The final, interactive presentation of my team’s project, Playfully

Understanding Experience Design

“We do not teach hard skills here.” — Presentation by Lauren Currie
“Please come and present the hard skills you learned.” — Correspondence from SapientNitro, 6 months later
The über confusing Unified User Experience Map (Saucken and Gomez, 2014)

Part 1. Where we introduce the topic

Experience Design is probably a poor title for what it is trying to be communicated. On its face, how can entire experiences be designed? For example, see the graphic above, the Unified User Experience Model(Saucken and Gomez, 2014). In addition to designing the tangible and intangible elements of the service, User Experience Designers are called upon to design around the micro and macro contexts, including the social environment and weather. There is so much to be undertaken that this discipline is often better described and understood by its sub-practices (, 2014).

In contrast to the overwhelming expectations, others say that “all design is experience design” in that every artifact that people interact with does impact our lives (Reichenstein, 2009). So what is special about Experience Design (Fredheim, 2011)? Perhaps more importantly, what are the actual skills of an Experience Designer? What is it that Experience Designers do?

This essay presents an unique understanding of what Experience Design is. Then, it illustrates how this unique vantage was practiced across the design process.

Authors Note:

The following is an essay I wrote for my Experience Design Masters at Hyper Island. It’s a very long look at what Experience Design is and how I employed the design thinking process over a very long, though life-changing, 6 months. Throughout, I discuss several of the projects I participated in and what they taught me. In the case you may want to fast forward through some parts, it is organized as the following:

  1. Defining Experience Design
  2. The skills of Experience Designers for each of phase of the process: Discover, Define, Design, Deliver
  3. A reflection on my learnings and experience.

Thanks and please let me know if you have any questions, thoughts or feedback!


Part 2. Where we define Experience Design

Instead of making a rigorous attempt at defining, the seminal book This is Service Design Thinking instead examines the “thinking required to design services” (Stickdorn et al., 2012). Inspired by this approach, a more productive investigation into Experience Design may be What does an Experience Designer do and what is required?

Hyper Island’s Map of Experience Design

In the graph to the left, Hyper Island contends that Experience Design envelops Service Design (SD), User Experience Design (UX), and User Interface Design (UI) (Nordlander, 2014). Here, an approach to understanding the bounds of Experience Design is to understand its sub-disciplines.

One key concept is mirrored in popular definitions of User Experience Design, Service Design, to the point where their relative distinctions are hard to discern. For examples of representative definitions, Norman states that User Experience “is all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products” (Nielsen and Norman, no date). This vision is shared with Service Design, as “the creation of well thought through experiences using a combination of intangible and tangible mediums… providing a holistic service to the user” (Stickdorn et al., 2012). Both disciplines are uniquely concerned with designing the entirety of interactions people might have with a service. Yet, when I use these definitions in industry, many people still remain confused on what specifically Experience Designers do.

Donald Norman suggests that Experience Designers are in fact designing the affordances of an experience (Hassenzahl et al., no date). A singular affordance is a relationship between a user and an element of a service (Norman, 2013). What is afforded is the action that someone might do next. Designing affordances is consciously shaping the two sides of the relationship, person and service. Experience Design, in this case is the design of the sum of the affordances. Or written another way, designing the sequence of the many relationships that people may have with a service over an entire journey.

This interesting essence, however, is missing from Hyper Island’s Experience Design Program. For example, rarely were projects were evaluated for their holistic design of an entire customer journey. The program does, however, more reflect an education in Design Thinking. This provides an interesting alternative angle to examine Experience Design.

Stefanie Di Russo’s History of Design Thinking

Stefanie Di Russo’s, “A Brief History of Design Thinking” (2012) illustrates how viewing disciplines as a subset of another misunderstands what is more broadly being learned about design. Instead, disciplines are evolving from one into another: beginning from Participatory Design, to User-Centered Design (now more commonly known known as UX), Meta-Design, Service Design, Human Centered Design, and finally Design Thinking. What is captured is the evolution in practice by contemporary designers. Over several decades, designers have increasingly focused more on empathy for users, holistic vision, and involving stakeholders in the decision making processes.

The current incarnation of these methodologies is called Design Thinking, understood as the constantly evolving collection of tools & processes to approach wicked problems (Liedtka, 2014). Primarily, Design Thinking is focused on empathizing with user’s problems, visualizing systems, the use of prototypes, frequent iteration, and collaboration across all stakeholders (Kolko, 2015). Over fifteen years of practice, Hyper Island has found that teams consciously applying Design Thinking approaches are far more likely to achieving the most effective level of group dynamics (Hyper Island, 2011).

By reframing the perspective from disciplines to methods and mindsets, I have begun to understand Experience Designer as a facilitator of Design Thinking. Both in the creation of work and in the process of doing the work.

The role of a Experience Designer is bringing together diverse teams and stakeholders to collaboratively address problems holistically in a human-centered manner, using Design Thinking approaches.

In the 6 months practicing Experience Design at Hyper Island, I have grown to understand that our projects helped us learn how to build empathy within the team as well as with the people we are designing for. In essence, a practical in human-centered design (Thomsen, 2015). Yet, building empathy with users and with requires hard acquired knowledge skills and soft interpersonal skills (Heckman and Kautz, 2012). The following section examines my various team’s roles and my own role as Experience Designers through with the lenses of facilitators and practitioners of Design Thinking to understand the hard and soft skills used to design experiences.

Part 3. Where Experience Design skills are illustrated

This section is structured around the Design Council’s Double Diamond. It describes 4 phases of the design thinking process (Design Council, 2015). While there are many different ways of describing the design process (Dubberly, 2008), I enjoy the Double Diamond’s conciseness. These phases are: Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver. The format I employ is used to examine how the hard and soft skills of Experience Design were learned, practiced, and critiqued. The rational for this structure is to illustrate how the various hard and soft human-centered design skills can be applied across the entire process. Also, this provides a unique vantage into the variety of projects we worked on, unique situations requiring certain tools, and to reflect on how Design Thinking approaches can be applied across any kind of problem.


“…try to look at the world in a fresh way, notice new things and gather insights.” (Design Council, 2015)
Persona’s built from desk research for Tête-à-Tête.

In one of the earlier projects our team created Tête-à-Tête, a safe space café where people can learn about sexuality in a very passive manner, such as with literature in book cases, with staff, or subtly placed messages that arrive with beverages. However, this concept began with the question, how do we help young females (16–24 year olds) feel more comfortable within their bodies and sexuality? Understanding this problem was incredibly challenging. There are many ethical dangers in such research that the team was unprepared for, such as potential to cause harm not only to subjects but also with the team itself, minimizing power imbalances, and creating healthy rapport (Elmir et al., 2011).

Persona-driven ideation built for Tête-à-Tête.

In order to address these issues, we relegated much of our research to understanding issues of sexuality through open data, government surveys, and academic research (Beer et. al., 2015). Interestingly, this process perhaps was even more beneficial because it gave the entire team insight into broad patterns we were unaware of, such as who young women want turn to to talk, what topics were women undereducated on, and what are patterns among women who feel unable to discuss these issues. Often, quantitative desk research is seen as dry and impersonal (Hall and Zeldman, 2013, pp. 288–308). However, this impersonal approach provided a unique method for us to become empathetic with a population where we could have become easily biased by our own personal experience.

Competitive Research for Playfully

I also argue that the Discover phase, when done using Design Thinking methods, also helps teams become more internally empathetic as well. One of the most crucial elements to the Discover phase is ethnographic research practices (Hall and Zeldman, 2013, pp. 185–186). There are an exhaustive number of methods and tools for completing such research (, no date), however as the team builds empathy with users, they also create a sense of cohesion with the team (Battarbee, Suri, and Howard, 2014; Kelley and Kelley, 2012).

Playfully is an app to help parents be more present with their kids by making it easy to discover fun educational activities. At the beginning of the process, our team had no idea what we wanted to build and we were unable to productively ideate. However, while performing analogous research at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, and role-playing with children’s science kits, we were able to better able to empathize with each other. We were able to understand what made us — as a collective — passionate. Previously we were individually interested in digital/physical, play, education, and many other topics. After, we collectively understood that what brought us together was a curiosity about how we could play better. This insight built trust, teamwork, and loyalty to the team.

In the discover phase, we became skillful with the many classical design research skills (, no date). We are able to execute and design any number of research techniques, from expert interviews, to card sorting, movement analysis and much more. Yet, it’s the soft skills that make us Experience Designers rather than just User Researchers. We learned how to choose certain discovery methods in order to build team culture and how user validation is the best means to settle disagreements. Experience Designers design and choose discovery methods for the team as much as they design to for understanding problems.


“…in which designers try to make sense of all the possibilities…The goal here is to develop a clear creative brief that frames the fundamental design challenge.” (Design Council, 2015)
Synthesizing and grouping findings for the BBC

For the BBC, we tasked with identifying actionable opportunities around the Festival experience. Practically, this meant doing intensive, wide-reaching user research, from experts who travel to more than one hundred festivals a year, to a first-time festival photographer. The true hard skills were learned in how we were able to download and synthesize our findings (, no date).

On it’s face, grouping findings appears to be fairly simplistic. However, this description hides the empathy our team built over many interviews with festival goers and organizers, trips to festivals, and research at a couple weddings too. Through a collaborative process, were were able to identify patterns and develop unique opportunities for what people need, want and personally experience at festivals.

In another project, Emma’s Story, where we created a design fiction video about future civic functions for rail stations, the Define phase was crucial for resolving team conflict. Here, the team used a variety of research and synthesis techniques to arrive at the broad ideas that there were problems with a lack of nature and falling birthrates within the UK. Yet, the team was stuck because we had very different visions of what these problems manifested as, or if one problem was more salient than another. Only with hindsight is it clear that team members were not effective at communicating because we lacked a shared mental model (Stempfle and Badke-Schaub, 2002). We had to design a tool that would not only help us understand the problems, but also that also facilitated communication between team members.

Using User Journey Maps to solve conflict

What we designed was a modified composite user journey map (Tassi, 2009). Instead of trying to ideate on what possible solutions could be, each team member told and drew a story of how someone may navigate the problems oven an entire journey. Revealed, were clear commonalities and striking differences between our conceptions. For example, I had taken the “romance” quite literally, while another didn’t imagine how nature could play a functional role. By having combined user stories we could point to, rather than our individual ideas, we were better able to discuss ideas versus each other.

One of the key characteristics of the Define stage is uncertainty (IDEO, 2013). Daalhuzen discusses how designers approach the different kinds of uncertainty: uncertainty with oneself, with the team, and with the task at hand (2009). Rather than focus on the different strategies, Daalhuzen understands that its the ability of a designer to appropriately choose a methodology in order to approach non-routine situations that defines their success. As such, an Experience Designer‘s hard skill is their ability to facilitate the definition process by identifying and implementing effective methods for synthesis.

An important component is that the methods chosen are not simply for arriving at a clear problem statement, but to arrive at it collectively, with organizational support from stakeholders and team members alike (Thomsen, 2013). One of the most important soft-skill components of Design Thinking is it’s ability to facilitate buy-in on decisions and the decision making process across entire organizations. That is because ideas are no longer originate in individuals but from teams (Holloway, 2013). These holistic approaches help people make decisions.


“…where solutions or concepts are created, prototyped, tested and iterated. This process of trial and error helps designers to improve and refine their ideas.” (Design Council, 2015)

A key component of a Design Thinking process is the element of iterative prototyping. Prototyping serves as a process for “learning what does and doesn’t work” as well as a “common vehicle for feedback” helping teams work together (Wildman and Durrant, 2013). However, prototyping does not just happen. A culture must be established that encourages and expects prototyping as a part of its process (Brown, 2008).

The rational for prototyping was only too clear during the difficult our team faced in our work for Vans, called YFE: Young Female Entrepreneurs. It is a proposed sub-brand of shoes designed by women in an accelerator type program. Over the entire four-week design sprint, our team was constantly in conflict (Fancy Vancy, 2015). Our ideas did not significantly evolve, we couldn’t understand where each other was coming from, and the end, we received feedback that experts “would have liked to have known more how it works, scope — more on the problem and the scope to deal with the problem” (Wallace, 2015). This feedback reflects the lack of depth the team went into the concept.

Our unchanging YFE Lean Business Canvas

One of the distinguishing elements of this projects versus others was how little we prototyped. We relied heavily on the Lean Startup framework, but in particular, the Lean Business Model Canvas in order to try and achieve consensus on our concept (Ries, 2011; Osterwalder, 2008). While this approach helped focus us, we used this tool as a deliverable rather than its intended use as a process. One of the core components of the Lean Start Up is a “continuous feedback loop with customers during product development cycles” (Mueller, 2012). The process of using this tool is to validate each component of the business through prototyping and iteration. In reflection, because we did not validate each component, we as a team lacked trust in our own concept and in ourselves. Our team was unable to establish a culture of iterative prototyping.

In contrast our team was significantly more cohesive when creating Playfully, I attest, to our culture of continual prototyping and iteration. In total, we went through six complete rounds of iterations over a four-week period. Each prototype we made — including value propositions, staged-content, wireframes, sketched interactive prototypes, staged activities, and high-fidelity interactive prototypes — were immediately tested with people.

High-fidelity and paper prototype testing with parents

By working through many low fidelity prototypes, progressively building knowledge and validation, we were surprisingly able to “[strengthen] group efficacy, or the belief in [our] group’s ability to successfully complete a task” (Gerber and Carroll, 2012). In my estimation, our service attained a higher level of quality and production-readiness than any other project I worked on during the 6-month period because of this team’s unique emphasis on creating a culture of rapid iteration and prototyping.

Distinguishing the hard skills of prototyping is problematic because of the wide variety of manifestations a prototype can take (Wildman and Durrant, 2013). As illustrated in the process of creating Playfully, prototypes, a wide variety of practical skills were called upon in order to make a quality product: including graphic design, interviewing, interaction design, wireframing, business design and so forth. For YFE, we were knowledgeable about the lean business canvas and were able to dutifully fill in the requisite information. Knowledge of these skills, tools and methods are not unique to Experience Designers. I argue that Experience Designers do not require any hard skills in order to design and prototype. These skills of creation are instead the purview of more specialized designers, which we occasionally acted as (Hansen and Oetinger, 2001).

The real skill that Experience Designers employ for the develop phase is a soft-skill: building and supporting cultures that encourage validation through prototyping, resulting in“reframing failure, fostering a sense of a sense of forward progress and self-efficacy” for team members (Gerber and Carroll, 2012).


“…where the resulting project… is finalised, produced and launched.” (Design Council, 2015)

The deliver phase for our projects at Hyper Island were presentations to our clients and industry peers of our concepts. These presentations were not for our own benefit. Their purpose were to launch new services and sometimes businesses. In that respect, the presentations can better be viewed as exercises in what Thomas Erickson describes as “Design Evangelism”.

“The validity and worth of the design concept must be 'sold' to the large number of people who have some say on whether the design becomes a product…Both stories and prototypes can be effective tools for quickly and memorably communicating underlying design rationale.” — (Erickson, 1995)

Playfully, again, is a great example of how a presentation can be used to illustrate validity to a large audience in a somewhat unusual fashion. In order to communicate that our service was validated, we wanted our audience to experience the validation. That way, our Industry Peers could reflect and feel if the app worked. To remind you, dear reader, worked meaning, “Did I feel more present with my children?” Yet, an issue for this presentation style was how to illustrate how human-centered our service was for Parents, our primary users, to our audience, who were primarily child-less. To address this, we designed our presentation in order to transform our audience into parents through theatrics.

Volunteer “Parents” learn they are to pick children from the audience

Before our presentation began, we had participants “adopt” other participants to become their “children”, and encouraged parents to manage their “children”. This bit of Role Play is a common design thinking methodology to instill empathy within designers for their user (Brown, 2009). In this use, we used this method to instill empathy not only with our intended users, but also within our service. An important component of this process is that stakeholders are able to separate their own judgements and instead are able to understand the value of different design decisions (Simsarian, 2003; Tassi, 2009).

mid presentation with images of parents we interviewed in the background

Throughout the presentation, we displayed and pointed to pictures of all the actual parents we validated our service with. Not only did this serve to prove real demand and usefulness of our service, but also to set an expectation for our audience on how to behave. Through subtle hints of what parenting was like, our audience began to internalize the needs and wants of parents.

After discussing our process, the product, and the business plan, we had our audience validate the content themselves by using the service with their “families”. Not only was this fun for everyone, as you may see in the pictures below), but it also helped our audience understand some of the difficulties parents might face and why this service would help. In addition, the audience was able to enjoy the validation of our service first-hand, rather than rely on our storytelling. This unique presentation method successfully reflected our ability as Experience Designers to design not only a service, but also communicating the service to others.

“Parents” leading SapientNitro UX Researcher and Hyper Island Program Leader in how to make Soda Volcanos.
Making slime while “Parents” offer instructions to SapientNitro Designer
Inflating balloons with ustwo Product Lead and “child”

Identifying the best mechanism of communication is an important decision. However, a more subtle skill we developed over the six months was also our ability in storytelling.

Over the past six months, the importance of storytelling in delivering a project has become clearly important to the successful delivery of a project. Our team’s choice of Role-Play for presenting Playfully, at the time, felt unique and different than anything else we had experience.

Below are a few of the projects I participated in while at Hyper Island, ordered in chronological order and how they were presented

  1. Fit/Kit for Adidas (at-home foot analysis): Printed Prototype Given to the Client to try.
  2. Tête-à-Tête (sexuality education cafe): Acted before the audience with prototype props and 3d models.
  3. Emma’s Story for Future Cities Catapult (romantic-nature train station): Design fiction video with perhaps excessive emotional storytelling (Kirby, 2009)
  4. Frank Slade Assist for Facebook (driving assistance for the blind): Role-Playing before the audience.
  5. One-Aisle for Sainsburry’s (a new floor-plan layout): Comic-Strips illustrating the change in persona behavior before and after the service.
  6. Festival Opportunities for the BBC (how to build authenticity and ritual): Physical walk-through space to view the presentation
  7. Playfully (family activity app): Participatory role-playing with the audience.

Simsarian describes these presentation techniques, Informance, or the creation of “performances to communicate developed ideas, issues, and scenarios to an audience” (2003). Upon reflection, I now understand that we had been building the skill of performance storytelling through most of our projects, and that we have been becoming more effective in our communication and persuasion. We did so unconsciously by experimenting with our delivery through each project, pushing ourselves and our audience’s comfort in order to best communicate our services. The result is a stronger awareness of effective presentations that push against the popular, but tired, format to present ideas and services.

The hard skills Experience Designers have in delivering a service is rooted in their ability to creatively develop the most effective means in communicating ideas. Moreover, these techniques used in delivery are firmly rooted methods, tools and techniques common to the entire Design Thinking process.

Part 4. Where we conclude, reflect, and end

One more example. Through out the entire 6 months, my friend Maggie Peterson and I decided that we wanted to practice what we learned in a real-world context. What we created is called the Drunken Bee Drawing club, a weekly drawing group hosted at local bars that specifically catered towards people who felt they lacked the confidence to draw. The process was different than any of the design sprints in Hyper Island. There was no clear discover, develop, or design phase. Instead, we just started, though, this probably reflects how most projects in the world occur. This experience though, truly tested our abilities as Experience Designers.

Plan and Feedback from an early Drunken Bee Drink and Draw.

We began by calling together a bunch of friends and told them what to draw. This first meeting served as our first prototype to discover what worked and didn’t work in facilitating a group of people. We used the same research skills that we learned to effectively interview participants and collecting feedback to iterate with. We tested new ideas, different activities, how to better encourage socializing, understanding what techniques people wanted to learn, how the environment effected the experience, and how to grow participation.

What we were most effective in doing was creating a culture of iteration and experimentation, leading us to understand what our unique value was and how we could form a strong service around our experience (Ohr, 2014). Every week, new participants would join, allowing us to validate whether our evolving process was doing better to help bring confidence to drawing, as well as involving regular participants to help us refine the experience. By involving others in our process, everyone began to feel ownership of the group and its future. Through iteration, we were able to build a community.

More importantly, we were also able to build a story around what we were trying to do — how could we all help people feel more creative. This optimistic story permeated our the conversations and helped shape the tone of conversation. Now, the group has continued without our direct involvement and our team is taking our learnings to create a tool that can empower anyone to create their own drawing club.

The Drunken Bee Drawing Club is a great example of what Experience Designers do. Through a mix of learned hard and soft skills, they are able to facilitate and implement Design Thinking in a variety of projects. The Design Thinking approach allows Experience Designers to bring a wide variety of people together, creating truly holistic and enriching experiences solving real problems in a human-centered manner.

If you have any questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to reply. Or, send me an email at
Thanks for reading!


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