Meaning is everything so let’s design for it!

The thinker statueFigure 1: Auguste Rodin’s famous ‘The Thinker’ Sculpture

Rodin’s famous sculpture has been used to represent a man deep in thought and some even suggest it represents the Italian poet Dante at the gates of hell in the epic poem La Commedia (The Divine Comedy).  It shows a man deep in thought – a man searching for understanding; an answer, the truth and ultimately, meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of meaning reveals the true importance and value of meaning and why it is so important in our lives:

The significance, purpose, underlying truth.

Acquiring meaning has been a pursuit of human beings which pre-dates the evolution of our species.  It was a primary intellectual pursuit of the earliest Greek philosophers who sought to understand the meaning of life and our relationship with the world.

Man - a being in search of meaning.

Plato

Meaning is as important as the oxygen we need to breathe or the water we need for life to function.  It is essential and defines our very humanity and without it we are totally lost because life feels unfulfilled without it!  Our uniqueness as a conscious animal – our ability to question, to consider, and to know represents the very foundation on which our own humanity is built! Nothing can be more important than meaning and nothing will ever be more important for any of us, anywhere: meaning is everything!

So why is WHY the most important question?!

The reason why we ask the question ‘why’ or more importantly why we need to answer it is because we need to understand what is happening to us and what is happening all around us.  We cannot stop ourselves from asking the question because we have no real control over most of what goes on around us. The search for meaning never requires an invitation or an introduction and never rests: it is always activated whether we realise it or not.  Without meaning we are lost and with it we are enlightened.

Line of 8 dots in a rowFigure 2: The Gestalt Law of Good Continuation – dots become a line

Autopoiesis

Meaning is self-organising or autopoietic.  In figure 2 above we see a collection of eight dots.  However, the dots form a line and we do this automatically and with no conscious control.  The dots are constructed into a line and this is autopoiesis in action: we make the dots meaningful.

2 shapes made of lines making out a circle and a triangle

Figure 3: Gestalt principle of Closure – we see a circle and a triangle

We see a circle and a triangle in figure 3.  We fill in the blank spaces and this happens naturally and immediately.  Meaning never sleeps.  Indeed, have you ever woken up and thought “I now know what that means”! How can we apply our understanding of meaning to user experience (UX)?  Firstly, we have to recognise that our need for meaning supersedes all other needs because it represents a higher need.  Whilst there are many significant factors in the design of a great user experience; meaning sits above them all and is totally over-arching.

Putting UX Design in context

One of the challenges we face as UX practitioners is that depending on whom you ask the question ‘what is the most important factor in the design or the user experience’ you can get a range of answers.  Typically, a practitioner’s answer is dictated by their background, approach and UX design experience.  How could it not! Some UXer’s will push technology, some content, some visual design or aesthetics and some usability and accessibility as the factors that are the most significant.  However, I do not feel any one of these or even their combination represents the factor that makes an experience ‘stand out’ or have purpose. Maybe this is why the web on the whole feels broken and inconsistent and does not deliver the experience we are expecting or hoping for.  I do not see this as a problem because we are moving forward with experience at a driving force in delivering better customer engagement and service.  Designing for meaning will bring even greater emphasis on the user experience.  I named a previous article ‘Technology is not the solution’ because it is not technology that we need!  Furthermore, it is definitely not technology that should be driving the user experience but far too often it is.  I am not devaluing technology because it is critical in the design and in delivering a great user experience.  However, it is not as significant as the meaning the user experience generates.  Technology is just a component and not the component: meaning is the X-factor. We need to feel something at a human level that touches us emotionally and allows us to connect more deeply with technology.  We need meaning: our user experiences need to feel meaningful. So the question of determining what is the most important factor in user experience is very important because we feel it, it affects us, touches us both physically and emotionally so ascertaining its ‘nature’ is critical.  We can use this knowledge to design and deliver better user experiences that feel engaging, humane and motivate us more deeply.  We can provide meaning.

Design the meaning-in!

Meaning represents one of our most innate and basic needs.  It is activated before we can even walk and definitely before we can talk.  Our world is shaped and defined by what we understand and the meaning we can extract from that understanding.  Meaning is everything and this is why anyone involved with UX should make it their number one priority.  Great experience design will communicate great meaning and more importantly people will perceive it and feel it more positively. We have to work hard to understand what is really meaningful for your customers but the payoff is it is what they are expecting.  They may not even know that it is meaning they are seeking but let there be no doubt, they are!  They want to feel special; they want their expectations to be exceeded – don’t you? So if meaning is so important we have to make it our number one goal because this is the only real way we can deliver a Peak Experience – a moment of truth. Delivering meaningful user experiences is the foundation on which to deliver a peak experience and if you help your customers achieve this you are creating a profound and long lasting effect that has the potential to change the way people feel and how they perceive the world, and most importantly you and your organisation. Read the rest of the series: