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What is an experience? What are we designing? Part one | by Vonny Laing-LeClerc | Jan, 2023

Lousie Banks looks on as the heptapods write
Better definitions, deeper empathy, better understanding.

I’ve been thinking a lot about experiences lately. As someone who works in the design industry, this may come as no surprise, but it’s more like poking around at what we know, what we talk about, and what we teach others, particularly in the space of product and service design. I’ve read a couple of things this week that have prompted me to write about this — unabashedly as a means of ‘thinking out loud’. ‘The Eyes of the Skin,’ a philosophical essay primarily relating to architecture by Junahi Pallasmaa, and ‘A Framework for the Experience of Meaning in Human-Computer Interaction’, a paper by Elisa D. Mekler and Kaspar Hornbaek. I’d like to talk about both of these in their own right, but that is for another essay. What’s more pressing is the fundamental question both prompted in relation to my own area of work: what the heck an experience?

Addressing the elephant

I’ve long felt that this is a bit of the elephant in the design studio. We talk a lot about what we do — yet the thing we’re supposedly shaping seems ineffible. Despite the central role experiences play in design, they can often feel intangible and difficult to grasp. As designers, we are constantly trying to create meaningful and impactful experiences for our users, but this can be a challenging task when the thing we’re trying to shape is so nebulous.

Reading these brought home how rarely we step back into the messy, philosophical backdrop of our own, often very tangible, work. Most of us who work in experience design do so in a world that is focused on outputs and results. That is to say we are accountable for and judged on the things we make, which are inherent to the success of a project and indeed, a product. We frequently work in fast-paced Agile environments that place emphasis on the need to produce. There’s precious little time to think as much as we’d like about what we’re making, let alone find the space to get philosophical about what we actually do, in our own time.

At the coalface

I feel like our work suffers from its emergeance as a distinct discipline undergoing constant reinvention and increased ‘trendiness’. User experience design suffers a disconnect from its HCI roots. Particularly for those who did not end up in UX as a direct result of a university course. We’re far closer to the application than the theory, which has its drawbacks. There are endlessly interesting and fascinating discussions in HCI academia, that never find their way to those of us at the coalface. This separation from theory has led to a fragmented understanding of a user experience and how it should be approached.

Without a theoretical foundation, the practice of experience design has become reliant on best practices and industry norms, rather than a deep understanding of the user and their interaction with the product or service. We become a factory in service to received wisdom taken as gospel. I think it’s time we applied our analytical brains to these core tenets of our practice, and did some poking.

It’s crucial that we make the time to understand the underpinnings of our work, particularly when it comes to experience design. Otherwise, we’ll become endlessly bogged down in the business of creating stuff. Adding digital ephemera to the metaverse, hoping that it’s in some way helpful, not shitty to use, and maybe makes someone, somewhere, smile. I don’t mean to apply my personal experience as a generalisation, but I have a hunch that isn’t why we got into this field and probably doesn’t inspire the warm fuzzies.

When pushed, how many of us could define an experience without referring to the bits that interface with our work?

How, then, can we design interactive experiences if our definition of the core concept is slippery?

Searching for a definition

Before sitting down to write this, I canvassed the designers in my department. Lots of opinions, but we all had the tendency to talk about the things we make as part of that definition.

I also did a little googling to see if I could rustle up a common working definition of these so-called experiences we design. I looked in the usual places — NN/g, A Book Apart and Rosenfeld Media books, Medium, university course webpages. The dictionary. None offered anything definitive.

In our common resources, there is a tendency to jump straight to a definition of what ‘user experience design is’ without first taking a step back and considering what an experience actually is. There is this really interesting tendency to just elide over the bit where we explain the experience first. Do people just assume this knowledge and understanding is implicit because we all experiences?

In fact, the only real attempt to define it meaningfully in this context that I could find, comes from Marion Baylé, an academic and Service Designer, which rather brings me back to my previous point. Baylé argues that to be able to design the experience, one must first understand what the experience is. Hard agree! Taking the lead from some other theorists, she posits a couple of ways to consider this:

Some believe it to be the moment-by-moment thoughts and feelings a person has while interacting with a product, with the focus on the product and the experience happening only in the applications. Another view is that experiences are a story of how a user makes sense of the world through a product, making the focus the experience and the product secondary. Eric Reiss believes that experiences are not necessarily through a device, while J. Pine and J. Gilmore view experiences as commercial offerings that engage customers in memorable ways, with a focus on economic value.

These are all interesting points — but I still feel like these are not immediately useful to the designer. And I don’t think they go far enough in helping us grasp the contours of what an experience is in one go. Which brings me back to my earlier question — how can we say we’re designing experiences when they are so hard to define in the first place? We need something better to work with.

So what is an experience?

At the risk of sounding too philosophical, I’d like to borrow from Pallasmaa’s work. He clearly sees experiences as a complex process of perception, cognition, and emotion rooted in our physical being and cultural traditions. I think this is a great starting point for us to consider the experience we are designing.

We also need to consider that a person has a 1:1 relationship with an experience, but an experience has a 1:Many relationship with people. A person can have a unique and individual experience with a product, service, system, or environment. However, the same experience can be shared by many users. It can have different meanings and impacts on each of them, depending on their individual needs, wants, and motivations, as well as the context in which the interaction takes place.

This is why it’s so important for us to design for the user’s experience, not just the product’s. We must think about the user’s needs, wants, and motivations and design for the holistic and meaningful experience they will have. We must think beyond the product and consider what the user wants to achieve, where they are coming from, and how they will feel as they interact with the product.

With this in mind, could a better starting point for designers be something like:

So when we talk about experience design, what actually is it?

When we look at experience design, we are essentially designing for a complex interplay between the user and the product or service. It’s a process of perceiving the product or service, understanding and interpreting it, and then feeling something about it. It’s important to remember that this is a deeply personal process, rooted in the person’s culture and values.

We must also take into account the physical, social and cultural environment in which the experience is taking place. We need to consider how the experience fits within the user’s context and how it can be tailored to suit their needs.

So with that in mind, experience design is creating an environment where these complex processes of perception, cognition and emotion can take place. It’s about crafting the interface between the user and the product or service in such a way that it enables the user to engage with it in a meaningful way. (I am going to write something else on that word ‘meaningful’ soon).

This is an incredibly complex task, and one which requires a deep understanding of the user and their context. We need to understand their values, beliefs, motivations and behaviours in order to craft an experience that is meaningful and impactful. And, crucially, I don’t think this is something we spend enough time teaching people.

How can we bring this tangibly into our practice as experience designers?

Having started off expressing the disconnect from the philosophical in our practice, I’ll come full circle and suggest that for this to be useful to practitioners, we need to find ways to embed it in our thinking, our approach and our work. What could all of this mean practically for UX and service designers?

Like most things, I think it starts with conversations and bringing these more nuanced aspects of experience into our everyday work. Have conversations with your colleagues and peers. Some things I’d suggest discussing:

  • How can we create a more personal and emotional connection with our users through our design?
  • How can we consider the cultural and societal influences on our users when designing the experience?
  • How can we design for an evolving experience that changes over time and adapts to our users’ changing needs and perceptions?
  • How can we use the power dynamics in our users’ lives to inform our design decisions and create a more equitable experience for all?
  • How can we bring a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to experience design, including considerations for psychology, sociology, and cultural studies?
  • How can we better use research and user feedback to continuously improve and evolve the experience over time? Are we paying attention to the right things?
  • How can we consider the physical and sensory elements of the experience, such as sound, touch, and sight, in our designs?

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them

Hey, you made it to the end! Thanks for sticking with me as I puzzle this one out. I’m sure it’s not perfect. But I feel like it’s a start.

If nothing else, I hope this has been useful in sparking your own thinking on the topic. I’m sure there are many other perspectives, and I’m excited to hear them.

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