Push or Pull?
I have been struggling with how to introduce the topic of Self-Determination Theory. Then it dawned on me: Norman doors.
Have you ever had the experience of trying to open a door that just won’t budge? You pull it once and then again. You’re about to pull it a third time when you notice a little sign that says, “PUSH”. So you do what the little sign says and the door opens. You cross the threshold feeling just a little bit dumber than you did a minute before.
This exact experience is so common that it motivated cognitive scientist and engineer Don Norman to write The Design of Everyday Things. In it, Norman defines what makes for bad and good design.
Bad design sends the wrong usability signals (for example, a curved handle that screams “Pull me!” rather than “Push me!”) and ignores the needs of the user (why should a door be so complex that it requires instructions?).
Good design, on the other hand, both communicates clearly its purpose and possibility and meets our needs.
Don Norman’s writing on this subject is so influential that preposterously-designed doors have become known as Norman Doors. Since then, the term has become a descriptive for any example of poor design.
Additionally, in The Design of Everyday Things, Norman explains the intriguing psychological effect of interacting with bad design.
He observes that, for example, when people can’t figure out the settings on a common household doohickey, they don’t blame the product or the person who designed it. They blame themselves. This is something that I resonated deeply for me in a way I didn’t expect.
For me, life itself is often something of a Norman Door – a mix of wrong signals, unmet needs and the feeling I am the one to blame.
Finding your Castle
Consider another scenario; one you probably experienced as a kid, a parent or both. A child is given an expensive toy and, often just days later, the initial thrill wanes. Soon, the toy languishes, but the box it came in is now a castle, a spaceship, a secret hiding place.
By objective measures, it shouldn’t happen. The price tag, the bells and whistles, its status as what every kid has to have this year. All of these things should have made the toy far more interesting than the box you could have gotten for free from a liquor store.
This doesn’t end in childhood. Rather, it’s just the start of a pattern that will repeat throughout our lives. The very rewards we’ve been conditioned to expect to fulfill us quickly lose their luster. The raise you got six months ago doesn’t seem to cover your expenses like it once did. The number of likes on your latest Facebook post doesn’t feel as encouraging. But, as adults, where is our castle, our spaceship, our secret hiding place?
That is essentially the question asked and answered by psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan when they proposed Self-Determination Theory.
According to Deci and Ryan, humans have three universal needs in order to flourish: competency, autonomy and relatedness. In other words, we need to feel like we’re good at something, that we are able to make meaningful choices and that we feel connected to others.
Sounds simple, right? But if it really was so intuitive, wouldn’t more people – including myself – feel fulfilled, secure and satisfied with their lives?
And there’s the rub.
Like trying to decipher a Norman Door, most of us are really bad at figuring out what it means to be competent, autonomous and related. We confuse perceiving ourselves as better or worse than others as the same thing as being good or bad at something. We think autonomy means having control over the outcome rather than what we put into achieving it. Finally, we see our connections more in terms of what we receive from others rather than what we’re willing to give. In short, we push when we’re meant to pull.
Consider all of this through the lens of starting a new skill or chapter in your life. Even when doing something purely for the pleasure of it, there is a natural curiosity about just how good we are.
But what metrics do you use? For many skills, the most valuable metrics are also the most abstract. Am I challenging myself? Does this activity leave me feeling energized or drained? Am I incorporating what I learn from constructive criticism? Am I seeking constructive criticism at all?
Answering these questions requires a considerable amount of self-awareness – an understanding of your own character, feelings, motives and desires. And, of course, self-awareness is a skill unto itself.
Instead, it’s easier and infinitely more tempting to use socially-comparative yardsticks. Am I better or worse than this person? How can I make (more) money doing this? Will this get me likes on social media?
The problem with these benchmarks is threefold: they tell you nothing of just how skilled you actually are, they treat ability as a zero-sum game and a finite resource, and we adapt far too quickly to any satisfaction we gain from them. Eventually it isn’t enough and the question of “Why bother if…?” rears its head.
Before you know it, the thing that once gave you a sense of personal satisfaction resembles a burden to be abandoned. This may be the point where you give up, and if you do, who deserves the blame? Chances are your first instinct is to pin it on yourself: your lack of willpower, confidence, smarts, talent or all of the above.
In design parlance, this failure is regarded as one of human error.
Failure to Communicate
However, what if it isn’t human error? What if it isn’t that we’re too dumb or weak-willed to figure out these things? As Don Norman wrote, “Eliminate the term human error. Instead, talk about communication and interaction. What we call an error is usually bad communication or interaction.”
Therefore, I propose that our confusion regarding what it means to be competent, autonomous and related isn’t a reflection our shortcomings. Rather, we’ve been interacting with bad design. Specifically, bad design in the form of a culture that signals fulfillment in all the wrong places and then blames us when we’re left feeling empty in chasing after them.
So, over the next few weeks I’m going to be writing in detail about each component of Self-Determination Theory, how they play out in the real world, where they break down in our culture and what we can do to actually fulfill each need. Like the foundation of good design, in better understanding these needs I hope to more clearly see my purpose and possibility.
If this is of interest to you, I hope you will join me as I share what I learn. See you next Wednesday.