EQ Sense-making

The Designer’s Paradox

You can’t design guaranteed outcomes in a complex living system but you can maximise the likelihood of a good experience. The challenge for the designer is this: experience is highly subjective and filtered through an emotional lens over which we rarely (if ever) have complete control. With practice, we can tune into this “engine” and better understand how it works. A person’s ability to process this emotionalised data depends on many factors including how well they have adjusted to life experiences, especially difficult ones encountered early on in childhood and also capacity (inclination) to see things from perspectives other than their our own. 

Let’s go back in time. Legend has it that audiences fled in panic during an early showing of the Lumiere brother’s 1896 film, “L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat” (“Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station”) at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. Whether this is true and factual is a matter of debate among historians. However, the story serves the purpose of illustrating the fundamental question of not only how individuals perceive a shared experience but also, and more to the point, how they “choose” to react.

Past Experience and Present Events

Watching this charming footage, the idea of a panicked audience pouring from the cinema seems quaint. Probably because of the socio-cultural gulf, or perhaps due to the technological advancements we’ve come to take for granted. Today we don’t really bat an eyelid at the idea of two people watching the same Netflix show and one enjoying it, while the other dislikes it almost to the point of disgust. Why is that? In many ways, it’s the same question separated by 120 years of collective, social experience.

Our experience of the present is intricately intertwined with our memories of the past and fears and expectations of the future. Both have the effect of eroding our ability to inhabit the present and absorb new and potentially enriching insights. Over time, the memory of memory becomes distorted like the image on a piece of paper that has been photocopied over and over again. So our present memory is often a poor facsimile of our actual past experience and yet it informs our current point of view in terms of how we feel.

This can impact our capacity to experience healthy recall and so a closed loop is established where a fuzzy version of the past creates the present which in turn creates the future. The circuit breaker in this vicious circle is the realisation that we can choose how we’re experiencing the present by in effect taking control of the mood-regulating subliminal thought processes. In particular, how we respond to unexpected events and new information.

Emotions, Choice and Impact

Our brain processes between 70 to 90 per cent of the information it encounters subconsciously and will respond much in the same way it does to data received consciously. This is a double-edged sword for us in terms of managing our mood states. The intersection of our lived experience, relationships and familial come socialised values, harbours a multitude of blind spots. We, therefore, have a fundamental decision to make every time we sense new data: is it real or imagined? External or internal?

One implication is, of course, both possibilities apply. The designer’s mindset is, invariably, if we can imagine something it is either real or realisable; hence, the paradox. So here is the question: is it the Designers’ job to make decisions for the beneficiary? Or is it to facilitate choice by drawing on the innate capacity of the individual to navigate the moral maze of complexity for themself and arrive, not at an answer, but to the point where they are seeking the right questions? After all, this is what choice is; the freedom to explore the questions that make sense according to one’s point of view.

By being in this “seeking” space a person will already be doing the right thing. In exercising a choice, the outcomes they achieve are their outcomes; the journey, their journey. For the fabled audience back at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris; the most intriguing aspects of this story is that faced with a personal experience of one of the most spectacular cultural innovations known to mankind, it boiled down to a visceral choice between sitting or running. Their experience is less straightforward to surmise and remains cloaked in the mystery of subjectivity, as it should be. As for the Lumiere brother’s, the impact speaks for itself and, in terms of design principles and intent, as every innovator comes to learn, it doesn’t get any better than that.


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