Relevance of Relevance

Scratch any designer worth his (her) professional salt, and you will find the chief deity of his profession, the User. This User – the ubiquitous and the all pervasive phenomenon who is ‘virajman’ in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple of design – demands, drives and possesses the design practitioner and his priestcraft.

The User also defines the sacred liturgy of the design profession – user, user profile, usage, use cases, usability, usefulness, user-centricity, user advocacy, user context, user relevance…

Just pick the last one, Relevance. It’s something of a sacred notion – after all, you want every schema and artifact you analyze and produce as a designer to be Relevant to the User. And of course Relevance is not a thing, it’s relationship term, a kind of a kinship term, it’s not a thing that exists by itself.  Is the downgrading of the US debt rating to AA+ less or more relevant than Kate Middleton’s rumored anorexia? Throw a User (consumer of information) into the mix and only then can you talk about Relevance.

But does this principle of Relevance have no down side to it? Alas, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Eli Pariser’s book ‘Filter Bubble – What The Internet Is Hiding From You’ explores the search and personalization algorithms used by the Internet Big Boys (Yahoos!, Googles, and Facebooks of the world) that filter information and give you what is Relevant to You (based on your personal history and past searches). This, argues Pariser, creates the phenomenon of a closed bubble arising out of the relevance paradox where the more you find some things relevant, the more you are served similar things – effectively cutting you off from alternate perspectives, ideas, opinions, practices or world views. If effect, by serving you with dishes drawn from the menu you like over and over, you are prevented from experiencing new cuisines and tastes that might (potentially) enlarge your palette and make you a better connoisseur.

Is there an alternative? Would you always want to be served with what you know you like, or would you, once in a while, want the waiter to suggest you ‘something different’?

Some of these Internet Big Boys have a system where the personalization algorithms can be overridden by humans (waiters!) who decide a link to a story is important enough to be served to you even if the algorithm thinks that it ‘ranks low in relevance going by user’s history’. But, of course, in this case, it is a human deciding what choices to give you. Either way, your curry is rated, ranked, curated and served hot!

The larger question is, is this such a unique phenomenon wrought by exploding information technologies OR is this a more normal and natural paradox, a part of what we are and how we function in the world? The fact is, most things we see, do or experience – are done by choice. (I am not talking about acts of nature and coincidence here). You read a book, you watch a movie, you eat a meal, you share a photo, you discuss a topic – all out of the choices you make, from an innate sense of what is meaningful and interesting to you. This obviously precludes your inner experience from the book you haven’t read, the movie you haven’t seen or the topic you haven’t discussed. Thats’s a fact of life. Every choice you make is a tradeoff between it and the choices you haven’t made.

But it does not mean you cannot peek outside the filter bubble, outside the algorithm, when you really want to. That too is a choice, and sometimes, it can be a stronger force than Relevance.

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