Sjors Timmer designer

Exploring eternal questions through interaction design

by Sjors Timmer

This is a write-up of a talk I gave at Geeky

Thanks to a side project on  time mapping I became interested in the design implications of a set of questions that are collectively known as the eternal questions.

1. What are eternal questions?
Eternal questions are concerned with meaning. They arise from people’s experiences with the world, and have no definitive answer. Famous questions are: what is the meaning of life? What is a good life? What makes a good person? What is beauty? What is love?

Although they cannot be answered definitively, this doesn’t mean that they cannot be productively discussed. Through the centuries countless people have come up with answers. Some believed they answered a question once and for all, others were more modest and saw their answer only as one of many possibilities.

Many of us are familiar with Douglas Adams’ answer from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: “42″, the answer to life, the universe and everything. But there are many others:


Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Inspired by the simple and colourful life of Tahiti, Paul Gauguin wondered: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? And came up with a surprisingly colourful answer.

In what turned out to be his final work, Dostoevsky created The Brothers Karamazov  a story about  three brothers and a father with very different ideas about what makes a good life.

Inspired by a poem about friendship, Beethoven wondered: what would happiness sound like? And penned The Ninth Symphony a piece of music that still makes the loudest death metal bands shiver in fear.

Closer to our time, Haddaway wondered ‘what is love?‘ and apparently still hasn’t found the answer yet.

2. Why should you explore eternal questions?
You already do. Every decision shows something about your values. Why are you reading this text? Perhaps because you find education important. Why do you find education important? Maybe because you want to understand more about the world? Why do you want to know more about the world? Because you believe that only an informed life is worth living. Why do you believe so? And so on. Exploring eternal questions allows you to examine your life in more detail and from that make better-informed choices of what you should do with your time.

Also, it’s fun. Eternal questions are like maths problems where the solution becomes harder the more time you spend on solving them.

Although you might not be a mathematician, painter, musician or writer, this doesn’t mean you should miss out on the fun of contemplating meaning. If you have the skills of digital tool-making, you have the opportunity to start exploring meaning in ways that no one has done before. And even better, you can make the tools that form the basis for other people to explore eternal questions in their own way.

The easiest way to go from an eternal question to a project idea is by adding a little design thinking to the mix. Tim Brown of IDEO proposes to start design exploration by asking ‘How might we?’. Since the web is very suitable for creating digital tools that help people do their own thing, we can imagine the questions to become: how might we help people to explore what a good life is? How might we help people to explore what beauty is?

How might we explore what beauty is? Perhaps Pinterest is a good place to start. Although the taste of most users might not reflect your idea of beauty, there’s nothing stopping you from starting your own collection.

How might we explore what makes a good life? This is already a Quora question. And if you have a question that no one has thought of yet, it’s easy to add it to the list.

How might we help people explore the meaning of love? Judging by the statistics, we can say that OkCupid does a good job in helping people find out for themselves what love could be.

3. Long-term explorer
For a few years I’ve been a fan of Steward Brand’s The Long Now Foundation, which runs a monthly lecture series (available as podcast) addressing the past and the next 10.000 years. As a designer I wondered how I could help people to think more long-term. In design-thinking terms: how might we encourage people to think about the long term?


Long-term explorer

What I’ve got so far is the long-term explorer, an idea for an application that allows you to explore your next 60 years in as much detail as you’d like.

Testing this on people has already gained some strong negative feedback: ‘using this would mean you can clearly see your whole life unfolding as a big failure‘, ‘if I would use it, death would be the only thing on my mind‘. But also some positive ones: ‘If it did financial calculations, I could plan buying a house, a car and a motorcycle‘, ‘this could help me not to forget that I should do some fun things too‘ or ‘I could use it to see how my thoughts about the future have changed over time‘.

If you have some ideas on this topic I’d be very happy to hear them.

4. How to get started
The great thing about eternal questions is that they never run out of possible answers. If you take a few of the concepts: good, art, beauty, happiness, justice, fairness, and add them after the ‘how might we?’, you can easily come up with plenty of opportunities to start designing and prototyping.

If you also add a human-centred design approach as part of your question, your project is ready to go. For example:
How might we encourage people to explore [beauty]
How might we facilitate discussion about [art]
How might we think about [happiness]
How might we improve the understanding of [fairness]
How might we […]

I’ll leave it up to you to take it from here.


Published: October 28, 2012
Filed Under: article, presentation


One Response to “Exploring eternal questions through interaction design”

  1. spacer Steffen Boelaars says:
    November 9, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Excellent article/presentation. Inspirational, actually. I’m going to get back to this in my new job… spacer

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