What makes user experience meaningful?
The five components of ‘meaning’ in human-computer interaction
What makes interacting with computers good? Most user experience research focus on usability, satisfaction, and positive emotions for good reasons. Our job as designers is to help the user get things done through our interfaces. As computers become more ubiquitous in everyday life, the more impact they have on people’s general well-being. One key aspect is the human experience of meaning.
There is growing interest in how technology use affects people’s experience of meaning. For instance, Lukoff and colleagues explored what makes smartphone use meaningful or meaningless. Beyond mere task efficiency and momentary joy, there are opportunities to design enduring meaningful user experience. For example, meaningfulness is one of the design goals of Fibo, a wrist-worn pregnancy bracelet wearable for men which enables them to feel the movement of their unborn child. This leads us to the question, what makes user experience meaningful?
The five components of meaning
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to design for meaningfulness without a framework of meaning. Mekler and Hornbaek argues that meaning need not be abstract. Based on meaning research in psychology, they propose that meaning has five interrelated components — connectedness, coherence, purpose, resonance, and significance.
The experience should connect to the user on a personal level. Meaning exists through the feeling of connection with the various aspects of the self, the people around us, and the world we live in. For example, some people report meaningful experiences when playing video games. Other people enjoy playing the same games but consider them as meaningless leisure activities. The difference is the personal connection.
The experience should make sense. People experience coherence when they reflect on their experience and understand it in relation to their life in general. When people undergo distressing life events like losing a loved one, or being laid off from a job despite doing well, they gain a heightened awareness of the unfairness of life. Suddenly, life doesn’t make sense and coherence is disrupted.
The experience should give the user a sense of direction towards a goal. Having goals is a way for people to construct and impose meaning in their lives. Goals allow people to connect their efforts into overarching themes. Having prolonged absence of purpose leads to a lack of motivation which is detrimental to one’s well-being. Even trivial, short-term goals without future benefits are better for motivating people than having no goals at all.
The experience should feel right. Not all meaningful experiences that people have are brought about by deliberate reflection. There are experiences that are intuitively meaningful; profound moments in life when everything makes sense and feels right. Examples would be tiny epiphanies we get from reading a poem, or the feeling we get gazing at an awesome landscape.
The experience should be worthwhile. People want to make a difference; that their life experiences matter beyond their individual selves thereby making them non-trivial and precious. To illustrate this point, there are activities, that despite being unpleasant, people still pursue because they believe it to be significant. Some people may dedicate time to difficult work that hardly anyone would notice.
A concrete example of the components in action
Let’s consider the experience of blogging. People engage in this hobby to express themselves and connect with other people. Each finished article is a goal in itself; some aim for a specific number of page views or followers. Once in a while, the blogger experiences a calming flow of ideas from their minds, to their fingertips, into the sleek LCD screen — an inexplicable high. Despite the critics and trolls who leave comments that do not make sense, they continue to share their ideas because they believe that what they write brings joy to their readers.
Relationships among the components
There are definitely overlaps among the five components. They are interrelated and it would be a mistake to treat them separately.
Connectedness is the core; it is the base of all meaningful experiences. If an experience didn’t connect to anything, then we wouldn’t resonate with it, we won’t understand it, and we wouldn’t discern any purpose or significance to it. At the same time, finding resonance, coherence, purpose, and significance allows people to form additional connections to various aspects of the self — to our memories of past experiences, to our values and beliefs, and to our aspirations for the future.
Coherence is necessary for resonance, purpose, and significance. If an experience doesn’t make sense, then it wouldn’t feel right. We would also not discern a clear goal nor perceive why the experience matters.
Purpose, coherence, and significance all require people to interpret their experiences. Purpose is reflecting on “Why am I doing this?” Coherence is asking oneself, “What am I doing? Significance is asking, “Does doing what I do matter?” In contrast, resonance is intuitive and spontaneous. Coherence is knowing the experience is right; resonance is feeling it.
Opportunities and applications
Based on Mekler and Hornbaek’s review, meaningful interaction exists in the current literature. Researchers discuss meaning with emphasis on individual components like connectedness and significance. They analyze their data based on some of the five components of meaning but not all of them at the same time. It is the first time for meaning to be formally operationalized into a model with five components. With this new model, we can discuss meaning better and integrate it to the design and evaluation of our products.
Designers that aim for meaningfulness as their design goal may consider ways for users to perceive not only connectedness and significance, but also coherence, resonance, and purpose. The model can help us justify or reject design directions. For evaluations, there are no validated questionnaires that account for the five components of meaning. The closest are the existential meaning scale and the meaningful experience scale which contains some measure of coherence, significance, and purpose. For resonance, the personal expressive scale is a good approximation.
User experience encompasses interaction with products, services, and the company offering them. If we view the experiences we design to be a long-term relationship with our users, then it’s much easier to see how product makers are accountable to the general well-being of their customers. For your next iterations, consider how your product contributes to the users’ experience of meaning. It might just lead you to your next big idea.