Prototype Reality / Reality Prototype
Why Experience Design is once and foremost storytelling
“And what about you?”
Pretty much in every first encounter with a stranger, you are confronted with the question: “And what do you do?” This question might sound unimaginative or banal to you, but it is an essential question that reveals contextually important information for all further communication. This question serves the questioner to relate to his counterpart. The questioner tries to understand where the other person is located in order to deduce what secondary information and assumptions might be attached to this basic information.
We are somehow what we do. That is why this question also might stress the interviewee because it indirectly challenges him to present himself in a particularly interesting and sympathetic way. When someone asks me, I usually try to tell an individual version of my job, depending on my assumptions about my counterpart myself.
I am an Experience Designer, but for many people, my explanation of my profession is only conditionally connectable, because it is just not part of their horizon of experience. So, as is often the case, I need to simplify dramatically and sometimes lose sight of the essence of what we actually do as experience designers.
Apps and all!
“I’m a digital experience designer — I design user interfaces” is still one of the more easily digestible descriptions of my job. Often I hear in return “That means you make apps & websites?” Although you can clearly answer “yes” to this question, it completely misses the actual task and complexity we face in our job.
Unfortunately, our profession is so full of technical terms that when it comes to concrete explanations, you run the risk of drowning in buzzwords and being labelled a digital monkey in the end. “And then what are you doing there? Do you also program?” And you already find yourself in one of those annoying high-level conversations.
WTF* is Experience Design?
So how can you describe the essence of what experience design is about and dismantle some of the buzzwords we use? You can see just from the proliferation of title descriptions of designers how our industry and job boundaries are continuously in flux. As a starting point, even though this term is hardly used anymore, I like to think of myself as an information architect.
This describes very aptly that our job is about constructing an information system that can evolve into a web of meaning on several levels. This web of meaning mostly is a service for a specific target group, and it needs to be designed, managed and maintained. That is why the term service design is also close by if you want to describe the qualities of the job.
Creating an experience or a service is comparable to writing a book or developing a film, except that the realities of the book or film have their own cosmos, while the use of services writes its own stories in the real world. Users write themselves into the services and, in the best case, help to change them. This is called — beware of the buzzword — co-creation.
As experience designers, we become authors of the usage script, but our profession is not solely about creating a futuristic version of the future in a vacuum. The narrative context in which we operate goes far beyond that, and the success of our script often will not be determined by its quality, but rather results from the successful interplay with different narrative levels. That is why I believe experience design is once and foremost storytelling.
Another large sphere of self-understanding of designers revolves around the idea that designers are on a noble mission to solve problems. But even these descriptions miss what successful experience design is actually about. Of course, one of the characteristics of good design is to offer solutions, but not necessarily to solve any form of a pre-existing problem. Rather, design creates realities.
For example, if you look at how product design and interior design can affect our perception of physical spaces, you start realizing how design is about shaping reality and experiences.
The Storyteller’s Dilemma
The decisive factor for the impact of a story is the context in which design works. The companies that commission us want to change their own history or publish new success stories. Often, the key players of large established companies are trapped in a grown company's conservative and institutionalized corset. This corset makes them operationally blind and makes it difficult to freely tell new stories from scratch. The decisive factor here is which metrics are applied to determine what distinguishes a successful story from an unsuccessful one in the respective context.
Logically, that means we as a company also keep an eye on the profitability of our business and regularly advertise our expertise in the marketplace. So in which business are we really in? We are in the experience business, but in my opinion, the experience business is the business of story, as our success depends on how good we are at writing success stories together with our clients. Since the regular use and thus the usefulness of a service is in the foreground, unlike movies and books, which are received once. We have to design systems that allow continuous change of the story — which makes it sometimes even more complex.
In the beginning, there was the story
And here we come to the crux of the matter. Our discipline is about designing possible realities and testing them prototypically. One of the basic principles of our profession is to design a solution, test these artefacts with users and stakeholders to learn from them and launch the next iteration of the presence.
The very first prototype of a possible new now is a story. That brings us to the question we need to ask ourselves: What story do we want to be told in the future, and how will the reading of what you do in the here and now turn out? And that is why we as experience designers need to become better storytellers to ultimately help more great ideas become a reality.
And if somebody asks me in the future what my job is about, I’ll say it is about changing the way people do things by telling stories of a better future.