The Authenticity Problem
November + December 2009
Judging the “trueness” of designed artifacts—
objects, websites, or printed publications—is easy.
The authenticity of these artifacts depends entirely
on their material, craft, and ability to produce an
illusion: A company has made a claim, and the
object becomes the substantiation of that claim.
It’s easy to see through an object that is false. The
wood veneer will start to pull away from the cheap
particleboard beneath; the paint will scratch, and
the finish will discolor. Age seems to highlight
the charade of mass production, calling attention
to cheap materials or the apathetic workers that
assembled the items en masse.
We consumers know how to deal with that.
When the harsh reality of poor assembly rears its
ugly head, we simply discard the object and buy a
new one. Materialism and a consumptive culture
have not just made a fool of our environment; it has
become an easy way for us to avoid the joke that’s
been played on us by the very companies that
enticed us in the first place.
Some of us have become wise to the farce, and
no amount of decoration can lure us into the trap.
We select only hand-crafted objects of beauty, and
we’ve learned to judge “good design” and “honest
labor.” The physical is no challenge for us, as we
inspect the tightness of the joinery and marvel at
the rubber coatings.
The authenticity problem is harder to best, however, when considering the total experience of product, interface, environment, and service. This total
experience is the next frontier of the charade—it’s
the next challenge for designers, who attempt to
craft sequenced and choreographed interactions at
a grand level of behavior. No longer is it enough to
produce an artifact; there is little intellectual depth
to these items, as compared with the design of a
complicated and multifaceted system or service.
I write this from a nondescript room in a hotel,
part of a large chain that promises captivating, emotional experiences. The cracks in the façade of the
“emotional experience” are starting to show themselves: I can hear muffled voices from next door; the
ironing board squeaks; the elevator is a bit too slow;
and the man at the counter really doesn’t care if I
had a good night’s sleep or not. One might respond
that “you get what you pay for,” or “it’s good enough,”
or even “perfection is impossible.” Yet if authenticity
is to be the next true business differentiator, it will
be achieved through design, and through quality,
and through innovation in aggregate.
Or will it?
Perhaps the trueness of the experience is in the
slow elevator or the grumpy clerk. It has been written that pain is the only authentic emotion; sorrow
rips through the body, and grief sits low and tight
in the stomach. Physical pain is embodied by “
real-ness,” but emotional pain has a slow linger. Pleasure
is fleeting, but disappointment sticks. Could it be
that the hotel desk clerk who just doesn’t care is
the most authentic part of the whole experience?
Most of us don’t like disappointment, of course—
at least not consciously. We do our best to avoid it,
to minimize negative consequences, and to act in a
way that doesn’t hurt others, much less ourselves.
The deep-rooted instincts for survival try to lead
us away from physical and emotional pain, but the
authenticity of negativity sometimes wins and we
give in to the anxiety, or the constant downward
spiral of feelings.
The authenticity problem is simply defined but
nearly impossible to best. An authentic experience
is one that is honest and unique. The problem:
Frequently, an honest and unique experience is
a bad experience. Can you imagine the designer
at Starbucks or McDonald’s pitching the newest
idea: mediocre purchasing experiences? Cups that
break; hung-over baristas; food that just doesn’t
taste very good.
Increasingly, the claim that we can “design experiences” is proving to be false. This may be due to
our lack of practice, or lack of theory, or lack of
ability. Or it may be due to a misaligned goal. Issues
of semantics aside, perhaps we leave the authenticity problem alone for a while, and focus instead
on the more traditional aspects of design—craft,
beauty, and appropriateness.
Ironically, we might find ourselves having the
most authentic experiences of all.
© 2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/1100 $10.00