me, myself, and i: self-reflection for design
Around the age of 8, I decided wanted to become a writer. The way I decided to practice was to narrate everything that ever happened to me, to my self, in a third person voice.
In hindsight, I wouldn't recommend this tactic because as I grew older, the voice became destructive for my self. It morphed into harsh criticism of everything I ever did. It told me that I'd never be good enough. It mocked everything I did for myself as selfish.
It took a very long time to take all these fragmented pieces of identity and get them to cooperate to any degree. It remains an ongoing process, but being aware of them provides a powerful tool for self-awareness, and that in turn can be directly applied to powerful design.
This isn't an article about the tools of good design. Good design makes you feel what the designer wanted you to feel, and achieving that demands effort to understand the scaffolding of those tools, the bare essence of human communication. We need to ask why the tools of good design work at all. Without at least a background understanding that deeper human mechanic, it is much more difficult to understand the problems that come up in design, let alone identify how to fix them. You could hammer a nail with a wrench, but you're using the wrong tool for the problem.
The issue is that hammers, nails, and wrenches are all very concrete and hard tools that are easy to understand. Human perception and emotions, the primary materials of design, are mostly soft and squishy, and no one has them figured out completely. If someone claims to have done so, they are delusional or lying.
As a designer, there is no point in crafting a world that is not meant to be shared. If it fails to provide the targeted experience for the audience, what was the point of all the effort which goes into making it? And with that question hanging in the air, another question comes to light; how can designers create that experience if no one has perfectly figured out what makes humans tick?
Luckily, designers have the advantage of being humans ourselves, so we get a firsthand look into what that actually means. Whenever we ask ourselves, "Does this feel fun?" we are stepping outside the boundaries of our primary perspective to analyze our own reaction to the experience, and see why that reaction is occurring so it can be recreated. Imagine how much more powerful this design tool could become, the insights it can reveal, when actively practiced and cultivated.
Every human thought and emotion (called "reactions" here) can be analyzed to at least three degrees; the Reaction itself, the Reaction's Reason, and the Reaction's Root.
Let's take the following scenario as an example: a close family member has presented me with a terrible Christmas gift.
- Reaction: A forced smile, an act in which I am pretending to be thrilled with the gift.
- Reaction's Reason: I do not wish to offend this close family member by revealing how terrible I find the gift to actually be.
- Reaction's Root: I dislike public confrontations.
Most casual observers would be able to discern to the Reaction's Reason, but design-minded people should be able at least make an educated guess regarding the Reaction's Root because achieving at least this level of insight is the core of understanding a target audience. As designers, we have to know our audience better than they know themselves, meaning we have to understand why they want something.
This approach can just as easily be applied to game and experience design, and can be approached from both the perspective of design and target audience. Let's look at another example: We have watched a playtester be disappointed by a mobile game prototype that our team has been developing.
- Target Audience Reaction: Decreasing interest throughout the level.
- Reaction's Reason:
- The game's design is strategy-heavy and turn based.
- The target audience found the rules to be convoluted and frustrating.
- Reaction's Possible Roots:
- The game did not present the rules well to the target audience.
- The game's UI layout is flawed.
- The designer did not understand the target audience actually wants a simpler turn-based game, not as much strategy.
Casual observers in this case may take the route of assuming that because the target audience found the rules frustrating, the rules themselves must be fundamentally changed, which has the danger of turning the project into a different game altogether. A designer must consider the actual roots of what made the target audience frustrated, and which of those roots are within our power to change for the next round of testing.
In the examples above, I gave three degrees of analysis to the given scenarios. There are many more degrees that can be reached, and the way to unlock them is to take the approach of an insistent child, asking "why" at every turn. Practicing this kind of branching, deep analysis is vital for designers to create experiences which ultimately feel whole.
This brings me to my final point, that empathy, the ability to relate to emotions of another, is the underlying force that is available to designers, and like any skill, it can be practiced with discipline and analysis. One of the most powerful ways to begin is by using yourself as your own emotions as the subject of your analysis. Defining the actual reaction, reason, and root of our own emotions is key to understanding how to make deep experiences that resonate to the roots of others as well.