Wednesday, June 01, 2005


telic and paratelic design

The gulf between the goals of usability (just give me what I want, no more) and emotional design (this should be fun) can be understood through a concept known as "reversal theory". Developed by Michael Apter, the theory holds there are two modes in which we operate: telic, which concerns being future oriented and achieving goals, and paratelic, which concerns being in the "here and now." People switch between these modes, but our preferences in each mode are very different. Apter argues that in the telic mode, when people want to achieve goals, they want calm. If one offers something too exciting while people are focused on goals, they get overloaded. In the paratelic mode, people are bored when things are calm and serious. They aren't focused on achieving something, so they need distraction.

Usability is about the telic, emotional design is about the paratelic. What is simple and reassuring to some is dull and uninspiring to others. Different users may experience the same design as either exciting or anxiety producing -- based on their goals. If user doesn't care about winning a game, for example, the game is exciting. If he or she is dead serious about winning, it is anxiety producing.

If you are goal-focused, your ideal is to be relaxed, not but not apathetic. If you want to have fun, you want to be excited, not over-excited. There is a thin line between these states.

I think this idea has some fascinating implications. Potentially, fun might be demotivating for someone pursuing a serious goal. One might need to rethink notions that "learning should be fun" if you expect students to put in effort. The slacker student figures the only thing that matters is only the immediate experience of the moment; don't worry about getting it right or wrong -- homework isn't necessary. The serious student (think Lisa Simpson) might get stressed out by the fun.

On a website do you emphasize high returns on a mutual fund (paratelic) or explain prominently all the risks about past performance not being an indication of future performance (telic)? Some financial companies believe greed always prevails, but some people are stressed by appeals to greed. The question is my mind is: does the greedy person have serious goals and future-orientation, or is it just a game?

Michael Apter is missing a third component, which is far more significant than the two you mention. You write: telic, which concerns being future oriented and achieving goals, and paratelic, which concerns being in the "here and now."

The third component, which I will dub, post-telic, concerns those who are living in the past. In my experience, about 80% of the people you work with and meet socially, spend much of their time regretting, repressing, or fantasizing about their past. They are in present time or future-oriented only for short periods, if at all.

Much of today's design is being used by people who are barely in present time.
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