Meaning First: a manifesto for user-experience design

A night time image showing showing part of the Milky Way above statues on Easter Island

Figure 1: An image from the amazing AOPD website showing the Milky Way above statues on Easter Island [Credit & Copyright: Manel Soria]

There are over 800 statues on Easter Island and each stands twice as tall as a person.  Little is known about their history or their meaning.  Figure 1 shows some of the statues illuminated with the arc of the Milky Way filling the sky above them.  This is a beautiful image that reminds me of the many mysteries both on planet earth and out there in the cosmos.

What is interesting is our human desire and drive to understand.  We want to understand the meaning behind the Easter Island statues just as we also want to understand the meaning of the Milky Way.  We are searching for meaning in everything – it is in our nature to do so.

A different approach to user experience design

This is the fifth and final article in the series covering the importance of meaning.  My aim with the meaning series was to provide the reader with an alternative perspective from which to consider and appreciate user experience design (UXD).

UXD represents one of the most exciting, if not the most exciting area of digital.  It focuses on our interactions and the experiences they generate.

Meaning is what we assign to every aspect of our lives from the simplest of actions to the most complex.  The design of any digital experience that feels meaningful has to accommodate our basic human need for discovery.  We like discovering – it makes us feel good.  It satisfied our curiosity and desire to explore and learn.

Discovery and serendipity go hand in hand.  Yet, discovery is more than intellectual fancy because we don’t just think, we feel.  Thinking and feeling are inextricably linked and cannot easily be divided.  One effects the other and vice versa.

So, why bother with meaning?

Some people would argue that meaning can not be designed because it is too subjective and our behaviour too unique, too diverse and too complex.  However, I disagree and I believe we can design enough clues into products, systems and services so that they can become meaningful when we interact with them.  It’s a matter of perspective.

I have differentiated between surface meaning and deeper meaning and covered this idea in an earlier article.  It is another way of describing surface behaviour and deeper behaviour.

Surface meaning or behaviour will appear as much more obvious and therefore immediate whereas deeper meaning or behaviour can be nebulous and is often invisible.

We can exploit these differences as designers.  We can shape surface meaning and this is the mechanism for evoking deeper meaning.

Do we need to understand exactly why any person feels the way they do about a particular design or interaction?  I would argue that we don’t and probably can’t anyway.  However, I believe that by shaping the experience people have when they interact with any design at the surface level we are attempting to make it as understandable, obvious and intuitive to the widest possible audience.  It is the focus placed on the surface meaning that will keep people engaged with the interaction experience for longer.  This is desirable as an approach because the alternative is disengagement and abandonment!

Focus on surface meaning

Meaning-first is a philosophy for designing an experience that evokes a high level of surface meaning.  If we can design experiences that are easy to use, obvious and require little mastery I would argue we are focusing on designing optimal surface meaning.  We can design-in clues (signifiers and affordances) for people to follow that will guide them and encourage further exploration and interaction.

If we can do that, we are ‘setting the stage’ and are more likely to evoke a deeper and more profound feeling, maybe even a peak experience. A moment of total and absolute connectedness with ourselves and our environment.  This is the power of interaction – designed well it can evoke deep meaning.

The peak of experience

The User-Experience Hierarchy.  It show three levels starting with technology, content and then style which can lead to a meaningful experience.

Figure 2. Meaning First: user-experience design hierarchy. The layers of the user experience starting with technology at the bottom, content second and style third. When the three layers are combined effectively they generate a forth layer: meaning.

The layers of the user experience

Whilst I advocate understanding the meanings people expect with their digital interactions as the starting point in a meaning-centred approach.  I appreciate that a digital experience can’t be delivered without the use of technology.  This creates a design ambiguity because people will typically start with technology, yet, technology is just a means to an end.  It is what we do with the technology that is important.

Is it no wonder given this over-emphasis on technology that so few sites have successfully balanced the user-experience design equation?  The technology-centric perspective still dominates but it is a meaning-centric perspective that is needed to deliver experiences that really matter to people and are fundamentally humanistic.

Technology + Content + Style = Meaningful Experience

The UXD hierarchy consists of three layers that overlap.  Each layer should not be seen as discrete but overlapping.  The layers when added together generate something greater than the sum of each individual layer – they create a meaningful experience.  The three layers are:

  • Technology;
  • Content, and;
  • Style.

Technology

The first layer in the UXD hierarchy is technology. It represents the foundation on which any interaction experience is based. If you do not have technology you can’t generate an experience.  This is important because technology can fail and it can also be poorly implemented.

Technology represents the most fundamental level in the creation of the user experience.  It covers elements such as the code, architecture, functionality, servers, protocols, connectivity.  For example if your broadband connection ‘goes down’ and seems to be heavily congested it will impact the experience and therefore how meaningful the experience is perceived.  In the worst case scenario you will have no experience because one or many of the elements involved in the technology layer fails or seriously under-performs.

Content

The content represents the actual material of a web experience.  It’s the words, pictures, images, digital objects (spreadsheets, PDF’s) that we consume.  You will be less likely to buy a pair of glasses from a web experience without any pictures of the products.  Your experience at this point has reached an impasse and you would more than likely be forced to consider other options or even other sites.

Content is the actual material we are searching for, reading, watching, considering, comparing, buying, reviewing or complaining about.

Style

The style layer represents the aesthetic aspect of the design.  It would cover elements such as the ‘corporate ID’, any branding considerations, specific treatments or design styles to be applied which would include the colours, typography and layouts used.

What is important is that it is the content which is styled.  How style is applied to the content is what gives an experience personality – what makes it stand out, look-different – creates believability.

Meaningful interaction is greater than the sum of the parts

The Gestalt effect describes the form-generating capability of our senses.  We reduce reality by combining all the elements of a ‘form’ and simplify it regardless of its underlying complexity, and we do this immediately and naturally – it is perceptual.   The often quoted phrase ‘the total is greater than the sum of the parts’ applies to how we generate meaning.

The underlying interaction design patterns (IDPs) for any interactive system will be immediately combined and we will represent it as a whole and not the parts.  For the experience to work holistically all the elements (IDPs) need to work as a whole and this will make it easier to understand and therefore use.  The easier something is to understand the more meaningful it becomes.  To generate ‘surface meaning’ we need to quickly understand a system or design as a whole and not a collection of parts (IDPs).  If we cannot form a whole then the design will be seriously compromised and it will feel confusing because as we may not understand how to use it.

To move from a state of understanding a design to one of enjoying it, our focus needs to shift from how to use it to one of just using it with much less conscious effort – this is the all-important ‘flow’ we want to evoke in people.

When we perceive a design as meaningful our understanding is augmented and we will feel ‘more’ engaged with the design.  We may not even know why we are more engaged because it is a ‘feeling’ – we are experiencing something deeper, something more meaningful.

The deeper the experience we feel the greater the level of meaning we achieve.  Meaning amplifies our experiences.

Creating believability

Content and style work together to make the design believable e.g. we trust it.  People will tend to rate designs that appear more aesthetically pleasing to them as easier to use and this idea is covered by the aesthetic-usability effect proposed by Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura in 1995.

However, just because a person rates a design as more aesthetically pleasing (represented in the design as apparent usability) does not mean it will be easier to use and therefore may not result in improved performance (represented in the design as inherent usability).

Therefore, whilst we may rate a web experience as aesthetically desirable it may have little impact on actual human performance.  Obviously, interacting with a system or design represents a form of relationship between the user and the artifact (system) and this is critical and must not be overlooked.  In fact, it demonstrates that to create a human-centred system we will need to focus beyond the aesthetic factors so we can see the whole picture.  We need to apply a holistic perspective.

When content and style combine they add believability to the experience.  When the three layers work together we will perceive the experience as meaningful because it has generated a high level of surface value – their fit will seem natural and obvious.  At this point we will be moving from the surface perspective across the ‘meaningful edge’ and beginning to engage with the design more deeply.

Moving from surface meaning to deeper meaning

As we move up the hierarchy along the ‘meaning dimension’ our understanding increases and our experience of the interactions will become even more engaging.  As we continue to move up the hierarchy the likelihood of achieving ‘deeper meaning’ becomes a very real possibility.  This will be experienced as more than just pleasure or feelings of happiness.  The interactions and responses will be second nature.

Once we reach the apex of the hierarchy, we find ourselves at the top of the meaning layer and at this point we have become totally absorbed with the experience because it has become all consuming.

We are no longer merely thinking about the experience.  We are feeling the experience.  We have become augmented by the experience.

When this occurs all three layers have achieved a symmetry and a peak experience can occur (this does not mean it will occur however the conditions are optimised so it can occur – it is a matter of ‘how much’ or ‘how little’ we feel about the current experience) .

When a peak experience occurs we not only totally ‘get’ the design but we will fundamentally enjoy the interaction (the relationship between the user and the design) – nothing else will matter.

Designing peak experience is a ‘tall order’.  However, I believe we should always be aiming to design interaction excellence because the design will provide a much better and more meaningful experience even if we don’t actually achieve it.

A meaningful design will represent an order of magnitude of difference and will provide a more authentic interaction experience.  We remember experiences that are meaningful to us for longer.  Or, to put it another way we will tend to dislike experiences that we consider meaningless and forget them more quickly.  We will remember such experiences with less detail.  They will influence us less and have less significance.

Evoking deeper meaning

Surface meaning can trigger deeper meaning.  Combining the three layers of the design experience intelligently will allow us to provide people with the clues they will need to quickly understand the design.

How do we know when we are experiencing deeper meaning?  Because we feel immersed in the experience – it is no longer a matter of using an interface  – the surface elements of the interface (design) have become invisible!

The surface meaning we generate when interacting with a design will dictate the level of deeper meaning that we will ultimately experience and therefore feel.

Make it meaningful!

Meaning First is a philosophy that places meaning at the center of the design process.

In a Meaning-First approach you start with meaning because this is what everyone wants.  From a digital perspective it is what people have increasingly come to expect from their interactions with digital technology.  We all want meaningful experiences.  We all want our experiences to be understandable, enjoyable and engaging.

Every second is precious so let’s make every single design really count!

Read the rest of the series:

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About the Author

Nomensa Founder & CEO. After 17 years of dedication to user-experience design (UXD) Simon has been around the block a few times! Simon's passions are creativity and innovation. Simon believes that digital technology should not feel like completing the Rubik's Cube - that represents a big bad fail! Great experiences should feel engaging, intuitive and easy. Simon also believes that great interaction experiences are designed from a top-down approach and focus on uncovering what is meaningful.

5 comments

  1. Good job…This is a superb one, I think this type of blog is the best I have ever read and moving from surface meaning to deeper meaning part is totally awesome…Thanks for sharing this wonderful info with us.

  2. Simon Norris says:

    Absolutely.

    Please use and share.

  3. First of all, great series Simon. I agree that meaning should come first. It’s sad to see how many people don’t even think of that.

  4. Simon Norris says:

    Thank you :)

  5. Graham Hall says:

    Very interesting stuff. Understanding that we experience everything in gestalt requires us to see both surface and underlying meaning simultaneously. It essentially means the designer has to create the experience with feeling applying both technical & emotional judgement as they go. More like a gifted musician than a technician. Something like that anyway… And in this regard UXD is no different from any other creative discipline.

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