On Design, Rationality, and Ethics

For a while I’ve wondered why exactly an experience with good design should be satisfying. You could say that when something is well designed it achieves its purpose efficiently, it’s easier to use than what’s preceded it, or perhaps it’s more elegant.

What’s nagged at me though is the sense that we don’t quite use the right vocabulary for expressing the first-person experience of good design. Especially with digital products, should we use words like “user-friendly” or “useable” or “ergonomic”? Do any of these words capture what we mean? Perhaps this explains the ubiquity of “well-designed” as a term of praise. We can’t easily be more specific so we just refer to it tautologically.

In an essay called THE SENTIMENT OF RATIONALITY, the philosopher William James argues for an affective component in the recognition of rationality:

“The transition from a state of puzzle and perplexity to rational comprehension is full of lively relief and pleasure.”

In brief, rationality is comfortable. Another way he characterizes rationality is by “a strong feeling of ease, peace, rest.” In other words, it feels good. Wouldn’t this be an apt (if exaggerated) way to describe a product or tool whose design impressed you?

Indeed, the connection between rationality and design shouldn’t be a surprising one, but what I’m curious about is whether we can find a way to refer not to a design’s exterior elements but to the feeling of comfort it engenders in the person who experiences it. Why do I care about this? I think lurking behind this conception of design is something you don’t often think of in association with products, namely an ethics.

Small detour on the subject of comfort

I have a pathological relationship to comfort. In fact, I’ve been described by a professional in these matters as having a “low frustration tolerance,” an attribute I’m certain I’ve inherited from my forebears. Rather self-explanatory, a low frustration tolerance (or “LFT”) is an affliction that stems from an irrational belief that you are entitled to comfort. In my own experience with LFT the world and the other people inhabiting it keep rudely rubbing up against this irrational belief, chafing me until I eventually accept, rationally, that my comfort simply isn’t a guarantee, but something that must be earned.

Now, whenever I contemplate LFT I always think of this vivid, non-specific memory from childhood where I’m horsing around with my twin brother in an airport, we’re trailing our luggage-addled father by several paces, and then all of a sudden WHAM! He just drops a piece of luggage and keeps on walking, without turning back to us or saying anything, leaving us with no choice but to thenceforth carry our own bags (in a puddle of fear and shame, of course).

The basic point is that being around irrationality doesn’t feel good. It didn’t feel good as a child to pick up that momentarily orphaned piece of luggage in a crowded airport terminal, and it doesn’t feel good to be frustrated.*

A cue from AirBnb + my dream job

Once upon a time I was a persistent AirBnb host. In the shameless pursuit of good community ratings, I would walk into my apartment and imagine I were one of my guests. I would then pride myself on devising small comforts for my anonymous guests, such as occasionally leaving them disposable terry cloth slippers or conspicuously new bars of soap.

We don’t all have a daily opportunity, let alone obligation, for even a minimal amount of this mental acrobatics of putting yourself in someone else’s position. Here’s where ethics comes into design thinking: people you don’t know are going to use something you give them without you being present. This is a responsibility, and it’s a responsibility that’s inextricable from rational thought.

I’ve often fantasized that my dream job would be a UX consultant for the design of public bathrooms in New York City restaurants. It’s not actually a job that I know of, but admit you’ve experienced Jamesian relief and pleasure from a perfectly ordered experience in a public bathroom. Consider the last time there was a small wastebasket beside the door for the disposal of that extra paper towel you use to open the door with. Someone put it there on purpose.

*From a parenting perspective my father’s tactic was efficacious (one might venture to call it maieutic), for rather than explicitly punishing us he engendered in us the realization that we were misbehaving, not carrying our own weight. But this is another matter altogether.


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