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Experiencing Experience

by Tom Guarriello
9 min read
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Experience is everywhere from cave paintings to broadband websites but what exactly is it? Read psychologist Tom Guarriello’s primer on defining and designing experience.

“Experience” is the new “black.” Very hip, very now. It’s impossible to read any publication even remotely concerned with commerce and not find some reference to “user” or “customer” experience. As a psychologist who’s spent over 30 years focusing on human experience, this newfound attention is fascinating.
After all, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, what mattered most about people were things that could be measured. And no matter what else you think about human experience, it can only be described, never measured.

Let me explain with a little history.

We humans have always been interested in one another’s stories. Our prehistoric ancestors drew pictures on cave walls to tell others stories about what had happened that day; sort of the first blogs.

As civilization progressed, we continued to be interested in how other people’s lives were similar and different from our own. Philosophy grew out of this need to understand the nature of individual and collective reality, knowledge and meaning.

In time, philosophy began taking up more and more questions about “everyday” life, in a branch called, “natural philosophy,” led by Isaac Newton. By virtue of the “Scientific Revolution,” “natural philosophy” became “natural science,” with its now-familiar method of determining existence, and distinctions, through measurement of empirical observations. Stories became the stuff of literature; numbers the stuff of science.

When “psychology,” the upstart discipline that came along in the late 19th century, had to choose its method, the choice was clear: either asking people to tell stories about their everyday lives (fancied up under the term, “introspection”), or measuring observations through the use of increasingly precise instruments (“objective data”). The winner was a no-brainer: modernity and credibility were on the side of “science.”

So, psychology emulated the granddaddy of all sciences, physics. “Psychologists” began conducting experiments and measuring everything they could get their hands on, things like skin temperature, reaction time, or pupil size. In the process, however, people noticed changes in the kinds of questions psychologists asked. Instead of finding out what it was like, for example, to be cold, studies now found out the skin temperature at which subjects reported being cold. And while finding out what that skin temperature is might be interesting, it’s not the same as finding out what it’s like to be cold.

What had happened was that the methods and tools that psychologists had at their disposal began dictating the content of psychological studies. In an attempt to be “objective” and “scientific,” psychology had altered its focus from seeking to understand stories about everyday human experience, to measuring smaller and smaller quantifiable elements.

Things got so bad in 20th century American psychology that it became heresy to even speak of “human experience” at all. What really mattered was brain chemistry. What you experienced when you experienced “cold” was a complex chemical reaction in your brain. Brain chemistry was the “really real” world; talking about “experience” was a quaint throwback to “pre-scientific” times.

Of course, these trends didn’t stay within the confines of psychology. As psychologists became more adept at measuring things that occurred at the same time as experiences, others became interested, too. Marketing (advertising in particular) borrowed heavily from psychological methods, and began measuring all sorts of audience “responses” to various “stimuli.”

As the “measurable responses” of “subjects” to “controlled stimuli” became more precise, the everyday “lived-experience” of people in their day-to-day context became less interesting. Experience was just too squishy and unreliable to study scientifically.

But the study of “human experience as it is experienced” never completely died out. From its earliest days of emulating physics, a branch of psychology continued to focus on “lived-reality,” the common sense ways in which people describe their lives. Called “phenomenological psychology” (after a school of philosophy called “phenomenology”) this brand of psychology called itself a “human science.” In contrast to “natural science psychology,” this branch studies the structure, features and elements of what we experience in our everyday lives. In other words, this brand of psychology rigorously (but qualitatively) studies what makes an experience “fun,” “interesting,” “exciting,” or “cold.”

That’s the branch of psychology I started studying more than 30 years ago, and still study today.

It’s exciting to see so much energetic interest in understanding users’ experiences, and designing environments that lead to desired user and customer experiences. Phenomenological psychology’s insights can be very useful in helping businesses gain a sharper focus on their users and customers.

Designing Other People’s Experiences

Ecstasy or Agony?

It was ten years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. My wife, my (then) 27 year-old daughter and I were sitting in a darkened movie theatre in Greenwich, Connecticut. The theatre was packed. Everywhere I looked, people were staring at the screen, enraptured. The film was a huge hit. It had been nominated for a dozen Oscars and won nine. For two hours and forty minutes (it felt like two weeks!) I was bored to tears; completely in agony. I hated it.

The film? The English Patient.

It happens all the time, doesn’t it?

  • Your friends love a restaurant, you think it’s pretentious and overpriced.
  • You can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than going to a baseball game. Your kids yell: “Booorrrrinnngg”!
  • While others rave about them, the idea of using a Blackberry makes you slightly nauseous.

What’s going on?

I think about these things (and about that evening at the movies!) every time I hear people talk about “designing” experiences. Because, the truth is, it can’t be done. Designers design occasions for experiences; experiences themselves are personal.

That’s why different people having different experiences in (what are supposed to be) the same situations.

Ah, but there’s the clue: the situation isn’t the same for all participants because each of us brings a unique set of perceptions – perceptions rooted in unique personal histories – to everything we experience.

Experience is Personal

Technically, most designers are attempting to design meaning, not experience. The experience of eating a cookie, for instance, can be described in very clear terms. But, capturing the unique meaning which that cookie had for one individual was what made Proust’s madeleine the stuff of great literature. A simple cookie for one person is a trigger for emotion-laden memories for another. But, most often, designers must create experiences for people they don’t know. So, how can designers create opportunities for meaningful experiences for people they don’t know? By paying close attentions to patterns.

What we call experiences typically happen in clusters. Quick, imagine this: you’re outdoors, it’s fall, the leaves are almost off the trees, and walking past a bake shop you suddenly catch the fragrance of pumpkin pie in the air. At such a moment, Americans almost invariably will have a set of memories and experiences related to “Thanksgiving.”

A designer wishing to create a Thanksgiving product, or an experience related to that quintessential American holiday, knows the relevant triggers, signals and indicators (e.g., Pilgrim hats, turkeys, cornstalks, the color orange.)

But those signals don’t determine the kind of experience that an individual will have. Ever seen the movie, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles?” It’s a perfect example of the complex personal experiences which surround a holiday, like Thanksgiving. One character looked forward to Thanksgiving with great anticipation of warmth and family contact; another foresaw nothing but loneliness.

It’s clear, then, that we can’t remove an experience from its context. Context is the unique history of the individual having the experience; it is context that gives experience meaning. “Yes,” you might be thinking, “but most people enjoy Thanksgiving.” Yes, but are you designing your experience for “most people…?”

Designing For a Crowd vs. Designing For An individual

Let’s imagine you are given an assignment: you’re going to design a restaurant. What do you need to know in order to begin? Let’s play a question and answer game and see.

What kind of restaurant is it?
It’s a Mexican restaurant?
Where will it be located?
New York City.
Where in New York City?
Where in Manhattan?
Downtown, in Soho.
What kind of Mexican food will the restaurant serve?
Authentic regional cuisine from all over Mexico.
What will be the average price for a meal made up of a salad/appetizer, entrée and beverages?
Appetizers will range from $6.95 to $13.95 and entrées will from $16.95 to $34.95. With drinks, a meal should range anywhere from $30 to $90 per person.

What’s going on here? The designer is trying to get a read on the kind of people who will be eating in the restaurant.


Because the more generic the person for whom the designer is designing, the less likely the experience will be exciting, memorable or unique.

Essentially, a designer is always trying to figure out an answer to the question: “who is the person who…?” In this case, the question would be, “who is the person who will be coming to this restaurant?” The answers to these questions tell the designer that the person who will be coming to this restaurant is someone who lives, works or is visiting New York (specifically, lower Manhattan), interested in authentic Mexican cuisine, willing to pay a moderately high price tag for dinner.

What is the impact of this information? The designer can now begin to imagine a person for whom s/he is designing the restaurant. Not necessarily a particular individual, but a person who has certain patterns of living which imply a set of experiential preferences.

If designing an experience is like creating a story, then this designer has just begun to identify the story’s main characters. S/he’s still got lots of questions (What’s the restaurant’s building like? What else is in the neighborhood? What’s the renovation budget? How soon do you want to open for business? Who’s the chef? Is s/he famous? Hot?) But the people who will be eating in the restaurant are beginning to come into focus.

Each question enables the “experience designer” to better understand the context into which customers will place this restaurant. Without understanding context, the designer can’t understand meaning, and, remember, it’s meaning that the designer is ultimately interested in.

When I said I was “in agony” watching The English Patient, or your kids yell, “Booorrrrinnngg” at the prospect of attending a baseball game, it is the impact, the valence, the meaning of the experiences which we’re describing, not the experiences themselves.

“Context” is just another way of speaking about where an experience fits into an individual’s life (hi)story. So, the restaurant’s designer can now begin to create/convey meaning in large and small ways, using signs and symbols as signifiers, to speak (in a type of code which the architect Christopher Alexander calls a “pattern language”) to a group of prospective customers which s/he can now begin to imagine. The designer can write these customers’ histories can be written imaginatively, like characters in an unfolding play. (This is why the term, “persona” has become popular among experience designers. The designer can write these customers’ histories imaginatively, like characters in an unfolding play.

More accurately, what the experience designer is doing is creating conditions that invite the participant to engage with the atmosphere from a particular perspective and therein experience this range of meaning. (This is what we mean when we talk about “suspending disbelief” in the theatre or films).

But the idiosyncratic meaning of a design element can never be completely foretold, leaving the designer at risk of inviting an individual to have one kind of experience (empathy and pathos for the main characters in The English Patient, for instance) while that individual’s personal history leads to actually invoking another experience/meaning constellation altogether.

What makes it more or less likely for an individual to experience the experience the kinds of things you’re aiming at? The key to design is developing this kind of understanding. And, the key to understanding is immersion in other people’s life-worlds.

post authorTom Guarriello

Tom Guarriello, <p>Tom Guarriello has a Ph.D. in psychology. He’s Chief Idea Officer and principal in TrueTalk, Inc., a management consulting firm. After two decades as a clinician, he’s spent the last 15 years thinking and writing about businesses and consulting with a wide variety of companies in the areas of innovation, leadership and effectiveness.</p> <p>Find out more about TrueTalk on <a href="https://.truetalknow.com">their website</a>. You can find Tom’s most recent ideas can be found on <a href="https://.truetalkblog.com">his blog</a>.</p>


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