An experiment in… something.

As many of my long-term readers know, I’m often promising new content that never shows up. Partially it’s because the last 6 months have been absolutely nuts for me, and partially it’s because I have a problem with perfection. I know I have a problem with perfection and I fight it, but let’s face it, Perfection is perfect. Perhaps more saliently, Perfection has a pretty nasty right-hook and doesn’t fight fair.

But maybe it’s time for the nuclear option. Today I decided I’d like to try a little experiment in kicking Perfection’s ass (and breaking the chokehold it’s got on me). Would you join me? I have posted below the nearly stream-of-consciousness makings of an essay I want to polish up and publish. I’m asking you, my beloved readers, to help me make sense of it. Does it suck? Does it rock? Do you think the very idea is awful (or maybe fantastic)? What does it make you think, if anything? Tell me your thoughts and your stories. Let’s make something better together than any of us could have alone. Rant, rave, ignore me—I’ll take it all.

Reader’s Notes: I want to work in a reference to the highway that Crowley designed in Good Omens, and his approach to generating massive amounts of low-grade unhappiness being so much more effective than single but dramatic acts of evil (have you read Good Omens?). But my copy is home in Maryland, where I won’t be for another week.

And so, without further ado…

“Little Buddha” by barnkim. Creative Commons.

Happiness, Context, and the User Interface

the ultimate goal of product design should be human happiness. in one way or another. maybe your users get their jollies out of perverse things, like managing photographs, or a beautifully balanced accounting ledger, but you know, it’s not your place to judge them. there can be a joy in the successful and expert execution of any task, or so the philosophers tell us. (and i, for one, believe it.)

europeans place more importance on human happiness and it shows. (the same seems to be true of australians and new zealanders.) many things are nicer there, less destructive of the people who make up the economy. you’ll see places where the government or private individuals have invested in good design, or better products, or better conditions not just for a profit motivation, but simply because it’s nicer. shops close on sunday, and have shorter hours in the summer. in paris, many businesses close for the entire month of august. could they make more money if they stayed open? of course. but at what cost?

americans… well. for the most part, we are incredulous that anyone would close their business for an entire month, and it’s safe to say people aren’t even whispering “but what would make people happy?” when most government and corporate decisions are made.

we lack context, and humans need context to be happy, satisfied creatures. in europe, they have buildings that are 300, 400 years old—dime a dozen, practically. then you have the roman temples discovered when they build the u-bahn lines and the roman walls dug out of the ground, a thousand years old or more. and that’s not all that unusual.

in america, what context do we have? none. or, if not none, the only context we have are things that are of momentous importance. really old things aren’t commonplace here. the white house and liberty bell aren’t things that were part of the fabric of everyday people’s everyday lives. there is the feeling that history is only for those special people who are pivotal, famous or really unfortunate. that’s what leads us to spend all our lives waiting, working, scrimping and suffering for that one moment when it all becomes real. we are numbed to the moment, because we aren’t surrounded by things that remind us that, 1200 years ago, somebody else thought this was real, this was it, this was a worthwhile expenditure of his or her life. when you’re surrounded by the work of long-dead people, you begin to remember that you’re a human and you’ll die, too. and what will you leave behind?

that’s the power of context.

if you remember that you’ll die—really know it, deep down, and imagine it often, not just admit, academically, that of course you will—every day stuff becomes paradoxically both less important and more important. the bad stuff rolls off you more easily (because really, the only thing you can’t use productively or recover from is death—and what’s missing your train today compared to blinking out of existence in 40 years?). it’s easier to look at everything in life as a learning experience. it’s harder to fool yourself that whatever you’re doing is “good enough for now, real life will start soon.” it’s easier to give of the things you’ve held close and dear. it makes far less sense to inflict discomfort and suffering for a quick buck. the love that you can get and give becomes more important. taking time to nurture your being, do good things for your soul, becomes paramount. the words “integrity” and “sincerety” slowly lose their tarnished quality and become real things. and if our lives are, as they say, “nasty, brutish, and short” you can quickly learn to take genuine joy in helping others’ short, nasty existences be less so.

pretty much, i think there’s a direct correlation between context and goodwill towards one’s fellow humans. we, as a society, need to spend more time contemplating the millions who’ve gone before us and blinked out of existence with little or no record left of them, no one to remember them, especially those who—right up til the very end—treated their lives as worthless commodities, spending their lives instead of living them, just getting by. contemplating your own existence and then the cessation of that existence (e.g. death) is a good way to give yourself context, too.

and once we have context, once we have generated some of that goodwill, it really becomes an imperative to create things that lessen human suffering.

it’s a formula that makes sense: life is short and full of pains, little ones and big ones. you don’t escape with anything, not your money, not your dignity and probably not any accolades that will put you down in the history books (and even if you’re in the books, you’ll probably be a dry and distant character, nobody to hold a middle school Social Studies student’s interest). what you can effect in terms of positive change during your time on this planet can be your only legacy. and so doesn’t it make sense to make things that lessen the suffering of your fellows?

i don’t believe in karma, not as an outside force that sticks its finger on the scales. but i think, deep down, every human knows exactly what he or she deserves. we know how we’ve conducted ourselves. we know what the costs are. we may pretend to not care, or to delight in the trouble we cause and the deceit we can get away with, like naughty children who just dare their parents to stop loving them for acting up. but, when it comes down to it, others have imperfect knowledge of us, no matter how close we are. only our own self-assessments matter and we always know. and so it’s important to do things which make us proud of ourselves in a meaningful way.

so, it’s my philosophy to attack design problems with an eye towards universal human suffering. yes, i’m serious. why not?

Your turn

All right, that’s it. Have at it/me. Talk to me!

No Comments

  1. bryanl says:

    where are the capital letters?

  2. John Athayde says:

    capital letters make the baby jesus cry.

  3. Amy says:

    Aw, c’mon Bryan, it’s a rough draft and admittedly stream of consciousness. Give a girl a break. 🙂

  4. Well, it’s no secret that in Europe there seems to be a focus on making workers happy (nice long vacations, social programs aimed at helping out working people with kids, etc) while the US remains stuck in hypercapitalistic mode, focussed on making bosses happy by bringing in lots of money.

    In the end, happy workers are bound to be more productive workers simply because they are more likely to want to be at work doing things they find relevant. Such a simple idea, but not one that a lot of bosses seem to want to buy into. Maybe it costs a lot of money, and when you are only focusing on the next quarter’s profit targets, it’s hard to look down the road at when you’ll get a return on treating your workers nice.

  5. Amy says:

    @Chris, yes. They have a longer timeline. In the US, businesses seem to be slave to this quarter’s earnings, not just because of the bosses but because of the shareholders/"the market" on the whole. Companies that take care of their employees (at the cost of slightly lower profits at first), like Costco, get treated like pariahs… and then finally, bizarre victors, when they continue to do so well.

    This country has a really weirdly distorted time horizon.

  6. Justin says:

    I understand that it’s a rough draft and all, but the total lack of capitalization isn’t something I’d forgo… even for a rough draft. I’m all for not focusing on perfection, but there should be limits. 😉

  7. Andrew Vit says:

    Amy, I love it. It makes me think of this presentation:

    Design is about decisions. Decisions are meaningless without context.

  8. Erik Kastner says:

    I’ll be the wet blanket to not discuss the theme, but the actual "essay" (I am meta after all). I like it, I think you drive the point home too many times though. I think it could be shortened greatly while still having just as much (if not more) impact – and getting your point across.

    I do have to ask though – if the love is what’s important, why are YOU killing YOURSELF lately!

  9. Amy says:

    @Justin, point taken. I’ll run it through a sentence case filter next time. 🙂

    @Andrew, awesome, I take that as a compliment! I will go watch that video after dinner.

    @Erik, cuz I love what I do, duh. 😉 But the self-murdering will have to stop soon, I know.

  10. Amy says:

    @Erik, oh, and that kind of feedback about the format/repetitiveness is what I’m looking for also. You’re probably right. That’s my main weakness as a writer. 🙂

  11. Sudara says:

    Amy, I had to stop reading halfway through to post:

    There’s no question that your a great writer. Spit it out, there’s tons of folks who respect and enjoy your public output in whatever shape or form it comes out in.

    The rougher the better is great rule to follow for a perfectionist. It’s better than waiting, not producing, or playing guilt and mind games regarding creation. We hear things all the time in this web-dev world about iterative development – but sometimes fail to grasp that each action of ours is itself an iteration – let it flow, and trust that the quality of the source is always improving!

    Though it’s understandable that a fraction of your readers may pick you apart (for some reason or another) – please follow what makes you happy – we’ll all benefit together from the creative results.

    Of course it rocks.

    Appreciative reader #976 sudara

  12. mde says:

    Good on ya for recognizing that "the perfect is the enemy of the good."

    It is indeed interesting how your point of view changes when you take the long view (i.e., "holy crap, I’m going to die sometime soon here."). I really like the idea of channeling the existential angst into informing your priorities even during your mundane day-to-day — making you a bit more conscious of what really is important in life.

    That perspective and context may not be super helpful in the hammering out of compromises you have to make when opinions genuinely differ about the best approach for crafting that design (the other person might be passionate about his perspective as well). But it might make you reconsider how truly vital is it for things like "how many pixels down this doohickey should go."

    The only thing that seemed perhaps worth questioning in your argument was the idea that being surrounded by ancient history is what encourages the Europeans to take things more slowly. The Japanese have the same thing, and are famous for working themselves to death. Interesting to think about what might be different there.

    Good stuff, nicely done. 🙂

  13. random8r says:

    Umm… I don’t think you can ever be without context… even (apparent) lack of context is a context. Perhaps you’d explore that a bit more… what that means?

    The issue, usually, for me, is whether I’m aware of it or not. Aware of what it means to inhabit this space, in this moment (and this moment, and this moment, and so on, continuously here, now).

    To be with this kind of presence allows me to appreciate my real context at this moment, not the context of the head, which says one needs to be aware of one’s history in order to know how to proceed with something.

    If one pays attention to this moment, this history of everything, including myself, is evident. By not having much history that I’m aware of in my head, that sets me immediately free pragmatically.

    It’s an interesting "paradox".


  14. Amy says:

    @Sundra, thank you so much for your kind words. You really made my evening. And you’re totally right about waiting and mind games and guilt, and those are exactly the probelms I cause myself.

    @mde, yeah, the whole thing is a bit green fieldy. But striving to do what’s right doesn’t mean you always succeed… but the striving is important. Or at least that’s my theory. (Even if it’s bloody frustrating.)

    As for the Japanese point you raise, I don’t know a whole lot about their culture but if it it’s anything like Chinese or Korean culture, everyone is taught from a young age that individuals are far less important than the family and society as a whole. Whereas Europeans are much closer to Americans in terms of the lens we view history thru. Or at least that’s what I’d argue if we were arguing 🙂 But really I don’t think I have all the answers (yet 😉

    @random8r/Julian, good points. If you feel something you’re feeling it; if you exist you have context. You’re right. I guess I was thinking of a very specific kind of context which we (Americans) often don’t have, or at least don’t think about. Our "disposable" culture frightens me.

    I’m not entirely sure my theory is true. But it could be true, and other theories could also be true. I like to write to figure things out as much as try to pass on knowledge to others. 🙂

    And man, I REALLY need to make this text area bigger!

  15. You cannot make everyone happy at the same time.

    Why is closing shops on sunday a good thing? the same question for some business closing for a month.

    Happiness is a state of mind, and by design we have to feel and experience unhappiness to appreciate the other side of it.

    Rules, Regulations, Constraints exist everywhere.. You can look at these as freedom and joy of closing shops on sunday from your context, but hey who knows?

  16. Nemo says:

    first of all, an interesting read – keep it up!

    the context point is a good one – being born in a city that’s about 1700 years old, I often found myself looking at some old building and wondering about all of the people who passed there before… or looking at the mountains and thinking "what did the Romans see when they looked at this same bloody mountain? what will someone 1700 years in the future see?"…

    and then I moved to Vietnam, where I think it’s even more pronounced in a way – I mean, it’s not just one life we’re talking about now, it’s a whole string of reincarnations… the same note about individualism and the collective applies here as in Chinese/Korean/Japanese cultures…

    and as they say, the only way to be truly happy is to make other people happy… and if your job doesn’t allow that, you’re screwed (meaning, you need a new job)…

    but (to play Devil’s advocate for a bit now), I would also like to bring up Huxley and "Brave new world" – and the individual’s right/need to suffer… so let’s not over-do the "making most of the people happy most of the time is my job and duty" reasoning.

    obviously, happines and suffering are more complicated than a simple black-and-white view…

    hm, think I could write tangential thoughts like these for a long time, I better stop while I still can.

    I’ll just add that the lack of capitalization makes for a good perfection antidote…

  17. Lance says:

    UX and UI for the good of mankind. I love it! 🙂

  18. Lance says:

    err or rather humankind 🙂

  19. Amy says:

    @Muthu, for sure. You can’t make people happy, anyway, right? It has to come from inside. But feeling valued — and seeing the effort someone puts into designing something beautiful and good — helps people to be happy (conversely, being treated just as a cog and nothing else tends to make people more likely to be unhappy).

    @Nemo, interesting to hear about the Asian cultural differences from someone who has first-hand experience!

    As for your devil’s advocacy… I think at least half the gain comes from the effort and intention involved in facing your work with the goal of reducing suffering. Even if you don’t succeed, you know you tried, that’s the mindset you’ve been in, and that’s good for you (and eventually good for others, too). 🙂 Obviously suffering’s not going to way. Noble truth #1 is "Life is suffering." But striving to make the world a happier place can’t hurt.

    @Lance, 😀

  20. Douglas says:

    Are you sure the lack of historical context is responsible for the culture in the US? I’m in Glasgow, Scotland, which is a city of the Industrial Revolution, like so many others. It comprised three streets in 1800 – Philadelphia was far bigger! And European history is American history too. I sometimes think that, from the perspective of the other side on which the grass might be greener, Americans may in general be better at living in the present. History seems more alive there, and more meaningful.

    But maybe by "European" you didn’t mean "British" – we are joint protagonists of that Anglo-Saxon economic model, after all!

    Your post came a day after my birthday. It made me think of <a href="">this comic</a>. I know you were making a serious point, but… bummer.

  21. Amy says:

    @Douglas, no, I’m not entirely sure. I think "outloud" by writing. But I think that may be a major component… it certainly struck me very strongly while I was over there.

    As for the UK, it has many of the same ills as the US: overwork, lack of respect and protection for workers, scary consumer products, etc. Seems like the older and continental european countries are the ones where things are more human-friendly. Granted, even in the UK it seems like homes and things are built more to last than in the US.

    History is definitely not more alive here. Ask anybody on the street about even recent US history and they don’t know or understand it… to a scary degree. I was impressed in Vienna how much of the history has been kept alive, and not even for tourists, but among the people who actually live there.

    We might be better at living in the present, though. But perhaps too much? Many, many people here are slaves to their jobs and credit cards and just getting by, spending way more money than they should (or have).

    Also, pretty much no moment is too serious for PBF. <a href="">This one</a> is my favorite. 🙂

  22. Amy says:

    @Douglas, oh, and happy birthday. Nevermind the man in the cape behind the curtain with the abacus. 😉

  23. Douglas says:

    Thanks, Amy, for the birthday wishes. I’ve been trying not to think of the man in the cape. You describe him like one of the characters in that game Cluedo (I think you’ll call it Clue). I think I’d prefer Miss Scarlet.

    I think by my comment about history being more alive in America, I’m not really talking about empirical historical knowledge of the man in the street, but more that the conjunction of the present and the past that led to it can be clearer, if that makes sense. I feel that, in the UK at least, we’re often stuck living in these historical shells, buildings where the old facade remains and a new building has been built within it (I mean metaphorically, but just two blocks from where I am right now there’s a literal case of this, where the new floors don’t even align with the external windows), and as a result we feel a bit detached from the larger historical process.

    I should start a blog to discuss this stuff rather than wittering on in your comments section! I think it would tend to be quite similar: user experience, Rails, so on. I find there’s no better way to work through how you feel about something than by writing about it.

    For the record, my favourite PBF comic is still <a href="">this one</a>.

  24. Ken Wagner says:

    Hi Amy.

    Ultimate goal of product design? To become invisible.

    The very best interfaces become invisible to the user.

    Just the user and whatever they seek.


    1. They are outrageously intuitive.
    2. Incredibly easy to use.
    3. Change & grow as the user advances along the learning curve.
    4. User-changeable. I can edit the interface.
    5. It becomes my own aperture on the universe. (Hate that word Windoze!!)

    A facile interface gives the user every opportunity to make less do more.

    A great one also has room for humor, help and whimsy!!

    One of the reasons I love Ruby.

    The PRIME INGREDIENT? Fun! The next ingredient? Results.

    A good example? The "Mac."

    What a power of context!!

    So, howcome we are in a PC world??

    Simple. We are addicted to money, posessions, power. We are addicted to the notion we are building a better monolithic tomorrow. Sadly, there is only today. Now.

    As it has been noted: Those who live for tomorrow have one foot in the grave.

    Why not the best ‘now’ we are capable of??

    Once we have learned that the journey, not the trappings, is the thing, there will be a tectonic upheaval. We will, one day, even take off the whole month of July!! Talk about some real independence!! Fun!! Refreshment!! Sheesh!!

    You know, life is short only if you live in the interminable ‘tomorrow.’ If I live in today and love today, well, I have a not only a long life but innumerable opportunites to make this world a much better experience. For me and for you.

    The secret is to focus on you. Not me. The goal of any good interface.

    Ummm… less suffering, more joy, huh?

    Universal joy. Now there’s a concept!! Why not?

    Keep up the good work!!

    Ken Wagner Sugar Creek, MO

  25. Chad Fowler says:

    Sounds like you’ve been studying Buddhism. I’m not saying you have, but it sounds like it. FWIW, I think you do actually believe in karma. Karma literally translates to "action" and in the context in which it’s usually used refers to the consequences of our own actions.

    In general, I like this sentiment. I think human happiness (even one’s own happiness) is, secularly speaking, the most virtuous goal. It follows that it should drive our decisions in all matters.

  26. J. Ramon says:

    @Chris: what do you mean "long vacations" not even 1,5 monthes a year 🙂

  27. Julian - not previous Julian says:

    Hi Amy,

    It’s the Rails way! Get it out there and see what happens! Warts and all, because life’s too short.


  28. It is with no hyperbole or sycophancy that I’ll say that was perhaps the best written tract on design I’ve ever read. It’s anything other than some formative little scribbling.

    You’ve given us here a manifesto for Existential Design. Maybe even more than Buddhism, it sounds like you’ve been studying Woody Allen and Shakespeare. "Stardust Memories" and Hamlet, respectively, are my greatest inspirations in life, design and otherwise. Not in spite of, but because they are both redolent of death.

    I never thought to link my feelings on design to my higher-order ontological philosophy, but you’ve helped me do that here. Helping readers to make new connections between things they already care about is one of the greatest skills of a writer, and one you’ve mastered that here, for this reader anyway.

  29. Shaal says:

    I will fav you for saying this

    "I know I have a problem with perfection and I fight it, but let’s face it, Perfection is perfect. Perhaps more saliently, Perfection has a pretty nasty right-hook and doesn’t fight fair."

    There is not a single thing perfect, and those who fight for perfection are close to perfection and mark my words you are one of them~

  30. Amy says:

    @Douglas, wittering in my comments section is awesome. Why would you ever want to quit? 😉

    I can’t speak of the UK, really, having never lived there, but I’d say in the US, people are staggeringly ignorant of the past, period. They don’t understand even the events of the last 20-40 years enough to understand how our current life came to be. Which is pretty scary.

    @Chad, yep, I’ve been studying Buddhism on and off for the past 4-5 years. I just generally have the good taste to keep it to myself 😉

    I really don’t think I believe in karma, though. I see that there are people who do "bad" things all their life and profit from it, and never suffer visibly. If they suffer internally, we can’t tell. (And I certainly don’t think they’ll be reincarnated as dung beetles.) But I do believe that, deep down, they probably know that they’re not good people. Could be wrong, though.

    @Ken, I think that the "invisible" thing is certainly true sometimes. I think in many cases, though, "invisible" is not so much the thing as "extension of my self." But that might not apply to web applications 🙂

    Otherwise, though, pretty much agree with you!

    @Julian, I’ll keep trying. Thanks 🙂

    @Ryan, you flatter me! I haven’t seen that movie but of course I’m a fan of Hamlet.

    But I do like the phrase "Existential Design." And, haha, higher-order ontological philosophy. I’ve never thought of my morbid tendencies in quite that way before 🙂

    @Shaal, thank you. 🙂

  31. random8r says:

    Hey Amy,

    Here’s something for you… I like talking to you about stuff, and listening to what you have to say, and publicly is great, but I hate this interface to it.

    I want a way to organise all my crap together… basically it’s the whole conundrum of "all this stuff that I want to pay attention to" which I forget about because there are too many "items".

    I don’t think comments in a blog are "it" 😉

    Further comments about "your" context:

    Context gives meaning, and thus the issue here is really culture – the length and bredth of time which we measure each new moment in. I’m interested in not so much clearing this context, but being free of it.

    That means it still exists – I don’t want to decimate it, but I’m not bound to it.

    As an American, you have a culture which is, as you say, disposible. I can relate to that culture, because our Australian culture is on a similar trip. We’ve such a short history that we aren’t bound to it exactly in the same way as Americans aren’t.

    Like all sticks, this one has two ends, too: Having little history means it’s easier for us to bring ourselves back to the present, because we’re literally closer to it.

    This means it’s easier for us to change.

    And you and I, as Rails people, understand that that means agility, which means more fun and joy.

    no? 🙂

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