Discovering the performance: felt experience, autoethnography, and journey maps

DES 304 | School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas at Austin | Professor Cathryn Ploehn, MDes

Cathryn Ploehn, MDes
DES 304
11 min readSep 1, 2020


Note: Resources for this write-up were heavily sourced from the amazing Hillary Carey. For more, check out her post, Diversifying your Design Syllabus: Recommended Readings by Women, Non-binary, and Culturally Diverse Authors

A user is an actor in the way in which they act upon their world. The user is also an actor in the sense of a performer who is making choices, in the moment, with aesthetic goals in mind. [4]

Ethnography, or: the designer in the bushes

At the beginning of many design processes is an effort to establish an understanding of the context — the world — we are designing for. What better option than an attempt to observe things as they are, a “fly on the wall?”. We (re)visit this example in which a Xerox high-speed copier is placed in a room by (then) Berkeley PhD student Lucy Suchman:

We get an idea of how human meets machine

Ethnographic research in design is concerned with observing the behaviors of people in context, in search of understanding the actor and how they navigate the open seas of that context:

The anthropological ethnographer uses ethnography to accomplish knowledge by experience [themself] the different aspects of the human condition. [5]

Our observations, through the practice of ethnography, can inform our design process.

For example, our understanding of coffee culture may be enhanced through ethnography (or, sneakily sitting in a coffee shop with a video camera and notebook) in the following ways [3]:

  • Giving a sense of context awareness: We observe certain kinds of people entering and using the coffee shop in various ways. Some have distinctive styles of clothing, others engage in the same clusters of activities. We get an idea of the norms and values of the coffee shop (what level of volume of speaking is okay, for example).
  • Drawing attention to important features (and potentially guide future research): We notice nobody seems to order or be concerned with single origin coffees. Why is that?
  • Informing design concepts: We notice many people reading physical newspapers, picking up flyers by the register, or bringing books to read. We then favor design concepts that can be read during this coffee shop reading time.
  • Evaluating designs (in service of forming and iterating designs — or conducting a “sanity check”): We place new coffee menus in the shop that tell the story of single origin coffees, including the cooperative they were sourced from and their tasting notes. We observe these new menus in action by patrons of the coffee shop.
  • Evaluating “sociality of novel design spaces opened up by radical technology in real world settings”: We create an experimental “craft” coffee shop, in which only robots serve customers. We conduct a test run of the shop with real civilians, observing their reaction (through a social lens) to the radical craft coffee robots. Are the coffee bots accepted??

Depending on how we frame ethnography, we can synthesize or crystallize what we gather into findings that inform what — and how — we design. However, the act of observation comes with its own power dynamics and ethical concerns. Design ethnography in particular has a multitude of criticisms, particularly when deployed on historically dis-empowered communities [5]. In other words tread with caution when conducting any form of ethnography — it tends to be extractive [5].

Autoethnography, or: putting your hand on the hot pan

It’s one thing to observe the behavior of people (like a narrator in a wildlife film). In this class, however, we turn towards observing ourselves.

Through conducting an autoethnographic study, we get to explore first hand the affordances of the tools of interaction designers, such as ethnography or journey maps, advantages and disadvantages alike. For example, Elizabeth Chin, a design scholar critical of consumer culture, uses a diary study to engage with her tools and her subject matter first hand:

The diary is an exercise in the opposite of self-exemption, using the tools of my own discipline to examine — with as little mercy as possible — a wide range of consumption entanglements in order to explore consumer life in its awful, messy, rich and contradictory depth [1].

The diary is also a method for gaining a visceral understanding of our design inquiry, a posture from which we can derive grounded theories of how interaction works there. In practicing autoethnography, we place ourselves in the midst of a sensory experience, with contradictions and entanglements, both informing design intuitions and poking holes into the clean lines our theories tends to draw around life.

For example, Chin is able to make lively and embodied the commodification and dehumanization that happens in consumer culture, describing the cold touch of hospital staff during her emotionally and physically painful miscarriage:

My power in this situation, or any hope of attaining any power, comes not from being a human being with feelings and needs, but a customer who deserves good service [1].

Other tools interaction designers use — the (outdated) persona, user archetypes — forefront theories about groups of people that we must empathize with in order to design for. Yet — they tend to abstract away the humanity within. Arguably, the authoethnography can allow us to make less abstract the theory in personas, and claim our “own fragile humanity and to bear witness to the humanity of others” in the scope of our designs [1]. Indeed, autoethography may be a way for designers to be in a more productive allyship with critical race scholarship [1, 2].

Felt experience, or: learning how to (describe a) feel

Source: Eureka! Physics of Particles, Matter and the Universe + @eversion on twitter

“…all life-forms are in fact processes not things” [6]

Through practicing autoethnography, we get to witness firsthand the experience of interactions at play in our designs. However, to grapple with noticing and understanding those interactions, we need tools with which we can think about (and talk about) interaction and experience. In Soma Literate Design, Neely outlines tools and concepts invaluable in the task of understanding and designing for interactions:

What is fit and quality in a time based, intangible interaction? How does one fit an unfolding experience to an actor? In the same way that we recognize good-fit/bad-fit of clothing by the body-felt frictions of too tight, too loose, oversized/undersized/just-right, there are parallel attentions to the body-felt results of friction-full/friction-less interactions. [4]

To design with an understanding of “fit” of an interaction and the actor performing it, Neely’s Soma Literate design provides the following premises. We’ll use a familiar example of American coffee culture to explore these concepts.

Understanding the body

“The body is the first instrument” [4]. The experiential information we have about coffee — seeing it made in a shop, or drinking it ourselves — are the most visceral and pertinent.

“The body feels. We come to know our world through the immediate tangible interactions with our environment” [4]. Anything we know — is filtered through literally or metaphorically the notion of our bodies in time and space. We use our experiences in coffee shops (or shops in general) as the ground layer of understanding the coffee shop experience we read about in a book. The visceral experiences resound with the most meaning in our bodies, compared with the abstract readings.

“We yearn for harmony with our world” [4]. Interaction design publications describe the aim of ease, satisfaction, beauty, cohesion, consistency, graceful, and natural. In other words, we seek harmony, between ourselves, others, and our environments.

For example: If we get a coffee craving, we seek to alleviate it. If we start drinking a hot coffee that burns us, we stop drinking and try to cool down the burn. If there’s an awkward moment between us and a friend in a coffee shop, we try to diffuse the awkwardness.

Understanding the body in motion

“Feeling is only revealed through motion” [4]. The body is ever dynamic, and the feelings of moments only resonate in time. In particular, Neely frames gestures, or phrases as units of experience to consider:

The gestures of living are just the dynamic breathing, heart beating, walking, leanings, and subtle shifts of weight we are involved in every moment of our life. These shifts, the ever-present dynamic shifts of weight, the ebbs and flows, the micro rises and falls, are what both defines the living experience, and holds the model for transcendent experience.

In gestures, motion comes through a constant “yearning toward harmony,” an shift in weight towards completing an action: beginning the process of making a delicious morning cup of coffee, reaching to grab a spoon. Neely cites McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary to characterize yearning (or longing):

“Longing suggests instead a distance, but a never interrupted connection or union over that distance with whatever it is that is longed for, however remote the object of longing may be. It is somehow experienced as an elastic tension that is set up between the one that is longing and the object of that longing–the pull, tautness as in a bow string (in German, die Bogensehne) holding together the two ends of the bow that are never really separate” [4].

As gestures unfold — through the momentum of a longing to be in equilibrium with our world — certain stages occur. For example, the following stages occur during the “touchpoint” or gesture of taking the first sip of your morning coffee:

  • Anacrusis. A driving toward crusis. You imagine the sip, urging your hand to move forward and reach the cup, grasping the handing and pulling towards your mouth. You drink in the fluid.
  • Crusis. The completing moment of the momentum of the gesture, a “flash” that cannot be reveled in or experienced alone. The fluid hits your tounge.
  • Metacrusis. The moments in which the gesture decays, as we fall away from the crusis. Your mind registers the good taste, and you feel pleasure in that completed, tasty sip.

A successful gesture — where the expected crusis is hit and perceived in the metacrusis — is felt in our bodies as pleasure. That first sip of coffee tastes so damn good. That pleasure comes from a “feeling-with,” or a felt synchronicity:

“…this visceral intimacy, this entraining of momentums, the feeling-with, can be so transcendent (“extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience”), that we often have no other words to describe it than religious” [4].

In other words, the coffee and I are entrained — connected — in that moment. Identifying and becoming aware of the phrases (and their parts) in and around a task or context and understanding how entrained the actors in our designs are with themselves or others can an invaluable tool for navigating how to approach a design.

Characterizing the experiences of a body in motion

Two dimensions help us make sense of the experience, and can be a first step in evaluate a one or more gestures:

  • Aesthetic / anaesthetic: Deeply felt / not felt at all. Only interactions that can resound with a “body in motion” can be felt.
  • Harmonious / inharmonious: Entained / discordant. Successful gestures are harmonious and pleasurable, and unsuccessful ones are awkward or painful.

Putting these two dimensions together gives us a 2-dimensional model with which we can explore how gestures succeed or fail within Neely’s framework.

We can track or scrutinize interactions, predicting that are aesthetic, or felt, and harmonious gives the most pleasurable, cohesive, and meaningful experience.

Concepts for designing in service of a body in motion

Developing a lens for understanding experience begins with practices such as autoethnography, but also more ancient practices, such as: meditation, mindfulness, exercise, studying hebral medicine, and so on.

Noticing and talking through our own felt experience. An understanding of how to design interactions begins with the ability to sense, notice and communicate our own felt experiences. We bring that sensibility to the design of interaction for others (whilst still never fully grasping others’ experiences). Neely provides the following concepts to consider when describing felt experience in design:

Testing and experiencing our designs first hand. When we experience our own designs, we begin to understand (but never fully understand) how it might feel for others to enact, or perform that interaction.

Neely’s work is much more complex and detailed, but the previous sections are a first step in bringing a somatic sensibility into the tools of interaction designers.

Journey maps, or: from observation to crystallization

After an (auto)ethnographic study, using the tools of soma literacy, we can begin to derive meaning from our observations through identifying patterns in the experience:

Firstly, a rich set of data of an insider’s view of the area under inquiry is collected, in other words, solid ethnographic research data. Secondly, the data is analysed so that patterns of behaviour are identified and clear themes emerge from the fieldwork. It is important to consider different types of categories, such as, categories of users, categories of objects, categories of goals, and categories of strategies. The analysis is phenomenological in character. Thirdly, the phenomena are reduced to their essential components and structured into a narrative representation that can be visually depicted. [3]

The journey map is one result of such an analysis. In general, journey maps depict the how an actor moves (both conceptually and in time and space) throughout the context in question.

Journey maps are an (incomplete) representation of the performance of an activity, much like a musical score is a representation of a song. A successful journey map communicates:

  • Purpose or goals: What is the goal, purpose, or intention of the actor(s)? What are they “yearning toward”?
  • Flow. How does an interaction unfolds? We can identify the steps involved in an interaction and their timings. Spatial details, including where the actor moves and why, are very useful.
  • Qualities of experience. How does it feel to move through the interaction? Here the vocabulary of soma literate design is useful: cohesion, friction, tension, weight, etc. When are phrases completed or disrupted? How deeply felt are interactions?

Other aspects of experience / interaction can be layered on journey maps, depending on their purpose in the design process (such as what mode — mobile, internet, service rep, etc. — a customer interacts with a platform).

In making the map, one iteratively sketches out the flow of the experience, typically categorized by goal. Patterns will emerge in this process. In revisiting the context of you (auto)ethnography inquiry, new details or ways to frame the journey map emerges.

Below is an example journey map for the process of making coffee with a moka pot, with a basic understanding of soma literacy included:


  1. Chin, Elizabeth. 2007. “The Consumer Diaries, or, Autoethnography in the Inverted World.” Journal of Consumer Culture 7 (3): 335–53.
  2. Adorno, T.W. (1984) Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London and New York: Verso
  3. Jones, Rachel. 2006. “Experience Models: Where Ethnography and Design Meet.” Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, 82–93.
  4. Neely, Stephen. “SOMA LITERATE DESIGN Recentering the Interstitiality of Experience.” (2019)
  5. Tunstall, Elizabeth (Dori). 2008. “The QAME of Trans-Disciplinary Ethnography: Making Visible Disciplinary Theories of Ethnographic Praxis as Boundary Object.Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings. 2008: 218–33.
  6. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake



Cathryn Ploehn, MDes
DES 304

Data viz, computational design, interaction design / Professor at UT Austin / MDes Carnegie Mellon