Published on 15th May, 2015, in the Economic Times.
Designers around the world are interested in appreciating how the human body responds to stimuli. What makes them click on an advertisement, or a ‘like’ button, or a ‘play’ button, and most importantly a ‘buy’ button? For humans are ultimately consumers, potential buyers of a product. If we figure out what makes humans choose some actions and avoid other actions, we will be able to monetize it.
Take the simple case of the Facebook ‘like’ icon. Why is there no ‘unlike’ icon? In YouTube we can clearly express a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’ for a video but in Facebook we can only give a positive response. Someone who wishes to make a criticism has to take that extra effort to write in the comment box. So the designers of Facebook have ensured there is less effort to give positive reinforcement and more effort to give negative feedback. Naturally, the probability of the positive responses increases as compared to negative responses. Why is this important? Because intuitively, or through research, they figured out when people post text, images or videos on the internet, or even forward them, they see the content as extensions of themselves. The more ‘likes’ on the post, the more they feel emotionally nourished. Everyone wants positive energy when they put themselves out there, no criticism or negativity. Facebook satisfies this need. Could this clever design be the reason why Facebook is so popular?
Indian philosophy is more about human psychology and the human physiology than anything else. Unlike European philosophy, which is obsessed with the ‘truth’ of the world, Indian philosophy is obsessed with ‘experience’ of the world by a living being, especially humans. And so there is a lot of conversations on the architecture of the body and mind, and how these respond to external stimuli. The body is seen as an extension of the mind. The senses are viewed as ‘grazing’ on stimuli of the world around. This obsession with the instrument by which we experience the world is a unique feature of Indian thought. The divisions and classifications and terminologies used vary between the many schools of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, but the fundamentals remain constant. The schools range from purely materialistic, to those that are spiritual or theistic, are actually highly psychological.
The fundamental divide is between inanimate objects (a-jiva) that cannot sense the world around them and sentient beings (sa-jiva) that can sense the world around them. The reason for the divide is attributed to the presence of life, which evokes hunger and fear, making the sentient being seek food and avoid danger using sense organs (gyan-indriyas) and respond to presence of food and danger using response organs (karma-indriyas). All living organisms have these basic senses (indriyas) to stay alive. Higher organisms can also feel (chitta) and take intelligent decisions (buddhi). Humans additionally have the power to imagine, hence think (manas).
Plants cannot run from danger and so are immobile living creatures (achara) while animals are mobile living creatures (chara). Humans are special because imagination enables them to conjure up realities distinct from what the indriyas experience. A plant’s and animal’s survival depends on accurate assessment of their ecosystem. Humans however give meaning to everything around them, giving them artificial value. For example, humans can turn a rock into a sacred object, giving it value that makes cultural, not natural sense. Humans do this because they seek meaning (artha) for themselves. They seek meaning because they want to know who they are. They crave for an identity. Animals do not have this craving. They just wish to know if those around them are predators, rivals, mates, or food. If none of the above, they do not care. But humans see everything around them — including Facebook posts — as things that grant them meaning, emotional nourishment.
Human response to stimuli is highly complex and rather unpredictable, unlike the natural world, hence a huge challenge to designers. We seek not simply pleasure and pain, but also freedom from boredom, and continuously emotional nourishment. We stay away from all things, websites included, that do not validate us, or value us, or does not provide us an opportunity to feel good about ourselves. Complexity is amplified by cultures where different words and colours have different meaning. There may be a few common human codes, but there are far many cultural codes. Ultimately, we seek products, services and ideas that make us feel meaningful.