Postmodernism in Product Development: Projections, Perceptions and Context
I sometimes worry if I'm replaceable when analysing research in groups as at times I feel like a broken record, as I seem to keep stressing the importance of context. In fact I'm pretty sure my manager has considered just replacing me with a sandwich board with "context" scrawled on it, they’d probably also draw a shaggy beard too. It hasn't happened, yet. I'm assuming as it'd be too awkward and wouldn’t have the fantastic range of cat t-shirts.
Back to the point in hand - context. When evaluating and interpreting research, teams must be aware of context, including initial intent and perceptions. There is no view from nowhere and objectivity is a concept impossible to achieve.
When we view artefacts, interview users and collate findings me must understand their space, place and meaning. This is incredibly important in achieving empathy, truly getting into the mindset of our users which will hopefully help us build more intuitive solutions.
Whilst intent of creators is important, the intent and contextual understanding of users is also incredibly powerful. Users project their own meanings on to things, these themselves can cannibalise the initial intent of those who create them. People twist and stretch stories, images, concepts and songs to make sense to them. I have a few examples, but first, some context.
My Masters dissertation analysed the user of the zombie in art for political metaphor. Yes, yes, my mam’s friend called it a ‘useless degree in typing’ but there we go. Throughout the research I had to watch and read alot of schlocky zombie fiction (alongside some truly upsetting and bleak non-fiction). During the research it was clear that there were some standout pieces of zombie literature, cultural keystones which are revered both critically and commercially. Of these, one of the most important and an inspiration for many who use the zombie as a cultural or political metaphor is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Young Michael Gove does not last long.
Throughout the film a horde of the undead attack a rural farmhouse, picking off survivors with the situation becoming increasingly bleak. While the film explores many political and social issues the one that leaves the most haunting and upsetting image is [SPOILERS FOR A LITERALLY 50 YEAR OLD FILM] the sight of group of white men shooting the black protagonist. Whilst it’s unclear if the white men shoot him because he’s black or because they think he’s a ghoul, the image and matter of fact nature of the entire scene create a stunning social message. To this day Romero’s Dead series are a standard in horror satire. Thing is, there’s more to this than it seems, or should we say, less.
You see Romero cast a lead black actor because he was simply the best in the role. Romero didn’t write the story with the idea of creating a socio-political film critiquing the racism in the south of America. Yes, the film is a critique of the American culture but race and the invoking of the imagery of the assassinations of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X were never part of the artist’s intent. This was all added on to the piece of work by its audience. However that’s one of the lasting impressions the film gives. Other grisly scenes in the film conjure up taboo subjects which have been analysed and interpreted countless ways since their release. Although many of the interpretations may not have been the initial messages Romero wanted to present, this does not make any interpretations less valid.
Now, before we go down the post-modern waterslide and start reinterpreting the entire world around us looking for hidden messages in everything, what we can learn from this is that an audience will project their own feelings on to everything. No matter what is presented there may be an alternative way of looking at it. This means that it’s incredibly important we conduct user research, user acceptance testing and continue an open dialogue following the launch of a product to understand perception.
Another example could be the strange tale of Super Sonic. As a proud member of the ‘OnLy 90z kidz wiLL ReMeMbEr this’ generation, a mascot with attitude such as Sonic the Hedgehog was like catnip for a young impressionable kid like myself. The games were simple, colourful and had clear mechanics for player progression. Whilst the Sonic games were simple platformers created by a team in Japan, the backstory on Sonic and Robotnik were mostly absent. The gaps and backstories were filled in by imaginations and supplemental material from those in the West. Alongside the cartoons, many kids from the UK got their story from Sonic the Comic. Still something as curio as it was a UK only publication loosely linked on the games and no links to the US or Japanese comics the team built up an entire mythos, interweaving stories and projecting characters on to 16bit animals.
One of the most striking creations from Sonic the Comic was the interpretation of Super Sonic as an almost Hyde character to Sonic’s Jekyll. An evil, rampaging, uncontrollable ball of murderous rage (this comic was aimed at 8 year olds), Super Sonic was a super-charged feral version of our cool hero, and it’s easy to understand why. Sonic, a blue hedgehog with attitude would turn into a floating yellow, spikier hedgehog with red eyes. It’s a safe assumption to make that Super Sonic would be the antithesis of himself. Yellow directly opposes blue, red eyes are usually a shorthand for an evil character and superpower floatery suggests an unknown ethereal nature, something off. Except this wasn’t the narrative that Sega wanted to project and in future games where they gave Sonic a voice (...nope, just nope) and introduced scripted stories (oh god the melodrama), Super Sonic officially became just a super-powered version of the guy in blue.
The character and relationships built around Super Sonic were instantly wiped out, much like how all of a sudden Dr Robotnik became Eggman. Finding out that what you believed was not true to all can be a jarring experience.
What can be done to please users in this transition, when they find out that the way they use your product or service jars with your direction? Whilst Sega Japan saw nothing wrong and really they hadn’t done anything wrong at all. They had omitted information for the Western audience, not through malice, but through oversight, localisation and marketing leaving others to fill in the blanks. There was a feeling of alienation from the audience who were initially targeted and many fans felt cheated and disillusioned.
When building products we have to be aware that users add their own worldview to them. This shows how important it is to truly understand them. Yes, we can’t bend over backwards to appease all of them which is why we sometimes have to sunset old features, but we must understand our user’s relationship to the products we create and why when we make a change we could be upsetting their routines.
There’s no easy way to avoid this, remember when Facebook changed back in 2006/7/8/9 and people swore off it for good? Using products can lead to incredibly emotive responses, something we must be aware of. Such strong affinity and projection can steer a product, you can be sure that Romero leaned in to the socio-political message with his following films. Alternatively you could define what you believe the product to be and move toward your intended audience causing churn in the process but moving toward your ideal, just make sure the audience is there and those you let go aren’t spurned. You know who did that better than Sega and Super Sonic? Batman.
Batman has seen many interpretations over the years, with multiple timelines, canons, storylines and deaths. What are the core rules of Batman? Old money billionaire becomes a vigilante following personal tragedy who takes on colourful villains. He doesn’t kill and is only a human. However in the past he did kill, hell if you look at Batman films maybe death would be a welcoming embrace to those he encounters… For all the interpretations of the character the core tenets remain the same, dark rich superhero with an iron will goes around punching people to meet his moral code. This has lead to multiple successful interpretations in various forms, from video games, books, comics and even a Samurai film.
People know the basics of Batman much like they know Coca Cola, McDonalds, Facebook and Google. This is something we should strive for, a company should be known for what they excel in. Sticking to a strong vocation allows us to create our own context. When launching a product we should provide context and clear utility upfront and as early as possible. Sharing mission statements and intents with users is important, we want to be their companion and not treat them with contempt.
Providing a strong vision, a basic value proposition and ensuring continuous engagement teams can create products and services users love and not isolate their audience.