interactions magazine

This is from 2009 | 4 minute read

The Authenticity Problem

Judging the "trueness" of designed of artifacts—objects, or websites, or printed publications—is easy. The authenticity of these artifacts depends entirely on their material, and their craft, and their 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 particle board beneath, and 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 in mass.

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 has not just made a fool of our environment; it has become an easy way for us to avoid acknowledgement of 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 are 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; it is argued that there is little intellectual depth to these items, as compared to the design of a complicated and multifaceted system or service.

I write this from a non-descript hotel room, part of a large hotel chain that promises captivating, emotional experiences. The cracks in the facade of the "emotional experience" are starting to show themselves: I can hear muffled voices from the people next door, and the ironing board squeaks, and the elevator is a bit too slow, and the man at the counter really doesn't care if I had a good night 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 has a "realness" to it, but emotional pain has a slow linger. Pleasure is fleeting, but disappointment sticks. Could it be that the hotel desk clerk that 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 McDonalds pitching the newest idea: mediocre purchasing experiences? Cups that break; baristas that are hung over; food that just doesn't taste very good.

Mediocre—but honest and authentic.

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.

We might find ourselves, ironically, having the most authentic experiences of all.


Kolko, Jon (2009), "The authenticity problem". In interactions magazine, November/December, 2009.
Want to read some more? Try The Conflicting Rhetoric of Design Education.