There is even “experience design,” which is surely the most imperial, most gaseous, most spectral form of design yet invented. Experience design is closer in spirit to theater, poetry or even philosophy than it is to the older assembly line. What on earth isn’t “experience”? And what is not, in some sense, “interactive”? Experience designers are a tiny group of people with a radically universalized prospectus.” — Bruce Sterling (2009)
This quote from science fiction writer Bruce Sterling summarizes how I feel about experience design. I am somewhat in awe of its proclaimed universality and flexibility. I am seduced by its alleged ability to solve any human problem through a simple method of empathic trial-and-error.
Like Sterling, I am also sometimes cynical. How much of this undertaking truly makes a difference in people’s everyday experience? How much of this is just empty talk?
After many trials and errors in explaining myself to confused uncles and baffled barflies, I have come to describe experience design like this:
Experience design is a methodology to make people’s interactions with complex systems more pleasant. Complex systems are things like banks, hospitals, cab hailing apps, public transportation systems, insurance companies, prisons and schools.
Experience designers ensure that the multi-media, long-term series of touchpoints encountered by a user, customer or citizen will be at worst, merely pleasant, and at best, utterly delightful.
The discipline is often confused, overlapped, or considered interchangeable with many other terms, especially: service design, product design, interaction design and user experience (UX) design. This ongoing confusion over nomenclature is a constant debate within the discipline.
Experience Design & Related Fields: A map
Service design, product design, and UX are sometimes confused or even used interchangeably. This illustration shows how they are different — namely through their differing proximities to other more narrowly specified fields (shown in green).
This diagram implies a loose hierarchy among service design, product design and UX, observable through their placement in vertical space. This vertical ordering is not meant to suggest differing levels of sophistication, difficulty, or value, but rather, much more simply breadth of focus. UX is a narrower specialty than product design, and product design is more narrowly specialized than service design.
Design research, shown in blue, is qualitative and quantitative inquiry into users’ needs, habits and motivations.
Design research is of premiere importance to the discipline and therefore overarches everything within this map.
It is deeply integrated into the creative process, making it very different from other fields’ versions of research.
For professionals in fields like marketing or even social policy, research is generally seen as something to be carried out mainly at the beginning of a process — perhaps by an outside research firm — using rigid scientific and statistical techniques. In the design disciplines, research is seen as a flexible tool, open to creative interpretation, and most effective when practiced by everybody involved in a project. Design research is dispersed, integrated and perpetual, as opposed to narrow, separate and strictly bound in time.
These are a few of the mindsets popular with experience design practitioners.
No Rules The first rule of experience design is that there really are no rules. That said, there are plenty of guidelines, best practices, and opinions. However it’s not like engineering or medicine, where there are certain requirements to which all practitioners must adhere.
Iterative/Cyclical Instead of working long, secret hours to reveal a final masterpiece from behind a curtain, experience designers prefer to work in short, public development cycles. This approach allows designers (who require a good sense of humility) to fail quickly and publicly. The reward for all this “failure” is that the work-in-progress is informed by a continual stream of feedback, maximizing functionality and desirability of a solution in as little time as possible.
People Come First When starting projects, businesspeople look at economic feasibility and engineers look at technical feasibility, while designers look at human feasibility (IDEO, 2016). Human feasibility is when a product meets people’s real needs. Does it go beyond mere functionality to please and even delight those who use it? Does it make life better? These types of questions are what make design a human-centered discipline.
Build to Think Since meeting people’s needs is the primary goal of design, it makes no sense to sit around a conference room table or at a drawing board for weeks and weeks of planning. Instead, experience designers build prototypes, flawed as they might be, as soon as possible in the creative process. With prototypes in hand, no matter how rudimentary or imperfect, designers can carry out real-world testing, which helps them more precisely identify and respond to people’s needs. As said by Lauren Currie, designers have “a strong bias towards action” and start building right away in order to clearly think (Service Design Show, 2016).
Shared Mind Globalization, communication technology, unsurpassed access to data and the rise of artificial intelligence mean that the world is getting more connected, more collaborative and more complex every day. Experts in diverse fields from social policy to software often refer to the staggeringly difficult challenges of our times as “wicked problems” (Coyne, 2005; Newbery and Farnham, 2013).
To solve wicked problems, we need to merge our minds.
One individual’s brain just isn’t enough to absorb, process and synthesize all the rich information available (Moggridge, 2006). Moreover, one individual’s definition of “a good solution” may not meet another’s definition of “good,” especially with so many cultures combining. Experience designers know this, and therefore will generally work in deeply collaborative teams to maximize their effectiveness.
Optimism Critique and caution have their virtue, but can be toxic to the design process. When you’re in the business of creating products and services, optimism is required. You have to believe that things can be better and improvement is possible. Yes, there’s always room for healthy critique — but it should be saved for later as too much pessimism can kill an experience designer’s will to build. (For a dark parody of this mindset, see Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s works of design fiction as in Ross, 2011).
A list of tools frequently employed by experience designers.
Journey Map A document that shows the sequence of events experienced by a user (Stickdorn et al., 2012). Typically, these documents look something like a large comic strip, or simpler yet, a line graph where the x-axis is time and the y-axis is the user’s satisfaction level with the service. Like most things in experience design, the format is not prescribed, and it’s advantageous for designers to choose a medium that best suits the context — whether it be a video animation, a written story, a photo slideshow, or anything else. Journey maps can audit what already exists by diagnosing an existing service, or they can help us understand a new product by describing a fictional journey that doesn’t yet exist.
User Interview Experience designers rely heavily on one-on-one interviews (as opposed to focus groups or surveys) because they allow for in-depth understanding of the behaviors, needs, and motivations of an individual person.
Getting to know just four or five individuals in-depth can yield more vivid, inspiring results than shallow information on large swaths of people.
The purpose of these interviews can be less about information and more about inspiration, a necessary fuel for innovative and creative design solutions (Cooper-Wright and Wakely, 2016).
Personas A persona is a profile of an individual used to help a design team maintain a human-centered focus (how will Stacey feel about standing in line for up to 20 minutes if we know she has two small children? How will Bob pay for this product is we know he doesn’t have a credit card?) (Walter, 2011). There is much debate about personas in the field, as some believe that fictionalizing a persona can lead design teams to gloss over important human quirks and oversimplify the problems people face, creating an idealized and unrealistic “fantasy user.” Because of this, some practitioners (myself included) prefer to use personas that are tightly or even fully based on a real life interviewee.
Prototype A tangible reproduction or simulation of one (or several) features in a given design. The purpose of building prototypes is to run tests, collect feedback from users and other stakeholders, and incorporate that feedback into the next prototype. This ongoing cycle of building and testing successive prototypes is a great way to develop products and services that users need, understand and enjoy.
Diegetic Prototype A prototype that brings fiction to life in some way. Sometimes designers seek simply to provoke conversation rather than to build a product that’s ready for market. Diegetic prototypes may not be destined for real-life production, but they can create an illusion that inspires those who see it. The word “diegetic” comes from film and theater, where inert props are often produced to add detail and realism to the staged world. This is especially true in works of science fiction (Sterling, 2016).
Survey A spoken or written form that asks a series of questions to be answered by a user. When seeking to find wider behavior patterns and phenomena, surveys can be useful. It’s good to support design decisions with a blend of qualitative and quantitative evidence.
However, surveys aren’t the best form of research, as users often do things like fib, under/over critique or fail to remember (Kitson, 2016).
Analogous Experience An unorthodox research technique whose goal is to trigger a serendipitous “eureka moment” rather than traditional quantitative data. Many of history’s cleverest inventions have happened in the moments when a person switches contexts (say, from the physics lab to the hiking trail) and was inspired by a surprising analogy (Stanford University D.School, 2014). Experience designers studying hospital room stress, may try to precipitate such a surprise by embedding themselves with a NASCAR pit crew, or a team studying anaesthesiology may go for a scuba lesson (Bennet, 2012).
Stakeholder Workshop A session bringing together various individuals involved in a product or service, especially those who might not usually interact. Gathering people from IT, design, operations, customer service, finance and the executive board all in one room with an equal invitation to speak up and contribute can lead to atypical conversation, unforeseen insights and unblocking of bureaucratic obstacles.
Co-creation Session A facilitated workshop where experience designers and users of a product come together to create ideas and/or prototypes together.
Experience designers know that they ought to design *with* and not *for* the populations they serve.
This is an excellent technique to realize that ideal.
Ideation Tool Simply sitting in a room and trying to come up with interesting new ideas can be extraordinarily difficult. To make this process of “ideation” easier, experience designers (and educators, and business experts, and others) have come up with hundreds of tools to break the ice and get ideas flowing. Some examples of these tools include silent brainstorming, negative brainstorming, bodystorming (IDEO, 2003), s.c.a.m.p.e.r. (Eberle, 2008), and the fast idea generator (Nesta, no date).
Some lingo that can often be heard at conferences, in papers, books, and workshops dealing with experience design.
Touchpoint Any point of contact between a customer and a service provider. This could be the design of a receipt, the comfort of a waiting room or the usability of a web page (Stickdorn et al., 2012).
Choice Architecture When presenting a set of options to a user, there are subtle decisions to be made in how those choices are presented. The way that the options are presented can be designed in a way that facilitates certain decisions over others (Thaler, Sunstein, and Balz, 2010). For example, a BUY NOW button can be big and red and a CANCEL button can be small and gray. Ethically speaking, it is important to respect users’ freedom of choice and always design in a way that supports users’ autonomy and individual needs. Choice architecture is a tool that ought to be wielded responsibly and thoughtfully.
Nudge A nudge is when a designer manipulates choice architecture (see above) in such a way that favors a certain decision, thereby nudging a user toward that option (Thaler and Sunstein, 2009). The concept is currently popular in public health and finance, where certain decisions are ostensibly better than others for everyday citizens (such as eating healthy or paying off debt). The ethics of such nudges are a matter of hot debate.
Progressive Disclosure This is the practice of only giving a person as much information as they need, as they need it. The phrase originates from human-computer interaction, but can be applied to non-digital situations (Soegaard and Dam, no date). For example, telling a retail shopper about a store return policy as soon as she’s walked in the door is not very user-friendly, whereas waiting until she’s at the cash register might better suit her needs.
Design Fiction Sometimes designers create fictional products and services just to illustrate a point or spark a conversation. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (2014) popularized this approach through their work which uses speculative designs and imaginary scenarios to prompt social critique and debate.
Stakeholder A person who is relevant to a product or service in some way. They could be a customer service representative, a customer, a manager, an IT person, a graphic designer, a funder, trustee, advisor, or executive.
Horizontal Prototype Gives a high-level overview of a product or service; a generalized account (Kitson, 2016).
Vertical Prototype Illustrates one specific person’s journey through the product or service; a specific, individual account (Kitson, 2016).
Desire Line (or cow path) This is a term borrowed from landscape architecture. In most parks, you can see places where the grass is trampled from people taking shortcuts — this is called a desire line. It doesn’t only apply to physical space such as parks. For example, if the experience designers at Spotify were to notice (hypothetically) that users tend to navigate to their Discover Weekly playlist after opening the app, they might consider making that playlist the first thing users see by default. Such a decision responds to and respects the usage pattern that customers are already demonstrating, instead of forcing users into a pre-designed plan or structure.
In Conclusion: The Future of Experience Design
Experience design is a discipline with little name recognition outside of a relatively small circle of experts.
I have learned this over and over during the last six months of this course in Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island, where I have come to dread the inevitable moment at social gatherings where someone asks me, “so what do you do?”
I dread it because it takes a long time to explain (longer than most others’ answers to that question) which makes me feel pompous and a bit self-conscious. My ambition in coming to this field is genuinely to serve others. When the work becomes too self-obsessed, too concerned with explaining itself, I feel that I am putting more energy into defining my own self-image than I am putting into helping others, which is what I came here to do. I am concerned that this discipline may be out of touch with everyday life — precisely the opposite of what it claims to be. Perhaps I am being too harsh.
Maybe name recognition is not an indicator of experience design’s value. Just because most people don’t know what it is doesn’t mean it’s not a good or useful endeavor. Maybe I should work to overcome my hesitations about explaining myself, and remember internally that what I do is worthwhile. I think I’ll be more comfortable in the future when I have a more concrete job role, and can explain myself in relation to a specific project as opposed to explaining experience design in the general sense.
Empathy experience: Try introducing yourself as an experience designer at this weekend’s dinner party and see how people react.
When I look at inspiring examples, such as how a company like Peerby helps neighbors share everyday goods like ladders and lawn mowers, or how a company like Red Ninja helps the elderly feel empowered to use the Internet, I calm down and remember that I am in the right place.
Some of my peers in the program have recently applied to jobs as “experience designers,” “experience strategists,” or “service designers,” only to learn during the interview that what the company really expects is someone to sit at a computer and churn out code, images, or execute an already-decided-upon product buildout. This is what I call title inflation — when a job title sounds quite strategic and influential, but the actual day-to-day work requires little decisionmaking, social or creative skill. It is an old-school, assembly-line-style design job in disguise.
In conclusion, it is very difficult to work in a field that doesn’t have a firm definition, and whose practitioners are in continual debate over what different job titles ought to mean. We are constantly defining and redefining our titles, roles, names, labels. I deeply hope that this self-definition exercise does not siphon too much energy from the more important work of helping people make their way smoothly through a government website, a chemotherapy plan, a hotel stay, or a visit to the bank — which is what I came here to do.
My best prediction is that the future of the field will continue to be somewhat of a patchwork.
There are experience designers working in government making tremendous progress in usability and transparency of government services. There are experience designers working at advertising agencies coming up with new and inventive ways to get customers excited about buying soft drinks. There are experience designers deeply specialized in making digital products more usable. There are experience designers tidying the tangle of physical, digital, public-facing and internal-facing service touchpoints. I don’t expect such a wide array of practitioners to ever cohere into a tidy, easily-explained cohort. I do expect for this ragtag crew of diverse professionals to continue using the tools, mindsets and terminologies described in this paper.
Maybe these lists are the only things that connect us as practitioners.
What’s interesting is that such a wide range of professionals can unanimously agree that these tools (interviews, journey maps, prototypes, etc) and mindsets (people come first, build to think, etc) are worthwhile. From advertisers to civil servants, tech entrepreneurs to primary school educators, many have agreed that these tools are well worth using, developing, and sharing. With such an enthusiastic and diverse chorus of adopters, these tools and their power speak for themselves.
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All images are the author’s own unless otherwise noted
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