• “Can experience be designed?” Yes. No. Wait, yes. But.

    Oliver Reichenstein’s recent article “Can experience be designed?” sparked a lively discussion here at Adaptive Path. Reichenstein does a good job cutting through a lot of the hype and fluff that surrounds experience design, drilling through the rhetoric in an attempt to reach a more substantive center. His article caused a fair amount of reflection amongst our practitioners, and we wanted to share some of our thinking.

    Experience Design: More than designing interfaces, less than designing houses.

    We took slight issue with the article’s assumption that experience design is largely concerned with web design, or at its broadest, interface design. An experience designer today might say they design software, interfaces or websites, but they probably would not say they design houses. Even so, as we consider the systems in which our work is situated, we are increasingly associated with designing in non-digital media, such as retail spaces.

    Peter Merholz’s definition of “experience” from Subject to Change explains how experiences are far more than just interfaces:

    When a person engages with your products, services, and environments, a set of distinctly human qualities comes into play. A person’s experience emerges from these qualities:

    • Motivations: why they are engaged with your offering, and what they hope to get out of it
    • Expectations: the preconceptions they bring to how something works
    • Perceptions: the ways in which your offering affects their senses (see, hear, touch, smell, taste)
    • Abilities: how they are able to cognitively and physically interact with your offering
    • Flow: how they engage with your offering over time
    • Culture: the framework of codes (manners, language, rituals), behavioral norms, and systems of belief within which the person operates.

    When someone says they’ve had a good or a bad experience, what they’re talking about is how a product, service, or environment did or didn’t satisfactorily address these qualities.

    Not designing experiences, but designing for experiences.

    It may sound odd coming from an experience designer, but I would agree that it is impossible for us to design experiences. We can, however, design for experiences. The difference is subtle, but extremely important. I believe that we can create conditions so that people with a similar cultural perspective, a shared sociocultural background, a shared repertoire of previous life experiences, will perceive and interpret a product or service in an intended way.

    When planning a birthday party, for example, you make decisions about where to host it, who to invite, what to eat, what sort of decorations to use, etc. In making these decisions, you are purposefully planning the kind of experience that you want people to have at your party. Black balloons and over-the-hill gifts have certain cultural meanings attached to them, and might make sense for a person turning 50. The same materials may not be appropriate for a five-year-old’s birthday, however, because it’s unlikely the guests will interpret them as intended.

    You cannot design an experience itself, because experience requires interpretation, an activity that belongs to the individual. However, you can make decisions with the aim of achieving a certain experiential outcome. If you can purposefully plan for and design a birthday party, you can purposefully plan for and design how a customer engages with the products and services of an organization. An experience is each person’s own, and while we cannot design an experience, we can make decisions that help make that experience a good one. It’s difficult to design for something as ambiguous and intangible as someone’s experience, but this is why it’s so important, and this is why we choose to do it.

    Can design be practiced independent of medium?

    The central question is not “Can experience be designed?” but “Can design be practiced independent of medium?” Indeed, are there a set of design practices that apply consistently, regardless of the specific artifacts to be delivered?

    If so, these practices would be characterized as “experience design.”

    If not, if design is dependent on medium, then “experience design” is more of a mantra in the course of practicing media-specific design, than a discipline in and of itself.

    I tend to believe the former, that yes, design can be practiced independent of medium. There are a number of theories that describe universal characteristics of design practice in this manner, such as Schön’s reflective practice, Polyani’s tacit knowing, Sennett’s study of craft, and the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. From industrial designers to visual designers to interaction designers, we are all designers in the way that all doctors are doctors, but a cardiologist is not an anesthesiologist and vice versa.

    When something is everything, it is nothing.

    For practical purposes experience design is still largely rooted in digital media, but that is shifting as we become increasingly concerned with the design of systems, services and other multi-channel offerings. As experience designers we respect the ultimate material realization of a design, but we often work in a space that is abstracted from media. A designed artifact with which a person interacts must take form in a medium in order to be perceived, and the constraints of that medium will influence its design, the meanings a person associates with it, and the experiences they have with it.

    The challenge with this level of abstraction is that everything is an experience, and everyone is a user. With that, it is clear the conversation has come full-circle in terms of designing experience. As Don Norman wrote in 1998:

    “I invented the term [user experience] because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow: I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.

    “Since then, the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose its meaning.”

    There are 6 thoughts on this idea

    1. Sutikshan Sharma

      While I completely agree with the distinction, I feel that most (if not all) of us are infact always designing FOR experience, without knowing it. I don’t think anyone is arrogant or presumptuous enough to consciously try to manipulate how an individual experiences a product, which is impossible simply because you can’t please everyone.

      IMHO, this distinction is more of a precaution for those who would too readily use the buzz word “Experience Design” without fully grasping its significance. This may be organizations, looking to implement design thinking to their products, as well as individuals who may be advertising themselves as “experience designers” for the sake of winning the next big project. Just my 2 cents.

    2. Dane Petersen

      @sutikshan – Agreed. The distinction, that we are designing for experiences, is important to avoid the pitfalls of design hubris. I believe the significance of the distinction is more than encouraging the practice of humility, however.

      Interpretation plays a central role in determining how a designed product or service is “experienced” by a particular individual. When we design for experiences, we are designing with respect to these interpretations. We understand that people have different cultural backgrounds, different values, and may be in different points in their lives. Pixar films are emotionally resonant for a wide range of people and age groups, despite the fact that a five-year-old child will engage with Up for very different reasons than, say, his grandfather.

      Pixar does a beautiful job leveraging our personal experiences, our familial connections, which allows us to project ourselves into the position of the characters in the film. They do not instruct us how to engage with the film, but leverage shared sociocultural understandings in a manner that resonates with our own knowledge, experiences and values.

      In regards to designing interfaces, the notion that we are designing for experience is to underline the fact that the person (or user) is not a blank canvas upon which we write our interaction, but is rather an interpretative powerhouse stocked with cultural knowledge, personal values and previous life experiences, which offer a rich source of meanings that can be leveraged by an effective design.

      @russ – Thank you, and I’m glad to hear the piece sparked some great conversations at Think Brownstone!

    3. Russ Starke

      Dane, this is a very smart and insightful piece – really enjoyed it, and in the same way that the original article sparked discussion at Adaptive Path, this response is sparking thought and conversation at our ThinkSpace. Consensus seems to be “yeah, what Dane said!” Thanks for the additional insight and links – all the best!

    4. Understanding Customer Experience | iTAX – t

      […] is a strong case to be made that companies cannot fully control experiences, because experiences inevitably involve perception, emotion, and unexpected behaviors on the parts […]

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