Subjective objectivity

Leahu, L., Schwenk, S., and Sengers, P. 2008. Subjective objectivity: negotiating emotional meaning. In Proceedings of the 7th ACM Conference on Designing interactive Systems (Cape Town, South Africa, February 25 – 27, 2008). DIS ’08. ACM, New York, NY, 425-434. DOI=

I really enjoy reading Leahu et al (2008). This article gets me thinking about how users interact with their physical world, how designers display information and represent the physical world, how to connect subjectivity and objectivity in design ideas, and how to encourage engagement between subjective experience and objective signals on the user’s side.

The notion of “subjective objectivity” actually has two sets of meanings. On one hand, it recognizes the subjective nature of objectivity in design; on the other, it proposes an interesting methodology (speculative design) that emphasizes the openness for interpretation from the users’ perspective, of the subjective representation of objectivity. The idea behind “emotional mapping” is to acknowledge users’ active participation in constructing the meanings of objective artifacts (either physical artifacts such as places, or more abstract artifacts such as language or information). This reminds me of Dervin’s sense-making theory (1989), which assumes that individuals will associate different meanings to situations or messages based on their personal experiences and react differently. From the designers’ perspective, we could say that the interaction between users and the physical world is also an ongoing dialogue that constructed by both parties over time. This is a smarter way of making the best use of users’ own knowledge and personal experience to enrich the interaction between users and the physical world (compared to displaying a picture of a place to a large audience). What’s even cooler is that, as mentioned in one of the interview transcript, this mapped out subjective interpretation could also become a self-awareness tool for users to self-reflect, or form communities.

This article inspired us to think about ways to map out the “subjectivity” on so many other “objectivity” in our life. Language? Maybe. As a non-native speaker, when I say “bummed out”, I know what it means, but I just don’t feel these words connected with me, and with my personal experience. I’m acting  like a computer interface when I say these words because I’m emotionally detached from them. It might be interesting to design an interface that could map out language learner’s emotional attachments with the words, or phrases they are learning, or something that helps evoke the emotional or physiological response from the learner to facilitate the learning process – Just a random thought.