Data, Delight, and User Experience Design
The Long Ow: Fulfilling on the Promise of Human-Centered Design

Appetite for Destruction


Hell is not other people. Hell is being surrounded by free candy.

Much as a child is forced to smoke a carton of cigarettes when caught out on the back porch with a Marlboro Light, my avoidance of any and all forms of sweets came from sheer overkill—that is, working in a candy store.

If you needed a strawberry-flavored white chocolate chips to melt into a ganache, Fran's Cake and Candy was your kind of establishment. Tucked into a dark corner of a strip mall in the heart of suburban Fairfax, Virginia, the store was lined with an infinite geometry of cake pans, what seemed like two thousand pastry bag attachments, chintzy plastic presentation stands you could rent for your upcoming wedding or bar mitzvah, and spun-sugar flowers that crunched in your mouth like sand if you attempted to consume them.

My job consisted of standing in the storeroom and shoveling the contents of 40-pound boxes of baker's candy and chocolate into 1-pound bags. "Have as much as you'd like to eat," Fran said on my first day. So I did my best to prove that if you let a kid loose in a candy shop, all hell will completely break loose.

For one week, I blasted Guns 'n' Roses and Cinderella on my Sanyo tape deck while hoovering up samples of at least forty different kinds of chocolate and baker's candy, from butterscotch to bittersweet. Out of 2,000 pounds of candy, I probably shaved off a good 4 pounds, which isn't shabby.

And at first, it was completely liberating. Until those fateful weeks, I had thought Halloween was not only the best holiday in the history of mankind. I had also designed in its honor a comprehensive system intended to net the highest volume of candy possible with the least amount of effort. Before going to sleep, I would dump the hundreds of candy pieces on my bed, sort them by type into little piles, drop them back into my little plastic pumpkin, and lie in bed, fantasizing about where I would start in the morning. With proper planning I could make that stash last for 6 weeks, even with a daily intake of three to five little bars.

But the uniform opinion I generated from eating so much candy so quickly at Fran's was the following: candy is awful. I shifted my focus to the infinite variety of baked goods, and lived a happy, candy-free life.

Until four years ago. In a stroke of extraordinary bad luck, I was felled by a very rare food-borne infection for a series of weeks.

Ravaged by bacteria that was being traced back to a downtown salad bar, unable to keep down solid food or water, I was essentially a couch-ridden wreck. (Though I did catch up on my extracurricular reading, when I wasn't napping in a half-awake daze or trying to keep down lukewarm vegetable broth.) After dropping ten pounds, tearing my way through two bushels of saltines, and becoming all too familiar with the various flavors of medical technology available for viewing our messy interior parts, I couldn't wait to eat real food again.

While pawing through the food cabinet for a can of more substantial soup, I came upon one of my wife's semisweet chocolate bars, which was tentatively sampled and then immediately devoured. Neurons fired like cannons in my brain. Opiates flooded the appropriate receptors. Ever since, each measured bite of chocolate—just a nibble or two a day, at maximum—recalls the bliss of that moment.

But the process I went through—from avowed hater of candy to devoted fanboy of the single-varietal 72% bar handmade in Madagascar by cacao plantation owners—is something I keep thinking about, mainly because I continue to question (intellectually) the immediate pendulum swing from hate to love with the placement of one bit of chocolate on my tongue. In the years since that experience, I've started to recognize similar obsessions, those dazzling glimmers of recalled delightful days reflected in the eyes of young toddlers greedily clinging to a talking doll, and CEOs obsessing over the bounce at the end of an iPhone list. We are trained by those dramatic reversals of emotion, regardless of age or station in life.

And these emotional attachments rule and define us. Just as I know that I could easily continue to the end of my days without taking another bite of the sweet stuff, I can't help but drop an extra Scharffen Berger 70% bittersweet bar into my shopping cart while meandering through the corner store—for later, says my monkey mind. (The ride home equals later.)

We are exceedingly talented at norming the most odd and outlandish behaviors, with the assumption that other people are just as tangled up in their obsessions as we are. One of the reasons I love sitting down and talking with people—any person, really, whether for work or for pleasure—is to share those sublime moments that afford us the opportunity to transcend how things are textually described and thought in the mind, and wade deeply into how they feel in the gut, which has its own "enteric" nervous system that governs our moods in tandem with our (top-heavy) brain. And part of what I get paid to do at my day job is discover which of those shared, learned behaviors go beyond the irrational considerations of a (fully justified) chocolate obsession and dig much deeper into what emotional patterns weave through whole masses of the human population—and which designers can tap most deeply into with what we realize tangibly.


It never ceases to amaze me how many things that I consider personal revelations, such as an hour and a half in the yoga studio exploring the nuances of a set of standing poses, triggers the same sense of self-awareness and release in millions of other people around the globe simultaneously holding their hands above their hearts and uttering, "Namaste." The same could also be said for spending time at the NASCAR racetrack with your family cheering on their favorite driver; or listening to a woman's grown daughter performing her first Bach concerto on the cello, intently working her way up and down the second and third strings with a furrowed brow.

If you told my 14-year-old self, disgusted by candy overload, that I would be a hopeless slave to the taste of a rare fermented fruit, I would have said, "That's crazy. I hate chocolate."

Well, David, tastes change over time—sometimes slowly, often in a flash of irrational exuberance. What truly delights and dazzles us is rarely presented as an absolute—that is, until it has dissolved on our tongue with satisfaction, or we have spat it out in disgust. What lives between those two moments is satisfactory at the time, but only a current in the weather system of our unconscious, barely registering as a tick on the Richter Scale. And the words we use to describe those experiences are either flat and lacking affect, or charged with power and portent.

My friends and co-workers wonder how I exist without coffee or tea, and my only response is that they aren't effective if I can't enjoy them separate of a pattern of dependence. A cup of coffee free of attachment is a godsend, since I live in a town of self-avowed addicts with a pusher at every street corner, homestead, and office. Also, those two beverages do not cause me to spout great affection. And I then tell them: chocolate is a (little) caffeine source. I think I'll stick to that.

In a few years, my joy of chocolate may wane... but I doubt it. That much should be clear from what I've said here. So much of what we describe and share in words, and the associations that form from them, are a dance that makes a mockery of the emotional mind, while our other senses are aquiver for the next moment to break through everyday eye-glazed gaze. We wax eloquent to evoke what can only be experienced in a few seconds of time, then digested slowly, ever composing a portion of our selves.



That, David, was a beautiful meditation. Thanks. I'll be thinking about it all day.



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