

We need meaning!

There are many truisms we hear about life that only really become meaningful when we have a frame of reference.  As a parent I am becoming increasingly aware of what my parents must have experienced bringing me up, the love they shared and the sacrifices they made.   This appreciation makes me a better father to my children and a better son to my parents.

Meaning can remain incredibly obscure. We may generate only enough meaning to make a little sense or it may feel that we may need to know more.  Either way, any meaning we experience will make us feel good and this is a clear indication that more meaning can be obtained.  When this happens we are moving along the continuum of significance and getting closer to truth.

We can design interactions so that they are meaningful and we can move people along the continuum by playing close attention to their behaviour, their expectations and ultimately understanding the meaning they are seeking!

Design the meaning into the experience

So how do you design meaning into the interactive experience?  You must start at the highest level and think about the meaning your customers expect.  It is a top-down approach.  You cannot start at the level of technology because this is a bottom-up approach and it has not really got us that far!  You are completely and utterly approaching the opportunity to design meaning into the experience from the wrong perspective if you start with technology.  This does not mean technology should not be considered – it should, because technology is very important.  However, if you want to deliver meaningful interaction that matches your audience’s behaviour and expectations, you have to start by understanding the bigger picture: the meaning they are seeking!

Putting this approach into practice requires a different way of thinking and designing digital experience.  However, people will experience a site, a page or an application that has considered what meaning they are expecting fundamentally differently.  The resulting effect will be immediate and positive - it will be transformational.  If you are able to deliver a peak experience the result will be significantly amplified.  Remember meaning is an ‘emergent’ property and something that is hard-wired into all of us.  We are all expecting the interactions we do to be meaningful so let's design them to be exactly that - meaningful.

In my next article I will focus on how to research meaning and peak experience and translate it into digital experience.

Read the rest of the series:

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