The Pursuit of Experience: A purist perspective on Experience Design

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Still from the 2007 animated Pixar movie, Ratatouille.

In the 2007 animated Pixar movie, Ratatouille, the restaurant critic, Anton Ego had no idea that he was about to have an exceptional experience of his life. The film plays a scene where the impatient Anton is waiting for the food to be served. He is supposed to decide the fate of the restaurant, Gusteau’s. As the food arrives, Anton picks up his pen in the right hand, and the fork in the left, all set to provide his critique on his notepad. Tension mounts in the restaurant as he digs his fork into the dish, and takes a bite. The moment of his taking the first bite is magical in a sense that it triggers an old memory of Anton – a memory from his childhood. The scene changes, and we see a young Anton, coming home and being served the same dish by his mother with love and care. The view zooms back to the present day Anton where his experience is so intense that he drops his pen on the floor, takes another bite and goes about enjoying his meal, quite satisfied and happy.

 

 

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Anton Ego’s nostalgic moment.

 

What is an Experience? 

An academic retrospective of the scenario tells us that the dish gave an experience of relatedness to Anton. It was personal to him. He felt related to his mother. The taste triggered the nostalgia of his childhood with the feeling of being at home with the warmth and the touch of his mother.  It was an emotional moment. The food was the artefact or the mediator of experience, the taste was the conceptual model which resonated with the mental model of Anton, re-lived from his childhood experience of being served the same dish by his mother with great love and care. Anton experienced this episode in his childhood, and it was stored in his memory as a temporal chunk. This formed a pre-notion in his mind and developed a mental model of how Ratatouille is supposed to taste. When this model matched with the intended model (the taste crafted by the Chef), it resulted in an orgasmic experience. Marc Hassenzahl, Professor for “Ubiquitous Design / Experience and Interaction” at the University of Siegen, defines ‘Experience’ as a chunk of time that a human went through and is going to remember. It is about the sights and sounds, feelings and thoughts, motives and actions, all closely knitted together and stored in memory, labelled, relived and communicated to others. Experiencing is the stream of feelings and thoughts we have while being conscious – a continuous commentary on the current state of affair.  Experience is a story, emerging from the dialogue of a person with their world through actions. User Experience is not much different from experience. It merely focuses our interest on interactive products as creators, facilitators and mediators of experience. (M Hassenzahl, 2010)

Where did we falter? 

It is unfortunate that this proper understanding of Experience has been diluted in the design community to a greater extent. Influenced greatly by the software development world, today, Experience Design is the most abused term and has been reduced to nothing but an Interface /Interaction Design or if a little better, to Usability or User flows (the most condescending term, in my opinion, being UI/UX). The Interface/Interaction Design answers the ‘How’ but doesn’t answers the ‘Why’. Usability is an important factor, no doubt, but it does not equate to experiences. A lack of usability might lead to a bad experience in most cases, but still, it classifies only as a hygiene factor. The delivery-centric environment in which Experience Design is forced to exist is detrimental to its core value proposition. It has become more about following the process blindly and not going in-depth into the simulated experiences we want to craft for the humans.  While the intentions are good, which is aiming to reduce friction and making sure that the humans do not encounter any difficulty in navigating the products, services or systems, and accomplishing their tasks at hand, merely aligning the product to functional needs and improving workflows is barely scratching the surface of what design has to offer. Having cleared this misunderstanding, we can make an argument in favour of Experience Design being an approach to the design of interactive products driven by experiential needs of humans. We can stage the intended experience we want the humans to go through and create technology-mediated experiences.

Don’t just rant. Give us a solution already, will you? 

It is only common sense that a product has to be useful and usable, but how do we go beyond solving the functional needs of the human and target their core psychological needs? Experiences depend on fulfilling these tacit, psychological needs. A plethora of literature and research exists in the academia which brings human experiences to the centre-stage. It is high time that we bring this knowledge to design practice in the industry. This is what will set us, designers, different from other professionals, especially in a world where a short-term certification course will allow anybody to put new titles on their resume. My motivation behind writing this article is not to rant about the corruption of Experience Design; it is to make an argument in favour of preserving its true nature both as a discipline and as an approach to design innovative products which keeps experiential needs of the users in the centre.

Well, can you paint us a picture?

One of the extraordinary phenomena we encounter on a daily basis is ‘mind reading’. You are in a boring lecture, looking out of the window when a song strikes your mind. You start playing the tune in your head when suddenly your classmate, sharing in your boredom, starts humming the same song, picking off from exactly where you left. You immediately feel a connection, and both of you begin to sing. You felt a sense of relatedness and closeness to the person because your thoughts matched. Such a mind-reading phenomenon can be termed as an “Experience Pattern”. Such experience patterns can be exploited to design an interactive technology. To exploit this experience pattern, Gibbs et al. proposed the concept of SynchroMate in 2005.  SynchroMate is a device to maintain close relationships over a distance. The authors describe the interaction with SynchroMate through a scenario. “Tom is working with a colleague when he feels his SynchroMate vibrate gently against his wrist. Flipping it into the palm of his hand, Tom sees lush green rings pulsing around the edge of the device. ‘Ah’, Tom thinks. ‘Sue must be composing a message for me.’ Taking a brief moment, he scrawls a series of short, iconic doodles with his fingernails across SynchroMate’s screen. As the pulsing of the rings around the edge reaches a crescendo, he sends his doodling to Sue. The very next instant, he receives a short, brief but sweet, missive from Sue” (Gibbs et al., 2005)

In the above example, notice how the experience pattern of ‘mind reading’ was elevated to simulate a technology-mediated experience. The psychological need was identified, the experience story was crafted, not very different from writing a theatrical play, interaction design was done to demonstrate how this experience would be realised and technology was used to make it feasible and deliver the intended experience. This is only a small example to illustrate how Experience design puts human experiences before product functionality.

Alright! You have made your point. What’s next?

Experience Design is about the design of experiences that the product, service or system should deliver. It has a more holistic and broadened approach. The primary objective is creating meaning and emotion. This requires a mindset of getting away from the efficiency-obsessed world towards the human experiences-obsessed world. To achieve this, our designs need to be based on the existing knowledge from the field of social sciences, philosophy, etc. and we need to be able to convert this theoretical knowledge into tangible designs to stage the intended experiences. In the subsequent article, I will shed some light on the nature of experiences and how this can help us in crafting better User Experience for our products, services and systems.

References

  1. Gibbs, M. A., Vetere, F., Bunyan, M., & Howard (2005). SynchroMate: A phatic technology for mediating intimacy. In DUX’05: Proceedings of the 2005 conference on Designing for User eXperience (New York: AIGA: American Institute of Graphic Arts. 17, 18, 71)
  2. Marc Hassenzahl (2010). Experience Design: Technology for All the Right Reasons, Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics, Morgan & Claypool publishers.
  3. Ratatouille (2007), American computer-animated comedy film by Pixar.

The views expressed in the article are solely mine and do not represent those of Siemens.

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