Experience is one of the most compressed areas in human life. It brings together many complex factors such as emotion, perception, reason, memory, and intuition. In itself, it is an immensely complicated concept and it imposes a sometimes overwhelming responsibility on a designer’s role as a systems creator.
Every day, we learn something new that helps us better understand what human experience is really about, repeatedly challenging our perception of experience in some fundamental way.
As experience design has evolved from early ideas about human–computer interaction to our present understanding, we can see how the industry has shaped the tools for studying, influencing, mediating, and sometimes even controlling the way people experience the artifacts they interact with.
But that raises a question: can experience really be designed? And it certainly triggers lively debate.
An apparently simple statement like “experience can/can’t be designed” requires at least a working definition of its component terms. And unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be enough consensus in the industry to call upon a universal, standard definition of experience design; the nuances are so numerous that there’s significant fragmentation of how many design practitioners perceive the term. Some choose to craft their own definition based on personal, professional experience; some choose to adopt a definition put forward by a leading, authoritative figure; and some choose to constantly look beyond the borders of a definition.
So going back to the basics may be a good starting point.
an event or occurrence which leaves an impression on someone (Source: Oxford American Dictionary)
do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind
can vs. can’t
There’s quite a difference between can and can’t, both semantically and logically. While can leaves room for possibility, can’t absolutely denies it. So saying that experience can’t be designed is actually a very bold assertion according to which under no circumstances can an impression be planned and accounted for. Claiming that something can’t be done and implicitly dismissing all other possibilities seems a bit drastic, especially when dealing with such a complex concept as human experience.
But a dictionary definition surely will not suffice.
The complexity involved in dealing with human experience is considerable. The sheer number of functions we call upon is astonishing: stimuli, reception, expectancy, response, function, meaning, mental models, perception, encoding, memory, engagement, interaction, emotion, and many others. To presume control over any of these aspects of cognition requires extensive knowledge, which in turn involves insights from many disciplines such as linguistics and communication, cognitive and perceptual psychology, information architecture and design, and sociology and social interaction.
An integrative process creates real synergies in cross-disciplinary design. We learn what we have to and we learn how to use that information, if only to inch closer to solving a problem. That might be a seemingly small problem like labeling a button properly, or seemingly bigger problems such as creating an complete, usable system. Regardless of the medium, we bring insights from different areas together to aid in creating even the subtlest of impressions for users, which implicitly contribute to the overall experience.
Complexity can also be judged by the minimum information content that can trigger an observable reaction. By observing how things work at a micro-level, if we can look deep enough at the smallest, simplest entity that can further form the simplest, quantifiable, controllable and repeatable sequence, maybe we can expand the concept to a macro-level, to a more complex structure. That is to say, link a stimulus to a reaction. And maybe then we can get an idea of how we can control and design experiences.
People are religious. And up until recently, one of the most common induced experiences involved religion in some form.1 The reasons for this are varied and irrelevant in this context. What is relevant is that if it’s possible to mimic and simulate a religious experience— an experience so basic that it has evolved throughout thousand of years directly into our brains2— it’s clearly possible to engender the more basic impressions we need to design experiences properly.
This is where the God Helmet comes in. It is a device designed originally by Stanley Koren to study creativity. But the participants who wore it reported a “sensed presence,” and about 1% claimed to have experienced God. This obviously lead to media hype, and also gave it it’s dramatic name. Although the experiment still awaits proper scientific peer-reviews, it showed that a subjective experience can be induced by stimulating specific brain functions.
Basically, a small set of brain cells in your right temporal lobe can produce a powerful sense— a memorable experience. And if we can map out the stimuli our brains respond to (in the case of the god helmet, a magnet on your right hemisphere, but we can safely extend the list from physiological stimuli to psychological ones) we can design a sequence of different stimuli, all carefully controlled to trigger a response: an experience.
We can develop whole systems and procedures to induce a certain type of impression.
Or rather, they should be. In the words of Carl Sagan, “Only a small group of individuals, men or women, who find all human knowledge — the arts and sciences, philosophy and psychology — interesting”3 and, most importantly, accessible can truly look for insights and connections to coherently synthesize a system and manipulate it in such a manner that it results in a real, hopefully lasting, emotion.
Practitioners of specialized crafts like typography, usability, information architecture, interaction design, content design can greatly influence a user’s perception. But experience finds its roots in systems.
Structuralism, as defined in the Oxford American dictionary, is “a method of interpretation and analysis of aspects of human cognition, behavior, culture, and experience that focus on relationships of contrast between elements in conceptual systems that reflect patterns underlying a superficial diversity.” Thus, structuralism straddles multiple disciplines, such as language, architecture, graphic design, sociology, and anthropology, to name a few.
Structuralism and the concomitant ability to make connections is what sets us apart as an industry and enables us to take on the role of system creators. Norman Potter refers to it as the trait that “unites the very disparate standards that coexist in any one profession;”4 Milton Glaser calls it “a way to unify separate occurrences and create a gestalt, and experience in which this new unity provides insight;” Simon Collison calls it “our spirit of inquiry;” and Dan Cederholm describes us as “80 percenters.”
The Risk of Mistaking Ignorance for Perspective
A structuralist approach to design is not without risk. Scientific observation— a process of observation, data collection, sorting, analysis, postulation, and testing— also leads to mountains of data that, more often than not, are hard to make sense of. Getting data is easy, but selecting, storing, indexing, updating and, most importantly, contextualizing the information is rather difficult.
To accurately form conjectures about possible interactions between insights about brain physiology and human behavior, comparative and analytical thinking are critical. Observations need to be rigorously studied to be adequate enough to form a basis for solid reasoning.
But the benefits of churning through cognitive complexities far outweighs the risks. Mapping out common sequences of particular cognitive functions is a solid way of mediating and creating experiences, regardless of medium.
So, yes, experience can be designed— not all experiences, but certainly some experiences. And with time, experience designers will continue to investigate the inherent motivations behind users’ behaviors. They will continue to develop and refine their tools and skills to predict those behaviors with the help of cognitive sciences, which are already mapping out predictable and reliable links between stimuli and the reactions they produce.
A structuralist approach may be key in this process. As methodologies become more and more refined, other alternatives may arise. But for now, incorporating the knowledge provided by other specialties into an integrative design practice and learning to work together can be viable solutions for real improvement.
1. According to a Voice of the People survey of more than 50,000 interviews in over 65 countries, released by Gallup International for International Day for Tolerance, November 16th. Two-thirds (66%) of all world citizens interviewed declared themselves to be religious persons.