Optimizing For Feelings
On seeking meaning beyond metrics
Why are we here?
It’s a question we often ask. And while it’s not our style to dwell on the past, there’s simply no way around the fact that we’re pretty fed up with a certain philosophical framework in Silicon Valley.
It has many names: the growth mindset. OKRs. KPIs. Even Minimalism — the predominant aesthetic of our era. But at its core, it all comes down to one thing: the relentless optimization of everything in our world.
We believe this mindset has led us to a very specific place: one of efficiency, productivity, and profit… but not a place of humanity. Soul. Or feeling.
And when we take a step back, we think feeling is kind of what matters most in this world.
Humor us for a moment and picture your favorite neighborhood restaurant. Ours is a corner spot in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It has overflowing natural light, handmade textile seat cushions, a caramel wood grain throughout, and colorful ornaments dangling from the ceilings. Can you picture yours? Do you feel the warmth and spirit of the place?
A Silicon Valley optimizer might say, “Well, they don’t brew their coffee at exactly 200 degrees. And the seats look a little ratty. And the ceiling ornaments don’t serve any function.”
But we think that’s exactly the point. That these little, hand-crafted touches give our environment its humanity and spirit. In their absence, we’re left with something universal but utterly sterile — a space that may “perfectly” serve our functional needs, but leave our emotional needs in the lurch.
So why are we here?
To bring humanity back into the software we use every day.
Writing manifestos about the state of the industry has never really been our thing. But as software “eats the world” at an ever-increasing pace, we believe that now is high time for a new approach.
We’d love to tell you about it.
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: there’s no such thing as a neutral algorithm.
At Facebook, this was abundantly clear. The company would put up pie charts of how the average American spends the twenty-four hours in their day. Sleeping, eating, bathroom breaks — it was all accounted for. And the call to action was that Facebook’s software capture as much of this “time spent” as possible. That was the mission. And that’s what the algorithm was designed for.
Time spent. Engagement. Impressions. Today’s most popular software all choose to optimize for one thing or another. And we believe this choice says a whole lot about the companies behind these products. Because what you choose to optimize for impacts the daily lives of millions — if not billions — of people, and not always for the better.
We tested 50 shades of blue to see which one made people buy more things. We ranked life by the amount of likes it received, turning each day into a popularity contest. We optimized our news by what was most engaging, driving the loudest voices to the top. We pivoted our video until every video was… exactly ten minutes long. And numbers went up.
If you try hard, you can remember a time when our tools and platforms were designed by people, for people. Operating systems were bubbly and evanescent, like nature. Apps were customizable, in every shape and size. And interfaces drew on real-life metaphors to help you understand them, integrating them effortlessly into your life.
But as our everyday software tools and media became global for the first time, the hand of the artist gave way to the whims of the algorithm. And our software became one-size-fits-all in a world full of so many different people. All our opinions, beliefs, and ideas got averaged out — producing the least common denominator: endless sequels that everyone enjoys but no one truly loves.
When our software optimizes for numbers alone — no matter the number — it appears doomed to lack a certain spirit, and a certain humanity.
So, if not numbers, what might we optimize for when crafting software?
If we’ve learned anything, it’s that all numerical metrics will be gamed, and that by default these numbers lack soul. After all, a life well-lived means something a little different to almost everyone. So it seems a little funny that the software we use almost every waking hour has the same predetermined goals for all of us in mind.
In the end, we decided that we didn’t want to optimize for numbers at all. We wanted to optimize for feelings.
While this may seem idealistic at best or naive at worst, the truth is that we already know how to do this. The most profound craftsmanship in our world across art, design, and media has long revolved around feelings.
But as makers of software, how might we do it?
First, look inward.
When Olmstead crafted Central Park, what do you think he was optimizing for? Which metric led to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight? What data brought the iPhone into this world? The answer is not numerical. It’s all about the feelings, opinions, experiences, and ideas of the maker themself. The great Georgia O’Keefe put it this way: "I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me... so I decided to start anew."
And anything new is by nature without precedent — meaning, without data to know whether it will work or not. So when we approach building new things, we don’t optimize for metrics. We optimize for feelings. Our own, and of those we serve. Because our most treasured, human creations are far from neutral… In fact, they are full of opinions, taste, and subjectivity! That is what gives them their spirit and vitality, so own what moves you and let it run wild in your software!
Second, look away from your screen.
The technology industry has a tendency to think it is unique. In reality, it is but more of the same — a new craft for a new time. But this should feel empowering! What can we learn from what came before us, and what is next to us? The ways in which other crafts, industries, and iconic creations make us feel something can inspire our software all the same.
James Turrell took inspiration from astronomy and perceptual psychology. Coco Chanel was most influenced by nuns and religious symbols. David Adjaye drew from Yoruban sculpture, and Steve Jobs from Zen Buddhism and calligraphy. We could continue this list forever, but that’s not the point. The point is to look outside the confines of our industry toward what makes us feel in the world around us, and ask ourselves why. Borrow. Remix. Let it shape your work!
Third, cede control to the individual.
How do you feel when you finally step foot in your own living room, after weeks away from home? When you plop down on your own bed, or whip up a meal in your own kitchen? It conjures up a specific feeling, doesn’t it? That’s because these spaces are a reflection of you — created by you, for you. Software can feel the same way if individuals have agency and sovereignty over what is on their screens.
And yet, in so much modern software today, you’re placed in a drab gray cubicle — anonymized and aggregated until you’re just a daily active user. For minimalism. For simplicity. For scale! But if our hope is to create software with feeling, it means inviting people in to craft it for themselves — to mold it to the contours of their unique lives and taste.
And so we return to our favorite neighborhood restaurant.
It’s 7:30pm on a weekday evening not too far from now. You’re sitting and staring up at the ceiling, observing the fan that tilts a little to the left. You’re waiting for your beloved dish that never fails, and which just doesn’t taste the same anywhere else.
How would this place differ if the soulful humans behind it were optimizing purely for profits? Or scalability? Or time spent? You might not love those versions of the restaurant before you.
You see — if software is to have soul, it must feel more like the world around it. Which is the biggest clue of all that feeling is what’s missing from today’s software. Because the value of the tools, objects, and artworks that we as humans have surrounded ourselves with for thousands of years goes so far beyond their functionality. In many ways, their primary value might often come from how they make us feel by triggering a memory, helping us carry on a tradition, stimulating our senses, or just creating a moment of peace.
This is not to say that metrics should not play a role in what we do. The age of metrics has undeniably led us to some pretty remarkable things! And numbers are a useful measuring stick to keep ourselves honest.
But if the religion of technology preaches anything, it celebrates progress and evolution. And so we ask, what comes next? What do we optimize for beyond numbers? How do we bring more of the world around us back into the software in front of us?
At The Browser Company, we’ve chosen to optimize for feelings — to bring the quirks and edges of life back into software. To create something with soul. But this is, of course, just one approach. This essay is simply how we feel, and the approach that we have chosen.
More than anything, we ask these questions because the prompt is almost always more interesting than the answer itself.
There is an entire garden of possibilities ahead of us, and we cannot wait to see the approaches you’ll dream up as well.