Objectivity, Subjectivity, and Dialog

The theory of design, the motive behind it, shines through the product, corporation, and culture that surround it.

I've recently been tuning my thoughts to the "story" channel, seeing the world through the lens that alerts me to the nuance of story that is available in situation.

Steve Jobs and Richard Pratt are two of a number of influences that stand out. 

Steve used the art of calligraphy to help influence the design of typography on the Mac. This laid a foundation for the intersection of industrial machine and art in computer design, one we continue to explore to this day. Using this model, he worked to elevate our understanding of beauty by making it standard across his product range, and worked to ensure that considerable resources were spent on its success. 

Steve's story is one where objectivity is used to raise the common man's appreciation to a new level. Of course, this can also be approached as snobbery. The utilitarian viewpoint counters that utility and function is more important than form, so I should not waste resources on beauty.  Steve wanted to bring us up to his level of appreciation for art in mechanistic design.

Microsoft's computers for many years worked to bring the computer down to our level - a level of competition, free market, lots of players, and a more open playing field. This focus on lists of features that would meet corporate architect checklists, on every man making his own way, his own application for his own purpose, results in more chaos and confusion, but in the chaos there is all the more money to be made by being a voice of reason over the noise.

One of the more unfortunate fall-outs of this more subjective model, where everyone can be right whenever they try hard enough, is that the corporate baby-boomer generation saw technology on the curve of hope-in, hope-dashed. Computers were going to make us more efficient, they were going to make the world more sharable, more doable, and more capable. Ten to twenty years later, they see how computers often aren't those things. And so, they now have a bitter taste of what computers can or should do.

User (Human) experience has come into the fray over the past many years. The model in user experience is a more balanced approach that says that authoritative dialog (discussed by Richard Pratt) is a productive way to have the conversation. An authoritative dialog is one where there is someone versed in design who maintains the ability to design fully, but who is dialoging with everyman to ensure that the results are not snobby, esoteric, or high-and-mighty, but designed with good, care, and attention to detail. Using the dialog, we can help those who are afraid that this next piece of technology will let them down (like the last) to discover that there is a way to infuse the human element into the design more completely, such that a more positive spin is introduced.

The authoritative dialog model, however, is the most challenging to introduce. It involves the hard work of discussing with people in order to pick out nuances, prejudices, and observations that are meaningful away from those that are not. It is truly an art to be able to see through the noise to the nuggets of use underneath. This is what makes this skill so difficult and so valuable.  In the search for a better digital design, we try to support the mission of useful, helpful, kind and gentle, peaceful machines.


Tension & Balance

In software design, we are trying to maintain a tense balance between the subject and the object, the subjective and the objective. In a version of the subjective model, it is the users interpretation that matters. This places emphasis on the study of the user. In an analogous objective model, good design is understood as a sort of art whereby majority agreement of beauty and usefulness can be perceived, taught, and designed without large amounts of user-feedback.

A case study: Google vs. Apple

Google and Apple are known to have two well-discussed traits. Google emphasizes data collection to drive function. Apple emphasizes good design to drive function. Let’s discuss these in terms of objective and subjective thought, as each exhibit both.

Google touts the objectivity of the data, saying that data’s power lies in its ability to back the subjective with “facts,” or something nearer to facts than something else. However, Google’s model is subjective, in that it treats the human response as the goal. Essentially, it says, “the humans are right” regardless of whether they are right or not. The danger in this is that there are examples where humans are easily deceived and willingly pollute themselves to such states of degradation that they can no longer function (i.e. addiction). Awareness that the human wants something doesn’t mean it’s good for their well being and longevity. In addition, subjectivity can generate a lack of innovation: a person may not know of the potential options available him if the options come from paradigms to which he is unaware.

Apple touts the subjectivity of the designer. A good designer will make a thousand decisions, some more well-informed than others, in the name of a coherent cohesion that causes the finished product to function as one polished piece (as opposed to a collection of disparate pieces glued together). This, however, is dangerous in that, the designer’s design effectively becomes the object (or objectivity) plopped into the subject’s life. At this step, the subject, if not in tune or harmony with this design, will then develop work-arounds, creative bandaids, or exploitative loopholes to cause the design to function in a way that is more in tune to their own channel of thought than the one for which the designer intended. Of course, this can cause the designer to learn and plan for these cases, but nonetheless messiness ensues for a time or longer.

Essentially, subject vs. object are the beginnings of the discussion of control vs. freedom, of central government vs. self-government. And so the question of balance: Which technique is more right? I perceive this to be one of the more difficult human conditions, so the best I can do is open the discussion.

When forming something in a relatively immature space, I tend to lean toward designer subjectivity and central control. To go farther more quickly, it helps to have a rigorous set of artistic principles designed to promote simplicity and order rather than allow each to create his own reality. This simplicity and order is especially useful for improving accessibility and understanding for those unfamiliar with the subject space.

However, once the distance has been covered in the space, once paradigms are established, it certainly is plausible to see a world where more freedom and self-government are enabled to allow for play within the defined boundaries of the matured space. Anarchy without government is scary; Government without freedom is equally scary. We work in tension to design with balance.

Stories for Sale

Stories are one of my favorite things. All of life is a story, multiplied by many lives, across our globe. The stories intersect and interact with each other, creating the network of us and our actions, those things that we've done or undone (or that have been done or undone to us).

This is perhaps why films, books, and poetry (for example, music) are so timeless in our world. They are our record of our stories.

What are stories for sale? 

We do not play a passive role in our stories. But, rather, we actively participate in the writing of many stories, including our own, all the time. And it is this truth that sets us up for the empire that is sale-driven marketing. It is an empire built on belief: that man can bend his story to be more like the story he desires through believing the desirable story, one he wishes to be entwined with his own.

Here are a few examples: the story of the working mom is one of speed, accomplishment, and striving. Does she want this to be part of her story? The story of the stay-at-home mom is one of caring, nurturing, and loving. Does she want this to be part of her story? The story of the Honda Accord is one of sensibility, honesty, and Japanese conscientiousness that exudes reliability and quality. Does he want this to be part of his story? The story of the BMW 3-series is one of excitement, Barvarian austerity, and rich-ness. Does he want this to be part of his story? The story of the Apple product is one of design, care, and integration. Does he want this to be part of his story? The story of the Microsoft product is one of down-to-business customization that says "techie." Does he want this to be part of his story? The products and lifestyles we encounter sell us their wares, and we buy them if we find it missing in our cart.

Sometimes stories are flung on us, whether good or not. Time and chance happen to us all: for example, one's story may contain illness as much as one's story may contain great health. 

A person is also a story: the story of a man can be one of athletics and strength (brawn), or the story can be one of thought and communication (brain). When a woman sees a man, she thinks: Do I want this story to be part of my story?  When a man or woman sees another man or woman, someone who could be his/her friend, he thinks: Do I want this story to be part of my story? Is there an attractive quality in this person's story that would benefit us both to encourage the intersection of our stories? I'm sure most don't think of our lives and friends in terms of stories, but it is an interesting perspective.

In depression, there is an anxiety that says, "my story is not good enough," or "I don't like my story." In extroverts, "my story will be more fun if it's near other people and their stories." In introverts, "my story will make more sense if I maintain a quiet retreat."

Each of us starts life with a collection of talents and gifts that provide us a way to achieve a purposeful usefulness through our service to other people. We are put-to-work, writing our own stories and helping those around us to write theirs. We hear stories around us, and buy the ones that most agree with our deepest desires.

Our story will be our legacy. Some individual stories will be remembered, but most will not. The collective legacy of many, however, will most certainly help to drive the future of those who come after our stories have been written. What should this story say? Having this thought in mind can help us write better stories today.


Heart of the Message

People are receiving counsel nearly all the time. In the era of digitized thought, the ability for broadcasted messages increases, and so does the need to filter it as true, false, or (somewhere in the middle) skeptical. Here are three types of counsel we receive, and a discussion of truth.

The counsel of a friend: Having a friend, conversing with a friend involves giving and receiving counsel. Any human to human interaction can be considered counseling. 

Television: Television is a pendulum of advertising and programming, swinging back and forth every few minutes - Turning on the television is a barrage of counseling: how to interact in a relationship; how to view the world; what to buy this week; a stream-of-conscious counseling to humanity. 

Facebook: Facebook's counsel is perhaps more nuanced. It is an "empty container" that calls for your content. You can "tell" Facebook your name, birthday, friends, and interests. Why? The container Facebook has provided is an opportunity for them to counsel you on things other people want to see and hear to know you. For example, notice the timeline concept: it invites events. This means you now are encouraged (counseled) to have events, especially as you see others having events occur on their timeline, and to share them.  Without Facebook, without their counsel, you may take a different view.

With the barrage of counseling, especially conflicting counsel, comes suspicion. "Hmm," you wonder, "what's the motive behind this person's counsel to me?" This is the heart of the message. Indeed this is a critical question, especially when counsel leads to action, action connect to situations, and situations pass through the multiplying factor of time whereby human life is built up or torn down (even destroyed) based on them. There is perhaps much resting on the level of truth in counsel, on the heart of the message.

The heart of the message, or perhaps the heart of the messenger, is my current challenge to you. Rather than performing the surface-level judgement of a person's words, it is better to instead perform the deeper interrogation of the heart of the person exchanging the thought. This enables you to not become a lawyer, dissecting words, but instead become an imperfect human, deriving meaning from more than the surface level textual context of the exchange.

Once you've done work to hear the words, and hear the heart of another person, the next step is to determine truth. How does one know truth? How does one know true counsel from false counsel? Or, true counsel from half-true counsel? (Perhaps the most appealing lies are the ones that sound so terribly true). Can truth change? Is truth today false tomorrow? The question of truth is a controversial one, and many will debate it throughout generations.

The counsel I've received over my slight few decades has encouraged me that truth does exist, and that the most basic truths do not change. For this situation to exist, the truth I see (some of you will be very skeptical here) is outside of people, and inside of God (the "trademarked" Yahweh God of the Christian Bible). As God reveals his truth, (which can be both easy or difficult to understand for a variety of reasons), so does the human race critique his truth and determine whether or not it's worthy of application. Having a foundation of truth from a foundation-building God enables me to explore deeper into human messaging and meaning without the fear of drowning in the grey matter that is created by human opinion.

Regardless of your belief, I challenge you to think through the implications the heart of the message, and its truth, as you use your own lenses of interpretation to receive or place skepticism on the counsel present in your life. No doubt you're doing it right now, as you read this post, and will continue with each pulsing message of your heart.