I've been studying The Calculus of Intentions (it's where semiotics and mathematics intersect) with some remarkably learned people over the past few months. A core question of the study is “How do we create a working definition that can serve as a baseline of knowledge while allowing us to create new knowledge?”
I believe this question is ignored in many disciplines today, especially in those disciplines where business mixes with science (see Why hasn't Marketing caught on as a “Science”?). I've worked in pure research (work that had no obvious ROI) and applied research (“Solve this problem because we can productize the solution”). The former must create working definitions that are expandable, the latter works to create definitions that are brandable. Very different. The two can go into conflict.
A Valid Definition Must Be So General as to Encompass All Variants
In Reading Virtual Minds Volume II: Theory and Online Applications (still writing it, folks), I define “Usable” as
Something is usable when the individual using that thing achieves a goal both known and recognized prior to the usage event.
and “Usability” as
Usability is a measure of an individual's conscious and non-conscious recognition of the pleasure derived from achieving their goal.
Creating as general as possible definitions is crucial to Reading Virtual Minds Volume II: Theory and Online Applications because I provide non-NextStage examples1 of how to do what I'm describing and I want readers to know ahead of time what they can expect as outcomes.
Readers will notice that “Usable” is objective and digital (you either did or did not achieve a known and recognized goal), “Usability” is subjective and analog (did you get a lot or a little pleasure? What do you mean by “a lot” and “a little” and is it the same as what I mean?) and I go into the reasons for this in the book.2
Readers will also (I hope) notice that the two definitions above exist in that borderland where pure becomes applied research. The goal is to create something general enough to be wholly true and restrictive enough to be uniquely identifiable as true.3
Pure “Definitions” versus Applied “Definitions”
What else is required? Pure research is usually interested in creating a definition for what hasn't been in experience before, applied research not so much so, hence any definition used in business, etc., should encompass all previous similar experiences and definitely should not negate any previous similar experiences.
The classic business blunder example of this is “New Coke”. There was no question in consumer's consciousness that the New Cok wasn't “the real thing” and the debranding halo went from New Coke to Coca-Cola to Bill Cosby himself. The moral can be found easily in the Calculus of Intentions; instead of “Trust me, this is the real thing” (when “the real thing” was the existing definition of the old Coca-Cola formula) using “Trust me, this isn't for everybody, so give it a taste. This could be the real thing for you” with Mr. Cosby's finger first pointing at the Coca-Cola can then at the audience would have both captured the existing Coca-Cola audience and integrated it into the new formulation.
Integrate existing experience into the new definition and — from a marketing standpoint — you bring the existing audience with you (this is the heart of redesign and rebranding, also covered in Reading Virtual Minds V2). An example of not integrating existing experience into a new definition was something I heard in a radio spot earlier today (21 Jul 10). Some company in the Boston area is publishing a report, “The 25 Most Powerful Businesses in Massachusetts”. The ad then referenced their website with “Learn what makes a brand powerful at …”.
Essentially they use an existing term, “powerful”, then redefine it into something they lay claim to. It doesn't matter if their definition of “powerful” is accurate or meaningful to anything else we may apply that term to because they're also telling us what the term means when they use it.4
Organization and Structure
Next comes a definition's ability to organize a body of knowledge into a clear, irrefutable structure. Such things are called “elegant solutions” in mathematics, meaning the definition demonstrates simple, easily repeatable solutions. This tends to be where pure and applied research — especially when the application is intended for branding — diverge greatly. Pure research works to create foundations, applied research builds on those foundations in the hope that nothing else will be built. Boston's Hancock Tower, New York's Empire State Building and Chicago's Sears Tower (I think it has a different name now) are all buildings (foundational definition) and each has a separate name (applied definition).
The fact that what was Chicago's Sears Tower for many years is now known as The Willis Tower is a demonstration of an applied definition's mutability and temporality. People of a certain age will always reference that building as “The Sears Tower” and, if asked about “The Willis Tower”, will have to pause and perform the definition translation before answering with any confidence. Another example is The Boston Garden. I have no idea how many name changes it has gone through and to most people within a 100 mile radius of Boston who are over 35 years old, it will always be “The Boston Garden” (if for no other reason than “The TD BankNorth Garden” does not lend itself to alliteration and syllabation. It officially went from the full “The TD BankNorth Garden” to “The TD Garden” over a year's time, I think, perhaps longer. Such is the strength of pure and applied definitions as brands). Very often, when placial applied definitions change, society imposes a foundational definition to replace all applied definitions.
Again using Boston area examples, Foxboro Stadium is Foxboro Stadium, not Gillette Stadium (readers specializing in search engines know such examples by heart). The Tweeter Center is the Comcast Center and was Great Woods. Most people have to guess where it's located (Mansfield, MA). An example of pure and applied definitions going hand in glove is Gilford, NH's, “The Meadowbook U.S. Cellular Pavilion” (once MeadowBook Farm. “MeadowBook” has always been part of the venue's name so anybody and everybody knows about “The Meadowbrook”).
It is rare that a pure definition will change. Applied definitions are generational (as indicated above).
Recognize what is and what isn't defined
Lastly, both pure and applied definitions need to clearly demonstrate what is not included in the definition. Binary definitions are great for this. “0” is not “1”, (business) “male” is not (business) “female”. The definition of “Usable” provided at the start of this post is both binary and objective, good on both counts. Things like “Usability” and “New Coke”, being subjective, must always include the author's intent as part of the definition. I enjoy math puzzles so their usability to me is quite high, lots of people I know find no enjoyment in them, so my intent must be included in my definition of math puzzle usability.
And it is the recognition of my intent, the pleasure I feel5, that brings us back to The Calculus of Intentions and creating definitions.
People as Programmable Entities
It is possible to determine usability for different personality types, meaning one can plot how much pleasure a group of people will derive from a given object/device/tool, meaning it's possible to determine what features said object/device/tool must have to have penultimate usability, what features to change and how when introducing that object/device/tool into a new market, …
The same can be done for utility.
I was asked recently, “What sort of prison have you constructed, where the communications of people make such sense to you that their actions are programmably obvious…?”
I responded with “The foil here is probably an element of Cassandranism; if things are that obvious you'll know who can be communicated with and who not.”
Such research is, I think, a ship and not a prison, although the two are only different based on definition and intent.
1 – A non-NextStage example is one where NextStage's Evolution TechnologyTM (“ET”) isn't required to achieve the result. The result may have been proven with ET and ET isn't required to achieve the result.
2 – “Usability” as defined is not “utility”, the measure of relative satisfaction. I may be incredibly satisfied by something but derived absolutely no pleasure hence never want to use/do it again, such as being extremely satisfied that I survived a plane flight through a hurricane. However, I'll never do it again, therefore the usability is zero.
Utility is a measure subjective and analog, and it provides no cycle for improvement. “Usable” provides a binary measure of improvement — it wasn't usable before and now it is. “Usability” provides an improvement cycle — if usability is low (there is little to no pleasure in something's use) we can go through iterations wherein changes to some object/device/tool increases usability (each change allows greater pleasure in its use).
As a further example of the difference between usability and utility, note that usability is sensory in nature (another reason it's analog), utility is psychological in nature. We are prewired for usability (pleasure/pain), we have to learn utility.
3 – ET and humans move from “wholly true” to “uniquely identifiable as true” (the phenotype-genotype continuum) regularly and both do so via identity-relational models. For example, there exists a “business” definition of gender that is binary and has nothing to do with psychological, neurological, endocrinological, biological, …, science. By it's definition, I am male and that is wholly true because it is a binary definition. Either I am or I am not.
When we say “You remind me of …” we're dealing with “uniquely identifiable as true” and our conscious and non-conscious thoughts are using identity-relational models. We're basically comparing our memory of person A with our immediate awareness of person B who's standing in front of us. Are A and B a one-to-one match? Then they are uniquely identifiable and we say “Oh, you're …”. When the match isn't one-to-one we say things like “You remind me of …”, “You're a lot like …” or “I knew someone (just) like you …”
The slide from “I recognize you're a male” to “You remind me of …” to “You're …” is the slide from wholly true to uniquely identifiable as true and uses identity-relational models (how many unique elements are required to uniquely identify this as “not that”? See Chapter 5 Section 3, “The Toddness Factor” in Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History for a description of this).
4 – Shades of “Pornography is what I'm pointing at when I say it.” I pretty much believe redefining something to suit your needs is obscene and pornographic. In this case, by going to the company's website we learn “This national ranking is the first of its kind, … and provides a new benchmark for marketers”. Excellent! There's no real validity to their “metric” other than self-promotion and the desire to become a standard. Wonderful! Truly! Therefore the basis of the metric is the audience's acceptance of the company's statements as valid.
But wait… I knew an emperor like that…
And truth in advertising here; I have at times advised clients to do something similar. The dissimilarity is that the clients so advised could back up their definitions and claims with long, well documented evidentiary trails.
5 – I also derive utility from them, a sense of self-satisfaction at being able to solve them.