Musings on Relativity in Design and Relationships

Everything in our lives is grounded in comparison to our experiences that foreshadowed it. Everything. We’re the sum of our decisions, interactions, experiences and relationships and we behave accordingly – both in the spur of the moment, and as we slowly evolve. We evaluate and judge ourselves and others on these comparisons to what we’ve known, what we’ve experienced, where we’ve been. For both good and bad.

Relativity in Experiences

Over time, things that once delighted and surprised us become basic expectations, and no longer hold the meaning or impact they used to have. This depreciation in value of even the most simple of interactions can be really toxic to our relationships if we’re not checking our reactions against our current and past selves.

A great every day example of this decay is wifi availability. Not that long ago, you were simply not going to have internet access in your hotel room, or during even an international flight. Then internet access was sporadically available and poor quality, and in the case of hotel rooms it was a short ethernet cable strapped to the wall. And yes, I was the guest who brought her own long ethernet cable so I could Netflix-it-up in comfort. Nowadays, we’re complaining about wifi internet speed in our hotel rooms. What would have been a luxury even just five years ago, is now a basic expectation and (mostly) a negative experience of a hotel stay.

As a designer of things, I’m always pursuing and creating the new, bigger, better experience for my users. What was a great new product a year ago, is quickly not up-to-par and substandard. And users tell us so. Easily and often. It’s almost impossible to keep up with exceeding their expectations above the rate of experience decay.

If you’re interested in digging into designing for users changing expectations, check out the Kano Model, and Jared M. Spool’s work on applying it in design. I’ve been thinking a lot about these concepts and how they relate to interpersonal interactions. For better and for worse.

Relativity in Relationships

Every type of relationship we have in our lives is built upon a series of interactions where we align our human connection with our basic expectations, desires and ability to trust another. Friendships, familial bonds, romantic relationships, colleagues and mentors all have different sets of expectations that we place upon them, through our own lens of past experiences and societal expectations rooted in our upbringing.

We meet every person in our lives, regardless of relationship type, with our massive amounts of baggage. And they drag theirs along with them too. Many conflicts arise when our baggage clashes — when our expectations of each other just don’t match up as we unpack our bags. Our basic assumptions are clouded by what we’ve learned and our emotional reactions are learned behaviors from our past reactions.

As I consider romantic relationships in my life after a period of major transition it’s been fascinating to become aware of a whole new set of cultural norms and standards around dating. On some days, I don’t think I have a place in this world of swiping and 48 hour text embargoes just yet. And on other days I am fascinated by what I am being taught by the universe about people and about my own baggage (I have major trust and fear of dependency issues. Duh). Through dabbling with dating and watching friendships fray over the past year I have one major takeaway thus far – meet people as they are. Appreciate who they are, and what they are able to bring in the present moment, with as few pre-conceived notions as possible. Shakespeare is often misquoted to have said “Expectation is the root of all heartache”, which even though not an accurate quote, has become a comforting mantra for my overly anxious self as I prepare for unfamiliar encounters.

Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises. — Shakespeare

A note on year-ago me

Recently I reread a journal entry (and I write about four journal entries a year, so it was amazing I had anything to read at all) from a really poignant, dark time almost exactly a year ago. It was my rock-bottom, where I decided to completely change the course of my life.

I don’t want to live another year like this one. — year-ago me

So don’t, year-ago-me I beg out-loud. Don’t. And I didn’t. And I won’t. Thank you year-ago-me for taking the rough road that you did. Current-me is so thankful. It’s astounding to look back and see the personal growth I’ve experienced in just 365 days. That experience has changed the way I approach every challenge in my life — it’s all in my hands to mold. Yours too. What would your year-ago-you say to current-you and vice-versa? That would be a fascinating discussion. Have it in your car during your commute. I dare you.

Every experience that I’m collecting in my very un-chartered path ahead of me is an amazing comparison to hitting my rock-bottom a year ago. And mostly I’m in a phase of surprise, everything seems new and delightful. My expectations are being continuously reset, yet I’m keenly aware of the shock of the new and how what seems new and fresh now will soon enough seem tired and frustrating.

In comparison to year-ago-me, current-me is doing pretty damn good, relativity stay at bay. Let me stay naive and delighted for a wee while longer.

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