Back to blog

Thoughts on “Can Experience be Designed?”

Lately, there’s been some interesting discussion / debate about how meaningful or useful the term “user experience design” is.

Oliver Reichenstein over at iA kicked things off with a simple but provocative question: can user experience really be designed? His article got many, including the folks at Adaptive Path over on their blog, thinking and talking.

To outside spectators, this might seem like a strange thing to get worked up about. But the notion of experience design has been a central and highly operational term in our industry: people like us use it to capture and convey what it is we actually do. Nevertheless, at the end of the day it’s just an idea, a conceptual construct—and a relatively fluid and imprecise one at that.

This is probably why both iA and AP set out to define exactly what they mean by the term experience design. I found their discussion to be really stimulating—though a little hard to track with at times—so I’ve taken the liberty of distilling their comments down into something that hopefully makes it a little easier to compare and contrast:

iA says: experience design means more rigour. It has to do with how you design. It’s design practice made accountable to research, user feedback and measurable business results. It is practiced by seasoned professionals who are passionate about what they do and have earned their stripes through hard-fought experience.

AP says: experience design means more complexity. It has to do with what you design. It’s design practice that focuses on a broader, more multidimensional design space. It is practiced by multi-disciplinary teams who have been trained to apply design thinking systematically and holistically, across a variety of channels and modes.

I think many would agree with both of these lines of thought; that said, AP’s version of experience design is probably closer to where we’d land.

The second challenge that surfaces in this debate has less to do with semantics and more to do with pragmatics. It goes like this: practically speaking, isn’t “experience design” an unrealistic—perhaps even pretentious goal? After all, how I experience something is highly personalized and contextualized, and fundamentally non-deterministic.

I would argue that both iA and AP acquiesced a little too much here. Yes, user experiences are personal; but they’re not arbitrary. Yes, numerous contextual factors come into play; but these aren’t inscrutable. User experience design isn’t about being omniscient: it’s about being conscientious. This is essentially the position that both iA and AP take—but they almost frame it up as a concession. In fact, it’s actually quite a bold claim when you think about it.

The debate between technological determinism and social constructionism is sort of an old one, and has been largely resolved in Gibson’s model of affordances, popularized in the HCI world by Don Norman. (Norman’s also the guy who coined the term experience design, by the way. Check out this interview with AP’s Peter Merholz for more on his perspective.) Nowadays, we recognize that we can design affordances for more than mere usability: we can impact how we perceive something, what we remember about it, how we feel about it. In other words, we can truly craft affordances for experiences.

Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz in and around topics like persuasive design, behavioural economics and choice architecture. Books like Nudge and Drive, and people like Frog Design’s Robert Fabricant who stresses that behaviour is our medium are raising our collective consciousness about the potential for impact that accompanies the design of everything from communications to policy to products and services.

In the midst of all of this, we think it’d be a shame to give up on the idea of experience design. But building equity into this term will require more than a nuanced semantic approach. It will require us getting out there and building actual case studies (as AP and iA both have). If there’s one thing we can’t have too much of as an industry, it is experience design success stories. Projects where we’ve created and transformed more than just the interface, but also the nature of a products and services themselves, their underlying operations and systems, the business problems and outcomes, and yes, the experiences people have along the way.

David Gillis More posts by David Gillis