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Start with meaning | Nomensa

Start with meaning

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12 minutes, 15 seconds

The Nomensa logo illustrated in two images. The first image shows four a jigsaw pieces and the second image a completed jigsaw of the Nomensa logo.


Figure 1: Pieces of the Nomensa logo and the whole logo side by side.

In figure 1 we see two images.  The first has four jigsaw pieces and second shows the jigsaw completed.  We can recognise the jigsaw pieces in the first image but what do they mean?  When all the jigsaw pieces are combined a pattern emerges and the pieces become invisible.  We no longer see the pieces but the whole image: the total becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

The meaning series

This article will provide a summary of the five articles from the meaning series.  The essence from each article is presented and follows a chronological order, starting with the first article ‘Meaning is everything…’ and concluding with the final article ‘Meaning First’. My aim with the meaning series was to introduce the importance of meaningful interaction.  It’s an approach I’ve been applying in my work and something we are embracing at Nomensa – it’s experimental, complicated and mysterious yet it is providing very effective results. It is something I believe will add value to fellow user experience professionals looking to provide engaging and authentic designs.  It is also something we understand fundamentally as human beings: we understand what meaning feels like.  It allows us to connect and feel connected not just with ourselves, but with others and the world.  It is like an invisible fabric that makes perfect sense.

“Putting the pieces together, Harry.”

In the David Lynch and Mark Frost series Twin Peaks there are many memorable scenes but one serves to illustrate the importance of generating ‘meaning’.  In the scene Special Agent Dale Cooper states to Sheriff Harry Truman “putting the pieces together, Harry” as a eureka-type moment.  Cooper is seen busily reviewing Leo Johnson’s arrest report so he can compare his signature with the writing on a series of poems he has also collected. Cooper correctly concludes they have been written by Leo Johnson.  It’s a great moment in the series with Dale Cooper demonstrating, as he often does, his uncanny ability to join the dots together.  Cooper is making sense of the evidence and new patterns are emerging. These insights allow him to understand the wider context surrounding Laura Palmer’s murder and therefore the circumstances leading up to her death are becoming much clearer.  Cooper’s understanding is increasing and therefore the meaning he can attribute to the events is also increasing.

Meaning is a bit like magic

Meaning can be both mysterious and difficult to anticipate.  It can emerge after a dedicated period of thinking and analysis.  Our ability to generate meaning is a reflection of our ability to join the dots together.  Alternatively, it can emerge ‘out of the blue’.  Meaning can feel magical and enlightening. The generation of meaning is likely a product of both our conscious and unconscious processes.  In fact, it may be difficult (if not impossible) to separate the influence of our emotions from our thinking and vice versa in our decision-making. Regardless of the actual cognitive or emotional factors underlying our meaning generation processes, the fact remains, we do generate meaning and we are constantly doing it.  Indeed, it is something we cannot stop doing and it is very hard to control.

To know…more!

The value of meaning is that it provides us with perspective, it allows us to make comparisons and ultimately generate the  understanding and knowledge to make a leap.  Whilst it is difficult to control, it is also a form of control.  We know this because we are constantly seeking it.  Essentially, we are seeking control over our lives and the experiences that shape them.

Meaningful interactions

I believe that through carefully understanding and determining what is meaningful to people we can design interactions that reflect their behaviour more closely.  We are complex beings in ways we do not even have the science or psychology to yet understand.  However, we know that meaning plays a significant role in our lives and by extension interaction. In the next sections I’ll provide an overview of the 5 articles from the meaning series.  The aim is to provide the reader with enough information to understand the approach to designing meaningful interaction.  My hope is that you will also read the other articles and maybe even adopt a meaning-first approach.

1. Meaning is everything so let’s design for it!

In the first article I introduced the importance of meaning providing a critical sense of control.  If you don’t know how to buy a product; request a piece of information (such as a newsletter); or generally complete your task, you are in for a disjointed and frustrating experience. Providing people with control can represent the difference between success and failure.  The value of meaningful interaction is that it encourages prolonged engagement, goal completion, and generally keeps people positively consuming information for longer.  I think meaningful interaction keeps us in a state of discovery mode.  We are curious creatures and we enjoy discovering things. Conversely, interactions that do not feel meaningful will test a user’s tolerance and effect the outcome of whether they continue.  It will impact their motivation levels and may significantly increase the likelihood of abandonment, frustration and may even turn into future avoidance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines meaning as “The significance, purpose, underlying truth.”  These are powerful words in their own right.  Indeed, meaning is obviously very important. As stated in the first article meaning does not ask for an invitation – it emerges.  I believe meaning represents the X-factor in the user-experience design equation.  The more meaningful the patterns we use to shape the interaction experience the more meaningful the experience.

2. The meaning dimension

In the second article I introduced the concept of The Meaning Dimension.  This was to illustrate that meaning is scalar and not an ‘all or nothing’ type outcome.

The Meaning Dimension (MD) is a scale for understanding the significance we place on an experience.  It starts with Meaningless at the beginning of the scale and Meaningful at the other end.  I think of the MD as a ‘continuum of significance’ with little or zero understanding at one end and complete truth at the other.  As we move along the dimension the significance of the experience increases – we are ‘getting it’. Meaning is not an all or nothing activity.  Actions, observations and behaviour can all increase in meaning.  However, they can also reduce in it.  Therefore, nothing is truly meaningless because as human beings we cannot stop ourselves from wanting to bring perspective and understanding.  This can be especially true for things we don’t understand. Actions, events and situations that are meaningful will feel very different to those that feel meaningless.  They will keep our interest, intrigue and attention for longer.  Therefore, the value of designing a meaningful experience becomes paramount.  The question is how do you design a meaningful experience?

3. Researching meaning: making sense of behaviour

Before you can design a meaningful experience you have to understand what is meaningful to the audience in question.  Understanding requires research, patience and courage.  Having patience is a very necessary skill for anyone researching what is meaningful because we human beings are very complicated.  Much of our behaviour can be counter-intuitive, e.g. when less is more (too much information can be demotivating).  We are unlikely to fully observe it, let alone understand it.  At best we get glimpses, yet these glimpses can be enough for meaning to be generated. We should not be put off by the considerable level of complexity, but rather accept it and rise to this challenge and attempt to gain perspective.  The opportunity of providing meaningful interaction outweighs any negatives: better experiences for everyone. One key element I elaborated about in the third article was the Iceberg Model of Meaning (IMoM).  Essentially, it shows the relationship between our thinking and our feeling.  Whilst we cannot easily separate thinking from feeling,  I consider thinking to be the activity that sits above the water line and represents the visible part of the iceberg we can see.  However, the bigger bit sits below the water line and this represents our emotion.  Both bits make up the iceberg and meaning is not dissimilar.  What we think and what we feel drives us.  Sometimes separately, sometimes in combination.  This tells us that thinking and feeling are inextricable linked and very hard to separate.

I also proposed the idea of forced abandonment.  This is the opposite to natural abandonment which is really the completion of an activity in disguise.  Many interactions force us to abandon and we leave them feeling inadequate not only with ourselves but with the interaction.  This is a very real and serious issue.  I believe focusing on what people expect and their motivations, as well as what challenges them, is a sure way to map out what is meaningful to them.  Or to put it another way shows us clearly what to avoid.

4. Designing meaning: translating insight into design

Once we have completed the research we need to translate it into a design that embodies meaningful interaction.  This translation requires we understand the elements that will be necessary to shape the experience.  The best way to think about the design is an ecology: a dynamic set of elements that combine to form a meaningful interaction experience. In the early days of the web, research and design were often conducted as separate activities.  The emphasis was much more focused on the design activity.  User experience design (UXD) brought these two activities together so there was logical overlap. Meaning-centred design (MCD) increases the merging of the research and design activities so the whole process is much more synergistic.  One activity does not dominant the other: they co-operate. My take on creating a great UXD company was that it would require a combination of three primary disciplines: psychology; design and technology.  To put it another way.  I believed that we would need to understand human behaviour and how to translate it correctly.  It also requires that we understand technology and how best to combine it with design. UXD is a big domain and it will only get bigger.  Design and technology expertise play critical roles but have to be supplemented by behavioural expertise.  The idea of one person having all the necessary UXD skills and expertise is unrealistic as there is simply too much to master.  UXD is best done by multidisciplinary teams.  However, UX designers should endeavor to understand other disciplines within the wider design process whilst also continuing to hone their skills whether it be research, design or technology based. However, I believe great interaction design requires great research to lead the design process.  In the final article I cover my manifesto for MCD which I have named Meaning-First.

5. Meaning First: a manifesto for user-experience design

In the final article I discuss Meaning-centred design (MCD) as a top-down process –  it is holistic.  Whereas, technology-centred design is a bottom-up process – it is reductionist.   In a MCD approach you are ‘starting with meaning‘ and not technology.  In an MCD approach we want to understand what factors influence and motivate us.  We need to understand the meaning we attribute to our interactions so we can shape the design to better match behaviour.

Great user experience design will be meaningful for users – it is not just a purely cognitive activity because it may affect us emotionally as well.  At the basic level meaningful  interaction satisfies us and in some cases may even inspire us.  Meaningful interaction represents successful interaction – everybody wins: the designer of the interaction experience, the client providing the service and the customer using it.  A triple win scenario! If the design feels meaningful we may even be able to evoke a peak experience.  A moment of truth so profound that the experience becomes all consuming because it is all that matters.  This is the feeling we have when we can’t remember how long we have spent doing something we enjoy because we are enjoying it so much and nothing else seems to matter.


I appreciate that meaning is a very tricky subject area!  Meaning can be considered an arbitrary activity, uniquely personal and totally subjective.  Whilst I can have conversations with anyone about the colour orange and we can agree about the colour orange, it does not mean my perception of orange is the same as anyone else’s.  This is a matter of qualia and my personal, subjective experience. Meaning First is my attempt at structuring a research and design philosophy to define surface meaning.  I believe meaning, or more specifically our desire for it, is a human characteristic that results from our conscious activity – our neural activity.  I don’t believe meaning exists in artifacts but I do believe we can design-in clues that would make an artifact more meaningful. I believe we can shape the design of any digital experience to have greater surface meaning – the more accurate the clues and the more accurately they match with our cognitive behaviour the greater the surface meaning. However, I do not believe we need to understand another person’s absolute definition of a thing to achieve the level of understanding required to surface insight and use that in the design process. As designers, and clients, we tolerate far too much failure because of poor interaction design. The cost of such failure is financially and emotionally very expensive.  Starting a project by understanding what is meaningful to people is a sure method for not just putting people at the centre of the design process, but putting people’s expectations and motivations at the centre too.  It is a method for focusing in on the critical aspects that are necessary for effective decision-making – understanding our expectations. If we can get the surface design right we can help people experience a deeper meaning when they interact with a design.  What is the real benefit of deeper meaning? It represents an order of magnitude difference in the way we would interact with a design, what we think about it and more importantly what we feel about it.  It would connect with us and we would connect with it – we would not only just get it – it would seem totally ‘natural’.  We would no longer see the individual elements of an experience – we would see the experience more holistically, as a whole.  We would no longer merely think about the experience because we would be operating at a higher level – an emotional level. So, that is why I start with meaning.

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