As a UX researcher, I often encounter the question, “Why can’t you just ask people what they want?” The question is predicated on several assumption, foremost that people know what they want. We can talk about inherent biases and other reasons why people can’t define their own needs, but if you shift the emphasis on the word to “what” it pushes us closer to the role an outside expert can play. A research team can observe, ask questions, and analyze patterns around how a person does their job, then pivot and turn from what is to what could be. I don’t expect any participant to be up to date on the latest technologies or most efficient interaction patterns, but we are. This is where strategy, design, and technology come in; this where we play.

As an art historian, I often encountered the question, “Why can’t you just ask the artist what it means?” (Only if the artist is alive or wrote about their intentions.) This question assumes that there is only one answer and the artist is the definitive author. However, Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” 1967, argues that it is not the author, but rather the reader that determines the meaning of a text. For Barthes, the author does not have complete sovereignty. It is up to each reader to bring their own interpretation, meaning, and context, effectively wiping away the role of the author in that moment when the reader, or viewer, encounters the work. This decentralized view obliterates any possibility that there is ever a “right” answer or interpretation. I believe historical and social context, as well as the artist’s intentions, alongside other methodologies should all be considered when analyzing a work of art — each adds a layer or patina to the interpretation creating patterns and complexity far more interesting when considered together.

Writer, researcher, observer