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.