Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Testimony isn't always a solid foundation for design

My dad would say there’s always two sides to a story. Having a good healthy dose of skepticism was a skill he felt appropriate for the proper socialization of his child. Every now and then as we’d be listening to the radio, we’d hear a testimonial from someone. No matter who it was, what their credibility or what the scenario, it was common (and probable) for him to add his own take on the situation. For example he might say “Yah right, you probably lit the house on fire yourself to claim on insurance!” He’d keep his disbelief and criticality right out in plain sight, unaware of contending nose curls and raised eyebrows of those around him. Many writers believe that testimonies are a strong piece of evidence for basing an argument. I would like to submit a caution to the one who solely relies on this form of evidence, for there are always two sides to a story, and there are always skeptics that need elephant sized rebuttals.

Further objectionable dismantling of assumptions is needed if we aren’t able to literally climb into one’s head to determine how “in touch with their moral compass” they are.


A testimony can only give us one’s perspective. That is the precise reason for the need for an objectionable dismantling of assumptions. Further testimonies may very well fill the gaps of the story, or perhaps other forms of evidence such as those that Aristotle has provided us for Rhetoric. Either way, one testimony, no matter who the source, simply can leave too much room for one to form inaccurate assumptions. Depending on the stakes of the argument, or the severity or priority of the need for the testimony, we would be doing ourselves and those interacting with our work a disservice if we only give them our subjective assumption-filled singular standing testimony.

One definition of the word Testimony, coming from Merriam-Webster Dictionary, says that it is “something that someone says especially in a court of law while formally promising to tell the truth.” ("Definition of Testimony.") If someone promises to tell the truth, then certainly there isn’t any chance that they might “bear false witness” (Exodus). Of course that is not a true statement. One doesn’t have to look hard to find examples of when false witness has occurred in the legal system. In fact, it happens so much that someone thought it appropriate to come up with the word “Perjury” to hold the definition for “telling a lie in a court” (“Definition of Perjury").

One hope that a testimony offers is that what is told may protect one from eminent doom of potential injury such as humility or incarceration. But then, severity of the situation may create a sense of requirement for the person who is strongly in touch with their moral compass to put forth the truth even at personal risk. Yes, that same severity or priority may very well be what causes another person of the opposite moral standing to side with a shielding lie. Further objectionable dismantling of assumptions is needed if we aren’t able to literally climb into one’s head to determine how “in touch with their moral compass” they are.

Another hope that testimony can carry is potential to build credibility. In J. L. Austin’s work titled How to do things with words, she states “The statement of an authority makes me aware of something, enables me to know something, which I shouldn’t have otherwise known. It is a source of knowledge.” (Austin). So, then perhaps this is why the rhetoricians come to testimony. It’s a trust relationship that those who wish to continue a “sands of time” conversation must adopt in order to take part in such a gathering of words and thoughts. An authority is assumed to be the expert on the subject matter. And so, a submitting to this ranking must take place. Yet, isn’t it still wise to seek an objectionable dismantling of assumptions even when we’re asked to believe this, or that by those in power, in authority, in higher rank, or in “control” of a space, place, or domain of knowledge?

It’s a trust relationship that those who wish to continue a “sands of time” conversation must adopt in order to take part in such a gathering of words and thoughts.

In Jakob Nielsen and J. Levy’s article titled “First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to the User” (Nielsen), we learn that “To design the best UX [User Experience], pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior...” The problem with testimony is that we don’t often report well on our behaviors, which has a direct connection to testimony. Although this can be somewhat insulting to some, the claim that Jakob Nielsen is putting forth in his article is a well known and tested research concept.

Taking this a bit further, one common research method relies heavily on testimony and also finds itself in the User Experience Design field: Surveys. Professional Researchers / User Experience Designers Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler both contend that one of the biggest challenges with written, online or in person surveys is “Making sure questions are well-written so that you get accurate answers without leading respondents to a particular answer.” (Unger) Are people really that mallable? The answer has been proven to be a resounding, “Yes”.

To conclude, one might infer that the situation that the testimony finds itself being presented has a strong influence on the actual testimony that comes out. In other words, the story is only partly right depending on priorities, severity of issues, person’s clarity of mind, and their bond to a moral compass. It’s up to every person who seeks truth to put on their research hat. There are situations where testimony can let us down in court, in life, or even in conversation with others, or perhaps it can fill gaps in our full vision of the unknown. The fact is that we don’t have cameras all over the world in every situation and thus don’t have a better way to hear about “this” or “that”. We are reliant on eyes to be our cameras and minds to be our recording device. Each person must work out whether they will trust the words of another individual, or if they will conduct an objectionable dismantling of assumptions.


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