Subject Object Assumption

In our design work, we often try to take an objective view. We try to take ourselves out of our own subjectivity and put ourselves into the shoes and minds of others, to empathise with them, to design for them. We try to remove ourselves – literally, we take our own self out of the picture – to design solutions that work objectively, not just something that meets our own personal preferences.

Mostly this gives us a useful way to stay focussed, to design well. It can also provide a useful technique for eliciting genuine feedback and avoiding any sense of personal affront – we can say things like “The thinking is…” rather than “My idea was…”.

But trying to take an objective view can also introduce assumptions. We confuse perception for reality, opinion for fact. We assume that what we see exactly mirrors what actually exists. But, as Korzybski famously said, “The map is not the territory”. Our perception will always remain subjective. Our interpretation will always remain personal. We will always make assumptions.

So how do we use this to our advantage, turn it around, make a negative a positive?

Naturally, we should try to reduce our assumptions. And of course as designers we’re usually pretty good at asking the sorts of questions we need to ask in order to do that. But we’ll likely never completely eliminate them.

We can at least try to recognise when we do make them.

Although we all, humans generally, tend not to do that terribly well. You can tell that by the way we so easily argue, the way we have differences of opinion, the way we assume we have the right interpretation of something and the other person does not. And how often do those arguments turn out to stem from us each having different definitions of the same thing? From talking at cross-purposes? From not recognising that we had assumed we each had the same points of reference, the same meanings for our words, the same context, the same view of the world? Perhaps we don’t actually share that proverbial “shared understanding” in quite the same way…

I say “This is green”.
You say “You’re wrong, it’s blue.”
“No, it’s definitely green!” I say, more forcefully.
You get angry and insist “It’s blue!”

You can see where this could end up…

Ok, a trivial example maybe, but it serves to make the point – perception matters. Differences of perception lead to differences of opinion. Nothing wrong with that so long as we stay mindful of it. We can learn from healthy disagreement. It can expand our horizons.

But when we confuse opinion with fact, subjectivity with objectivity, as we so often do, it can lead to unhealthy disagreements – arguments, fights, bad feeling.

So how might we ensure our disagreements stay healthy? How might we use subjectivity in a constructive way? How do we avoid confusing our subjective opinions for objective facts? How do we remain aware of our own subjectivity, and mindful that we may each have different perceptions of the same thing?

A technique I’ve found useful – although frustratingly difficult to do properly: try to avoid using any form of the verb “to be”.

No more This is, I am, You are, That was, It will be…

No more That’s terrible, You’re wrong, I’m right, This is stupid, You’re stupid, I’m the best, You’re not.

No more We’re awesome, This product is going to be so great, It’s not the design, it’s the users – they’re idiots.

So what do we say (and think) instead?

Try it. How might you rephrase those objective assertions to present them clearly as subjective opinions?

Perhaps the above (admittedly silly) example might go something like:

I say “This is looks green”.
You say “You’re wrong, I disagree, it‘s looks blue.”
“No, it’s it definitely looks green to me” I say, more forcefully.
“Huh, we see it differently”…

Hopefully no argument ensues! We can disagree but we can’t say “You’re wrong” (no “You are” allowed, remember). Through being explicitly subjective, by stating our perception as exactly that – our own personal view, not an assertion of fact – we set up a healthy disagreement, rather than an unhealthy conflict. We recognise the difference of opinion and perhaps from there we can explore each other’s positions. We can try to understand rather than argue.

You may find it very hard to maintain a conversation like this. I certainly do. We too easily fall back into old habits, reverting to “it is” without realising. And perhaps we don’t need to do it all of the time.

But give it a try. Try holding a conversation with a friend or colleague in which neither of you uses any form of “to be”. Or try it next time you’re presenting a design or giving feedback to a colleague.

Or imagine introducing yourself to someone new, let’s say at a conference or networking event – how would you do it without using “to be”? You can’t say “I’m a designer”… You can’t say “I used to be at…” or “I want to be a…” But even if you could, what if the other person has a different understanding of “Designer” (or whatever title you have)?

Perhaps rather than stating your job, you would instead describe what you do? (Although, if you work in UX – good luck with that! ;-)

Try to notice when you do use “to be”. Keep count of how many times that happens. And if (when!) it does, take it as an opportunity to rephrase, to choose different words that express your intention more clearly.

Do you find it slows you down? Do you take longer to express your thoughts? Do you consider that problematic, or does it give you more time to form your thoughts? To think before you speak. To express yourself more diplomatically, perhaps?

I’ll admit I find this difficult. I don’t always do it, certainly not in everyday conversation. But I have found it a useful thought exercise to come back to now and again. It has definitely made me more aware of my own assumptions – or even just the fact that we all continually make assumptions without realising it.

Even at a basic, fundamental level, our brains make assumptions about the world around us so that we can operate effectively within it – which explains why tromp l’oeil and other optical illusions or visual tricks work. That stems from necessity – if our brains had to establish the veracity of every perception before acting, we likely wouldn’t survive very long!

But we seem to have carried that through to our higher-level abstract thought. We tend not to know – or at least pay much attention to – the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. As a result we tend to have unhealthy disagreements, stemming from assumptions and subjective perceptions confused for objective reality. But we can at least cultivate an awareness of when we do this, and hopefully keep our disagreements constructive, our outlook more open, and our opinions our own!

I hope this has given you some food for thought, and perhaps a useful technique to practice. If you want to know more, look up “E-Prime“. You may also like Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman.

I would love to know how you get on – do comment below.

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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