Intention and Interpretation

The distinction in interaction design between the designer’s intentions and user’s interpretations has lead to a number of online articles and discussions in recent months. The main argument is that although designers want to design objects and applications with one specific meaning or function, users attach their own interpretations to the things they encounter. How, then, should designers cope with this diversity in user interpretations?

Thomas Wendt, in his article on UXbooth, makes a distinction between works of art and objects of utility. User interpretation for these types of objects can be approached in different ways:

  • Drawing upon Wimsatt and Beardsley (like Jeff Bardzell), he writes that for a work of art, it is not desirable to take the designer’s intentions into account. Instead, readers/viewers/users should have the freedom to form their own opinions and interpretations.
  • For objects of utility, on the other hand, he draws upon Clarisse de Souza (like myself) to argue that in Semiotic Engineering, a user interface is in fact seen as a medium to communicate design intentions from designer to user.

Wendt continues with an interaction design example: a banking website, in which you can find utilitarian and artistic elements.  He argues that in such a design, the interplay between designer intent and user interpretation should be ‘a spectrum rather than a dichotomy’. I basically agree with this position, and would maybe even go a step further – even what seems to be ‘strict’ utility can be interpretable, as users can invent new uses and meanings for systems they encounter (Sengers and Gaver have offered the example of SMS messaging). In general, though, I take the same ‘spectrum’ position in my PhD research, where I argue that a user interpretation that leans more towards the design intentions, is closer to the ‘model user’ interpretation embedded in the design itself. You can read more on this in the CHI 2013 WiP paper I wrote.

Not everyone agrees, though. In their art manifesto, the Intentists write about ‘ungagging’ artists, and restoring their right to convey their intended message. This seems a position similar to that of De Souza: an artwork is a medium through which artists communicate their intended meaning to their audience. However, when reading a bit further, some aspects of their position are not that different from my own. At least, there are some things I can relate to:

Intentists believe that although their artwork can have a complex meaning and be understood on a number of levels, there are definitely ways it can be misunderstood – therefore not all interpretations are equally valid. Intentists believe that their artwork is able to convey their artistic intention to their intended audience.

One important point in the quote above is the ‘intended audience‘. Design intentions (an interaction designer’s or an artist’s) will probably have more chance of ‘getting through’ when the design is used by someone in the intended audience – I do agree with that. However, the possibility still exists that the design is used by users outside that particular group – in that case, I think an increased variation in interpretations is almost unavoidable. A second important point is that ‘not all interpretations are equally valid‘. For the ‘model user’ in my own work, I drew upon the work of Umberto Eco, who has coined the term ‘model reader’ in literary studies. In later work, however, he writes about ‘overinterpretation‘ of texts, in which readers interpret texts in ways that are not warranted by the content of the text itself. Similarly, I believe that works of art or interaction designs can be ‘overinterpreted’ in a similar way – the question is whether these overinterpretations (due to differences in background, beliefs,…) can be seen as ‘less valid’ than interpretations in line with the design intentions. These ‘aberrant decodings‘, be it through overinterpretation or by users outside the intended audience, are still interpretations. Whether they are intended or not, you think they are wrong or not: the interpretations are still there. Moreover, users do have the right to make these personal interpretations. Instead of judging them, it seems more interesting to me to find out where they come from.

Returning to the distinction between art and utilitarian systems, Wendt positions design in between art and utilitarian objects. ‘As designers, we must accept that intention, at the very least, cannot be the central focus of a successful design output’. I agree with him, and firmly believe that there is still too little work in HCI focusing on these user interpretations. In my PhD research, I analyze these divergent interpretations and unanticipated uses in their own right. By seeing how they relate to the application itself, instead of comparing it back to the design intent, I believe designers can learn more about how users cope with technology in everyday life, and how applications might be designed to account for this variation in interpretation.

In September, I will be presenting some preliminary work at the DPPI Doctoral Colloquium, and in October, I plan to submit an elaborate case study of user interpretation for publication.

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