The UX of Arguments

By | February 14, 2008

My general theory of arguments/disagreements it that they occur for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. One party knows something the other doesn’t.
  2. One party is making an assumption the other isn’t
  3. One or more parties is feeling an emotion that instigates disagreement.

The first reason is the easiest to solve, although it isn’t simple.  You need to find out what information the other person is working off of.  Questions like, “Did you see the memo this morning?” help.  Always be sure that you and your discussion partner are working off the same information.  How can you agree if you have different info?

The second reason is similar to the first, but it isn’t based on the information itself, but rather the interpretation of that information.  Two people might read the same memo and come to very different conclusions about what it mean.  Language is a critical factor here.  On NPR this morning I heard that Condoleeza Rice said, “There will be no ‘permanent’ bases in Iraq.”  I thought, “What exactly does she mean?  Does she mean that we will have 25 year bases?  No bases at all?  Bases that are mobile?  Language can be interpreted in so many ways.

Yesterday, I was describing a bug in the system we are working on.  I said the window “freezes”.  That word created disagreement on the bug.  What does freeze mean?  Is it permanent?  Does it go away ever?  How we describe things  creates assumptions about exactly what we mean.  It is critical to choose your words carefully and also LISTEN to the other party.  It’s hard but you have to try and pick up on the words that are throwing your discussion buddy off.  These words lead to assumptions.  Different assumptions lead to arguments.

Additionally, arguments can come from differing assumptions about priorities.  Both parties might have the same information and the same language, but are making different assumptions about what is most important.  What/Who are you solving for?  Does the other party want to solve for someone/something else?  If you can find the root, boil it down to the basic solving assumptions, you can get the argument down to a discussion of pros/cons of priorities.  This certainly can have disagreement, but it is much easier to make a decision and agree to it.

The last reason is emotions. Penny, Katie’s mom, sometimes argues when she is feeling physically uncomfortable, like if the kitchen is too hot.  Or if she feels that the other person is coming on too strong, she will take a defensive stand.  These are the hardest arguments to get out of.  Sometimes people are in the arguing stance and just can’t get out of it.  Maybe they feel anger, or jealousy, or fear, or anxiety.  Regardless, they get themselves into a state that is very difficult to get out of.  The critical thing is to recognize that this is the case.

Whenever you see that this is happening, you need to break the cycle.  I sometimes use humor for this.  If you make a joke (A funny one), then the other person sometimes realizes they are taking things too seriously.  Other times, I will just step back and let the other person  work out the feeling without me adding fuel to the fire.  It’s hard to argue without someone else there.

Sometimes it’s helpful to mirror back to the person what they are saying.  Don’t try to make a “point”.  Making a point is a competitive stance.  It comes from debating.  Making points assumes that agreement isn’t the goal, but rather being “right” is the goal.

Just to zoom up for a sec, I want to be clear:  I am no argument expert.  I get in plenty of them.  I screw up language and assumptions all the time.  However, in the spirit of UX, I feel that everything in this world can be looked at closely in terms of cause/effect and psychology.  UX means that you care about WHY.  Why do arguments happen?  Why does the user loves or hates your product?

The theme of UX for me is about trying to understand the underlying truths about our world.  If we can do that, we can design for better experiences.  This is a journey for me.  I don’t have all the answers.  But I think there may be some wisdom in the approach.

2 thoughts on “The UX of Arguments

  1. Pingback: Masterful Conversations – commadot.com

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