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An exploration of subjective meaning given to objects’ essences within design contexts
This brief article is merely an attempt to draw on philosophic ideas of essence and apply these ideas to a designed product in-formation in the form of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept. I situate this hypothetical situation in a world where the ‘car’ object doesn’t yet exist, and while I will not describe what a car-MVP ought to be, I do discuss how philosophy can provide pathways on how to think of what a car-MVP could embody. The philosophical concepts of essence I draw upon originate from philosophers Graham Harman, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Aristotle.
A few years ago when I was working across a number of startup enterprises, a frequent discussion/debate arose from the following questions; What defines the MVP that we are aiming for? What are the essential features that describe our business aspirations? and, How will the MVP embody these? At the time my argument was to understand what the minimum aspects would be of our said product from a given target market expectation and need. And if this was too diverse, narrow in on a particular market with a particular need from our product. With this approach we could strip out aspects of the product that were beyond these essential aspects for the purpose of the MVP release, and test the concepts in a highly focussed manner. However, in my experience within these organisations, these discussion were often contested through everyone’s instincts, previous experience, desires and ambitions, insufficient market data, and not situated in deeper reasoning.
But now after a period of time delving into ideas of philosophy of design and technology, and relationalism and speculative realism philosophies, there is an opportunity to interrogate ideas of essentialness with a different framing. To gain insight into just what a MVP should/could be, this article proposes that aspects of philosophic reasoning in understanding the essences, and the variety of essentialness of objects, may lead to improved comprehension of the needs of an MVP (and also for other design contexts).
As you are likely aware, from the Lean Startup methodology comes the Minimum Viable Product, MVP, (and also a myriad of other similar ideas that exist out there, however for this article I will stick with the MVP idea). My interpretation of a MVP is that it is a designed artefact that takes a baseline, pared-back version of a desired/possible future product to test in-market, observe, and receive feedback on the proposed idea from stakeholders, such as from the target market, suppliers, etc.; or perhaps the MVP is a vehicle to engage potential investors for funding. Essentially a MVP is the next step for the business to take beyond the prototyping stage; it’s a functional and robust proof of concept of the idea and the surrounding business model that supports it. It should be a finished product in its own right — meaning that despite its reduced functionality, it works and looks complete, despite its focus on essential aspects.
The lure and benefits of the MVP are its reduced creation costs — both in time and money. If it does fail it will not take down the organisation along with it. Leaving time, financial resources, and creative and emotional energy to learn, and attempt the concept again with the gained learnings. The MVP is a powerful practice-as-research, knowing from doing, and knowledge production tool.
Just what is this MVP in the first place?
A few years back, circulating on some social platforms, there was a simple graphic that described an ‘ideal’ MVP pathway for a car. It started with the first car-MVP as a skateboard, then a scooter, to a bicycle, to a (full working) motorbike, to finally arriving at a car. For me, and others, this was entirely wrong and misinformative. In no way is a skateboard possibly a MVP for a car. But many, many people were supportive of it —when judged by the positive comments that had accrued. That skateboard-to-car pathway is perhaps better described as a type of maturation of transportation journey for a 18 to 20-something year old. For instance, a car manufacturer and its investors would not learn anything from releasing a skateboard as MVP; not in the processes and systems of manufacturing it nor from the target market. Nor would urban planners gain any understanding of how the future car industry would affect town-planning from the released skateboard. There is no aspect for car market stakeholders that would learn anything about the business model, its systems, and affects from releasing a skateboard as a car-MVP. And here lies the problem at hand. How can we determine just what an MVP should be? While the costs of generating a MVP are lower than a full product, the MVP concept is vital to get right—as from the processes of creating it, and the learning earned from it, holds the future of the business idea. Get the MVP wrong, it will generate insufficient or incorrect learnings, and it can take the company down an unintended path which may not be intended, wanted, or viable.
To delve into the topic I will refer to Harman’s (2018) object-oriented philosophies, also known as OOO (pronounced ‘triple–O’), and to support the uncovered concepts using ideas of the original essence and the multiplicity of essentialness from Heidegger (2014), as well as the primary and secondary aspects of objects from Aristotle (2003). Weaving through these philosophies is a common thread, that of an object’s essence emerging toward something, or being defined and given meaning from something. We can then infer that a relationship between subject (an observing object) and an object is a requirement for essence formation. This means that my idea and experience, and your idea and experience of the same object may be entirely different. While outside of the scope of this article, this idea is now supported by quantum physics theories, where two people can experience different realities of the same object at the same instant (Fernandez, 2020).
What is the essence of the product?
To begin to tackle this subject properly, although very briefly, we will need to gain an understanding of the essences of objects. Essences of objects is a truly fraught philosophical journey which has been debated over centuries. However, by introducing some of the logics at play here we can attempt to logically reason how essences arise of any given object, even our MVP. Importantly though I take this subject on from a subjective and speculative realism point of view. I reject that an object’s essences are absolute, but rather I postulate that an object has access to infinite essences that are only defined in relation with a subject. This permits an object to possess (undefined) essences without relations, and also enable objects to exhibit different realities and experiences to subjects in relation with it at the same moment, and furthermore enable the same subject-object relation to experience essential changes over time.
The essence of an object can be considered to be its meaning of being. How its existence is defined and emerges. Heidegger (2014, para.11) referred to the emerging-sway of an object as phusis. An object’s essence must be of the object itself, however only through relations can an object’s essence have any meaning. Therefore, things or objects (including humans) bring an idea of relativism and subjectivity for an object’s essence to actually mean anything. Harman, in his object-oriented philosophy, his Quadruple Object concept (2011) , also describes essence as forming between the object’s reality (Real Object, RO) and its eidos (Real Qualities, RQ)(2018, p.159). However, when we enter any relation with an object, the object’s reality is inaccessibly withdrawn from us, we must step in with our own reality replacing the object’s reality and subjectively form essences with the object’s eidos within the formed relational compound object.
This subjectivity is explained further when Heidegger introduces another concept and describes the multiplicity of essentialness of objects (2014, para.61). For example, a particular tree holds the original essence of ‘tree’, and secondary essences of ‘plant’, and ‘living-thing’, and ‘life’. Without these primary and secondary essences ‘lighting our way in advance’, we could not look for the tree because of surrounding objects. Aristotle too considers the layers of essence with his concept of primary and secondary substances of objects (Cohen, 2020, pt.7). Which if we go back to our tree, the tree would be the primary essence but its health and size for example, would be secondary to its existence. But in both these cases different entities in relation to the tree may not agree that ‘tree’ is the original essence nor a primary substance. Instead, for an owl, the tree may have the original essence of ‘sanctuary’ or ‘safety’. Or an ecologist may attribute ‘habitat’ to the tree, if that person is seeking ‘habitat-ness’ for an owl, rather than ‘tree-ness’. In this way the ecologist will disregard any trees that do not hold ‘habitat-ness’.
Many philosophers discuss this important aspect of objects’ essences; that essences can only be accessed through reflection, relation, and thought — from Aristotle, Georg Hegel, Heidegger, and Husserl, to name a few. But what does this actually mean for our MVP? It means that when assessing what the core needs of a MVP are essential to the business proposition, that understanding the relationalistic and subjective framing of essences are essential to success. While Design language will discuss topics of user needs and journeys, business objectives and processes, approaching the product from an understanding of object essences provides a new set of logical reasoning to strategically reframe the inclusion and exclusion of MVP attributes.
Now let’s leave the realm of abstract and try and apply this thinking to something we can relate to ourselves. Going back to the original MVP example of the car product, we can consider the following: Essence is not tied to functionality; and essence is not confined to aesthetics — A car without wheels or an engine, still has essence of car-ness for us. However, it has lost a number of essential attributes for the car to function, so it obviously fails as an MVP. But consider, how have we even applied car-ness to this object? The answer is in our intentional car-object, the car-object that exists in the mind.
Intentional objects are objects that exist in the mind and there is little cognitive difference in being with real or intentional objects. Nakita Newton (2002) writes:
neuroscientists have shown that when we think about or imagine experiences, brain areas are activated in much the same ways that they are during actual occurrences of those experiences’
These intentional objects can be ideas, dreams, memories, or what we perceive in front of us. They are in-formed by our life-experience, our worldview, our interpretations in each wavering varying moment we perceive an object. Husserl, in his founding of phenomenology introduced the idea of adumbrations (Harman, 2018, p.76 & p.155). Adumbrations is how we perceive ‘slightly varying qualities’ of the same object over time. We can never see a car in full. We can only see a couple of sides of the car at any moment in time, and maybe we see a hint of what’s inside. Our minds fill in all the blanks that we cannot directly perceive. We unconsciously accept that there is another side of the car, and an engine. And that the car has existed before this moment and will afterward. We fill in the blanks from what we can perceive in reality with our previous experiences of car-ness. Therefore, we are accustomed to see car-like objects and through abductive reasoning create a fulfilled intentional car-object. We apply the essence of car-ness to car-objects, car-like objects, and even possible car-like objects.
However, when creating or experiencing entirely new objects—not iterations or variations of existing objects, but objects that we have no experience with, this is harder to do. We cannot rely on abductive reasoning to fill in the gaps for us. Instead, through a type of inductive process, we attempt to define the object through what we can observe and experience while we attempt to establish a new intentional object, and then test the success of our hypothesis of the object. We may extract ideas and definitions from related or similar objects we know and attempt to apply these ideas to the new object in front of us (similar to Steven Johnson’s idea of the Adjacent Possible (2010)). If the subject is successful in applying related, similar expectations, as well as forecasting likely qualities of the new object, then positive feelings to the new object should be generated. However, if there is a failure in defining the object through our automatically created expectations, then negative feelings will be created toward the object. This begins to highlight why established norms of design for new objects is desired. It reduces the unsettled feeling of entirely new experiences, and reduces risk of disappointment and ultimately failure. But this also, from the outset, it creates constraints on innovation. However, carefully applied, shifts to design paradigms can create surprise and delight.
This article’s original focus was on the skateboard to car MVP concept. This example has so many issues it is no longer helpful, and it is now worthwhile abandoning. Instead, if we continue to imagine that we were dealing with an entirely new concept—the car, how can we apply the ideas from the philosophic concepts just described? How can we define the essence of car-ness (an entirely new object no-one has encountered before).
Since we have established that essence is formed only through relation between subject and object, we need to consider for whom the MVP will be in relation with? This need not be a single subject nor limited to humans. The MVP could be considered in its relation with supply, services, logistics, markets, external technologies, manufacturing, and investors. By considering the needs of the overlapping areas and speculating on how people (or other types of entities including technological or even non-living entities —such as a roads and bridges etc) may relate to the object, we can begin to map out the minimum, yet most important, essential, aspects of the object. Through this extraction and reasoning of relationality and subjective essence formation, we can argue for or against aspects of the object to be included in the MVP.
As mentioned in the introduction, this article is not to expound what a car-MVP is within this hypothetical, but how to reason for what it may be, through the use of speculative realism philosophic reasoning. These ideas can be extrapolated to other design contexts as well. This is the beginning of a shift in thinking to what is called Flat Ontology (Harman, 2018, pp.54–58). With an ultimate goal of decentring the human-object from all consideration within design processes. This last statement is part of a larger emerging movement which is recognising the inherent dangers of continuing a human-first, human-only, mentality within design contexts for our entwined realities with Technology and Nature.
This article also starts to highlight why conversations around MVP inclusions have always been complex. First off, everyone has their own subjective understanding of the essentialness of the business offering and the potential artefacts that represents it, and what defines and gives meaning to the MVP’s being is not objective nor absolute. Instead by considering the multiplicity of essentialness and the subjective interpretations of essence, an approach to reframe thinking from the artefact’s relations is uncovered — widening the scope of ideation.
 To recount Harman’s Quadruple Object (QO) concept is beyond the scope of this article, but please refer to Harman (2011) or via online search, or you may read this article by Christine M. Skolnik, which discusses QO broadly: https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/the-quadruple-object-revisited/
Cohen, M. S. Aristotle’s Metaphysics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Zalta, E. N. (ed.), viewed July 31 2020, < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/aristotle-metaphysics/ >
Fernandez, E. 2020, Quantum Physics May Upend Our Macroscopic Reality in the Universe, Forbes.com, Forbes Media LLC., viewed 02 September 2020, < https://www.forbes.com/sites/fernandezelizabeth/2020/09/01/quantum-physics-may-upend-our-macroscopic-reality-in-the-universe/#6b4689197328 >
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Harman, G. 2018, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything, Penguin Random House UK, Pelican Books.
Heidegger, M. 2014, Introduction to Metaphysics, Translated by Fried, G. & Polt, R.,Apple Books, Yale University Press, Edn. Second.
Johnson, S. 2010, Where Good Ideas Come from — the Natural History of Innovation, Allan Lane.
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Yu, J. 2003, The Structure of Being in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Knuuttila, S. (ed.) Dordrecht, Springer Science + Business Media.