In my role as strategist for a marketing agency, I work with a number of clients who have, in the past few years, taken a more customer-centric approach to their marketing activities.

In a practical sense this means they provide their customers a variety of mostly digital tools–cost calculators, supplier locators, e-catalogs, and the like.

When they tell me about the work they’re doing to optimize user experience, they describe approaches that are more about the properties of these tools–their appearance and functionality–than the experience of the user.

They don’t talk about what their customers are really doing when they take up one of their tools, as if that matter has already been settled. However, many of them also complain that their marketing efforts (i.e., these tools) are failing to deliver the results they’re aiming for.

 

Looking to Heidegger

One explanation for this failure is that when we use, say, a mobile app our experience is not primarily with its properties—its appearance and functionality. This was a distinction anticipated by the 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. For Heidegger, the objects we use are most meaningfully experienced in context, as the stuff of everyday life.

For a given occasion, the heart of my experience using Google maps is that I can’t be late for an important meeting in an unfamiliar location. My experience is not centered around any of its features. Understanding the experience of using an object depends on understanding the context of use. Even a glancing familiarity with Heidegger and the philosophy of René Descartes, which is the line of thinking Heidegger stood against, will shine a light on the importance and character of context.

The prevailing understanding of user and experience–the understanding behind my clients’ preoccupation with the properties of the tools they provide their customers–grows out of Descartes’ thinking, according to which, each of us is a self-sufficient subject (“a thinking thing”) engaged at a purely intellectual level with objects and their properties. So it’s no surprise that we define users as primarily concerned with the appearance and function of the objects they use, and require that experience be explained in terms of these properties.

According to Descartes, as thinking (rational) beings, an object’s properties are all that are truly available to us. The instinctive, intuitive–non-rational, absolutely contextualized–ways we access and use objects for meeting the demands of a specific situation are effectively invisible to this understanding of user experience.

Emphasizing his staunch opposition to the Cartesian tradition, Heidegger describes the kind of being we experience with the phrase “being-in-the-world.” This connotes not location but involvement (as it does when we say, for example, “in love”) and "world" stands for all the unwritten rules directing one’s involvements. For example, the way a door is experienced as the means for going in and out of a room and not as a slab of wood. As being-in-the-world we experience objects as useful or not useful in relation to a specific situation. Think of the pen you pick up to jot a quick note. Before picking it up you don’t stop to consider its color, material makeup, functional advantages, etc. You are involved in the situation that calls you to make a note and the pen is only there for you as a pen because of that situation.

Don’t Be Cartesian

Though the customer-centric agenda many of my clients have recently adopted might be a positive development, it’s misguided. The agenda shouldn’t be directed by the Cartesian framework, which underlies the preoccupation of most organizations with the properties of the things they produce. Yes, at some level properties matter to users, but they are not what the average, ordinary, everyday experience of moment-to-moment reality is about. It’s this level of experience that’s both most essential to us and least understood by organizations producing things that get used. Getting a handle on this common, everyday, lived experience is crucial for marketing and UX professionals, and it requires a paradigm shift of the kind Heidegger introduced with the concept of being-in-the-world.

The situated involvement at the heart of being-in-the-world reflects an interior condition very different than the Cartesian stance towards a world of objects, which is subjective and rational. Heidegger describes it with the word care. He says being-in-the-world is care. A thing matters–we care about it–because it is of a specific particular situation, and it depends on the full network of relations that define a situation.

Great UX … should be a matter of getting the phenomenon of individual involvements right.

I care about the pen because it allows me to make a note, which is how I remember the groceries I have to pick up on my way home, which is an enactment of providing for my family, which is … well, the point is made. The glue that coheres these relationships is care.

The structure of being-in-the-world is such that I encounter, first and foremost, myself as mattering (Heidegger says that our very being is an issue, a matter of foremost concern). I am what I most care about; I am my primary involvement. This care expresses itself as what could be called adornment: I adorn myself with artifacts and acts, interests and involvements. It is how I experience my self. This adornment is called style, and even those who eschew fashion have it.

How is This Mine?

Now we see how objects exist most meaningfully for us–not as assemblages of properties but as the means by which one is involved or being-in-the-world. What marketers need to get right is the way this universally human structure manifests individually and locally. These adornments are deeply personal and practical. They manifest involvement and through them the self is experienced, shaped, and reshaped. Products that get it right will at least be temporarily indispensable to their users.

This is the phenomenon that explains the popularity of the iPhone–just consider the countless people who have repurposed one of their hands into an iPhone holder! With its explicit concern for style (the recent “Designed by Apple in California” campaign underscores the explicitness of this concern) iPhone reflects back on the user the phenomenon of adornment, the way one is essentially involved with oneself. Great UX (and marketing) shouldn’t be a matter of getting the properties right. It should be a matter of getting the phenomenon of individual involvements right.

When I use the biking app on my smartphone I am enacting an experience of my self. Using the app is not most meaningfully an interaction with any of its properties (or the smartphone’s). I’m not called to use the app for its graphics or its numerous functions. I’m called to use it because, as an adornment, it reflects back to me the image I have of myself as a serious cyclist. In this reflected image is an experience of my self.

Great UX will understand this phenomenon and begin to incorporate it into its designs and product development. Case in point, my biking app allows me to extend my experience of my self into a world it opens to me–by means of its social functions I can follow other riders and others can follow me.

Admittedly the kind of experience I’m describing is nuanced and perhaps only accessible with special objects–tools that call us to be in some way extraordinary, meta versions of ourselves. On the other hand, what I’m describing is tethered to an appreciation of the most fundamental phenomena of being human. When Descartes developed his rigorously rational philosophy it was against a background of, and an antidote to, intolerable uncertainty. For that reason it held sway.

The pendulum has swung the other way in the four centuries since. In our age we are not best understood as “thinking things” building structures of unassailable certainty. And with the abetting of today’s robust analytics, the Cartesian framework threatens to reduce all humanity to an objectified commodity, cut off from the source of meaningful experience.

By contrast Heidegger situates objects in a world of deeply personal involvements where nothing is standalone and stable, nothing is ultimately determined, and consequently everything is in play. Such a world is ad hoc (a door closed with excessive force is used to express anger); our involvements improvised and intense—the very stuff of a meaningful life. Marketers should want to know that objects are the adornments of being-in-the-world—that they are the means by which I experience first and foremost my self.

Conclusion

Without an appreciation of these phenomena, marketers and UX designers misapprehend the nature of experience and misunderstand the essential motivations of users. This trap is easy to fall into, since very little directs us away from the hyper-rational focus of the Cartesian perspective. But if we’re serious about understanding user experience–or more to the point, human beings and their experiences–there’s an alternative approach, and it takes that work seriously.

 

Image of abstract watercolor courtesy shutterstock.

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Thank you so much for this article! As a recent graduate of a Media Studies program, I've been thinking a lot about my decision to focus my masters education on Media Studies rather than a strictly design-centered program. Just today I picked up Bernard Cache's 'Earth Moves' again - it was required reading in a Deleuze course I took. At the time, I found it fascinating but I felt that I wasn't really understanding it. Now, in the context of working with clients to prototype their products, the work of Cache and Deleuze resonate on such a deeper level, one where I see clearly how their ideas can be applicable to what I'm doing. Your essay is another example of how philosophy can inform our decisions and be applied to creating more meaningful experiences.

Great article, I enjoyed reading it and I agree with the points. One more example regarding Apple: when I log into the Apple Developer portal and then go to the design resources section, I notice that they named it iOS Human Interface Guidelines. Funny how it was so noticeable that they are trying to change the thinking about "users" to humans.

Joady, I agree. Empathy in design would be great. And it's not something in standard practice -- or so it seems. Thanks.

Great essay, thankyou. What I take from this is that it is important not to impose or burden the individual with design and functionality that gets in the way of their context or caring. Imagine a pen that only works in the morning, or a door hinged to open into a closet space... yet everyday I experience online functionality just as absurd. It disconnects the user from the service as it screams "I don't care what is impotant to you". The cause: Client centric over-design, or functionality designed by developers. The remedy isnt to try and understand and then design for individual (an impossibility) but rather design usability using empathy.

Thanks for a very engaging and resonating article. It motivates me to more accurately capture and characterize the "phenomenon of individual involvements" of my customers' customers. Would you say that product features, functions, and aesthetics should be developed primarily to support the quality of those phenomena?

Greg,
Thanks for the great question. It had me thinking hard about a few things, and here’s that thinking (maybe more or other than you expected).

Yes, it’s worth the effort but will be very hard to pull off. For a couple of reasons. First and most important, I think people's involvements – the ordinary, everyday activities out of which a human life is made – repel description. I can think of my marriage as an example. It’s a major involvement for me. And yet any description or definition I give it falls hopelessly short of my actual lived experience of it. Call it a mystery. So getting a handle on “the quality of those phenomena” (i.e., the details of one’s involvements) requires an approach that appreciates their indeterminateness. Which leads to the second reason: most organizations work very hard to dispel indeterminateness and mystery. And even go so far as to promise a (fictional) certainty to customers. Every product is framed by the means-end paradigm: the product as the means to some predefined end. However, the phenomenon of involvement is a means-as-end paradigm. Which suggests that product properties (feature, functions and aesthetics) will be utterly subservient to the immediacy of human life. Sometimes a smartphone will get used as a paperweight.

So while I think it would be great if an organization cared enough about the nitty-gritty of my life to design a product that extended any one of my innumerable involvements, a) I think it’s a phenomenological impossibility, and b) is organizationally & operationally untenable. For a corporate organization there is no such thing as a market of one.

But, and here’s the (contingent) upside: a “brand” can effectively insinuate itself in the involvements of its customers. In the paper I talk about Apple’s explicit concern with style as a way of reflecting back on a customer the phenomenon of adornment (and I use the term adornment to point to the way each of us in effect dresses up the nakedness of being with acts and artifacts – involvements). And just think of all they do to articulate that concern: the Apple retail stores, the iOS 7 Jony Ive video, the product packaging, etc. Similarly, Google’s Motorola recently launched a “Designed by You” campaign for its new phone. The first ad claims, “…you should have the freedom to design the things in your life to be as unique as you are.” Seems to me this takes Apple’s concern with style (i.e., adornment) a step beyond.

Finally, though, I have to wonder if it’s a step going nowhere. What marketers may never be able to leverage is this phenomenon of adornment. The experiences I have are mine alone. I am unique. And as I use the objects in my world I am involved in an utterly unique way with my self. My experience is first and foremost of my using the object, not with the object itself, nor any of its properties (even its being flexible enough to allow me to design it). Whatever a product presumes to provide in the way of properties the things in my life are only in my life in virtue of my uniqueness, not as a means to that end.

The language you use to describe the importance of your customers’ customers is, I think, pointing in the right direction, but “capture and characterize” seem like the wrong words. Involvements are finally unfathomably mysterious. As Heidegger might say, their mysteriousness is their safekeeping, and so can never be captured and characterized. I think the best we can do is appreciate the phenomenon of involvement, and let that appreciation guide our understanding.

Good luck, and if there’s some way for you to keep us all posted on your efforts I for one would be interested.

Thanks for your comment, Jim. And, yes, you're right: I meant to call attention to Heidegger's particular use of the word (*care*). For him it is so important. (And I think the rule is that when a word is referred to as a word it is italicized.)

Thank you for a really interesting article, Jeff.

With this sentence, "Heidegger describes it with the word care." - Did you mean " Heidegger describes it with the word 'care'." ?

I think you did. Thanks again for a very stimulating article. Much appreciated.