Meeting Expectations

Feb 23, 2010

Every now and then when something in my life goes according to the plan in my head, I get almost a kid-like giddiness and can’t help but laugh.

We as humans do well with predictability. Subconsciously I think it almost reassures us that we’re learning, growing and have developed good heuristics about the world and how it works. When something unexpected happens, depending on the magnitude and context, it can be quite confusing. We want to plan ahead. If it’s raining, you take an umbrella. If you pay your bills on time, you keep your electricity. If you’re gonna be late, you call someone (well, some of you).

Similarly, growing up I didn’t expect people would behave badly or turn me down for a date or make fun of something about me of which I wasn’t aware. But they did and to me, it seemed so out of place that I adjusted my psyche to come to expect such things to happen to me.

Developing stories is the only way for me to make sense of the world and feel comfortable within it. If I can predict what should happen, then anything bad that does occur suddenly doesn’t feel so bad. Rather, it’s as though it’s all part of some bigger plan and will make sense later.

I know a lot of people who don’t overanalyze and who just “go with the flow.” But my parents never raised me as someone to do that and take life as it comes. Instead, they taught me to be overly-cautious, plan ahead, weigh the options and be careful. This, of course, isn’t a bad thing entirely, but when it’s coupled with also feeling unaccepted socially, you actually forget how to be a kid, happy, carefree and curious. As a result, I’ve always had a hard time being relaxed about things. I plan out in my mind all the possible scenarios in which something goes wrong or right and then apply the stories to my life, making sure that whatever does happen fits into the story I’ve constructed. And let me tell you, it’s amazing how many ways something can happen that doesn’t meet an expectation.

If I like a girl, I’ll probably try to figure out all the meanings behind her actions, guess what she’s thinking based on what has happened, take into consideration her personal background to educate me on my perceptions and predictions, weigh in the various events in her current life that might affect her and then think about what I’ve done that might have influenced her to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Don’t think I’m crazy – it’s just how my mind works now. Believe me – it’s not fun. For years my friends have told me not to worry so much about these things, but how can I not? It’s built in.

Growing up, conversations with my dad would follow this pattern: “Did you brush your teeth? Take a shower? Put out your clothes for the next day? Did you floss? Who’s the friend you’re visiting? Does he have a last name? Are his parents home? What’s his phone number? You’re wearing *that*? You need to eat more than that. It might rain later so it’s probably not a good idea to go out tonight. What are you wearing for your first day of work? Those shoes? You should buy some new shoes. Let me buy you some new shoes.”

To this day, my dad can’t believe my manager wears a T-shirt and jeans to work. “You should dress nicer,” he says. And those of you who know me well, know that I do dress up… though hard to say if it’s because I really want to.

On the other end of the spectrum, conversations with my mom were more analytical and personal in practice: “What did she say? Well did she say this? That’s odd, I wonder if she meant this. Oh he probably thought you were this so he did that. Have you considered trying this? Maybe if you did that, this would happen. Well she’s probably got issues. Did you say something? Oh you shouldn’t have said that.”

And, lest we forget, I’ve lived with my parents for most of my life until really just six years ago.

Given this, I think it’s understandable why I’ve grown up having been cautious and analytical so nothing could possibly go awry. God forbid I didn’t plan ahead. This was coupled with a need for social acceptance which in turn gave an expectation of who I *should* be. Were I to actually be unique and “myself,” then I really wouldn’t blend in with the expectations of my peers and feel awkward (see previous story).

I will say, however, that while this mindset doesn’t necessarily suit the social life (as you really can’t plan ahead with people since emotions are unpredictable), it does have a lot of relevance to design (surprise?). Not everyone is going to understand something you make, but given a fundamental understanding of psychological and biological principles that we all share – and thinking about every possible use case and scenario in which a task could be completed – you can develop products for the majority of users that meet their expectation.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to design with expectation in mind – that’s why I’m such a proponent for simplicity and consistency. If you make something totally unique, you run the risk of confusion. Were you to first meet the expectation and then *exceed* it, then you’d be all set. When I meet new people I try to build a level of familiarity in our conversations so we instantly feel comfortable and have some connections on things. It’s only after people get to know me that they become aware of my quirks and nuances in my personality that make me unique. Hopefully they’ll like me enough to remain my friend. And that’s the way I think design should be. Familiar enough to learn, unique enough to last.

Let’s never underestimate the power of meeting expectation. In a world of infinite possibilities – and where infinite things can go wrong – it’s amazing just to have a button that does what you expect placed where you expect it.

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