Intention over Outcome

BBC Staff, (2010). “Morality is modified in the lab.” BBC Online. Visited on October 02, 2010:

This article highlights a study that proves that human moral judgment can be modified by disrupting a specific area of the brain by applying magnetic pulses. For example, most of us would agree that it is morally unacceptable for a man to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knew to be unsafe. If he did not know it was unsafe, and the girlfriend did not make it safely across the bridge, we would not hold the man responsible for letting her cross the bridge. After a magnetic pulse is applied to a certain area of our brains we would think differently—Whether or not the man knew it to be unsafe, we would think it was morally acceptable for the man to let his girlfriend cross the bridge if she made it safely across. If she didn’t, we would feel it was morally unacceptable, regardless of whether or not he knew it to be unsafe. This shows how the judgment can be influenced to become outcome based rather than intention based.

On Concept: If the reverse were possible, that is morally questionable judgments could be modified to be morally acceptable judgments by applying magnetic pulses, it could serve as the foundation for products for the treatment of mental health. Our society could benefit from the treatment of Antisocial Personal Disorder (psychopathy) using such a product. Wikipedia defines this disorder as a personality disorder characterized by an abnormal lack of empathy combined with strongly amoral conduct but masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal.

More importantly, from a product design standpoint, the article gives us a better understanding of our general user population. It articulates how most of us and, hence, most of our users normally make judgments. In general, we focus more on intention than outcome while making our judgments. We are willing to forgive someone for doing wrong unintentionally even if the outcome is terrible. But we are not easily forgiving of someone who wrongs intentionally even if the outcome may not be all that bad. Extending this understanding to products we may be able to say that a product that has or demonstrates a good intention, or lets users express their good intentions is likely to be popular.

For example, providing a forum to create and join a cause is a feature that makes Facebook popular.  We take pride in announcing on our profile page that we support a cause. Although it could be attributed to a desired but false ‘feel good’ factor, most of us do it out of good intentions. And we like an application that supports our good intention by giving us a forum to express it. How many of us follow through on that intention to make a difference? From an article published in Washington Post — ….fewer than 1 percent of those who have joined a cause have actually donated money through that application… Data available from the Causes developers on Facebook show the application’s meteoric rise since its founding. More than 25 million of Facebook’s 200 million worldwide members have signed on as supporters of at least one cause, making it the third-most popular of the more than 52,000 applications on the site. But just 185,000 members have ever contributed through the site.

Highlighting a good intention could be key to a product’s initial acceptance and rise to popularity in the market. ‘Environment friendly’ is the buzz phrase today.  All that is green is good. Our good intentions make us environmentally obliged to buy green products. But is the effect really what we want it to be or think it is going to be? Do we, as users, pay attention to the outcome? As product designers we should try and match intent with outcome. When we design a “green” product, it should be truly so.


Additional Bibliography: Hart, K. & Greenwell, M., (2009). “To Nonprofits Seeking Cash, Facebook App Isn’t So Green.” Washington Post Online. Visited on October 19, 2010: