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Design: What is Experience Design?

Interesting material on the question, What is Experience Design? can be found over at Master New Media (which, by the way, is a superb resource on all things new media). Since I wrote a book called The Experience Designer: Learning, Networks and the Cybersphere a couple of years ago, it seems like a good time to review and rethink some of the ideas...

First of all, I don't know the origin or history of the term, nor have I studied "experience design" as a design discipline.And I am not a designer versed in the ins and outs of website coding, graphic design, or design theory.

My introduction to the idea came by the way of Peter Gabriel when he said:

"For a number of years I've wanted to become an experience designer rather than just a musician and this new technology is one of the things that is going to allow us to take a step in that direction. Interactivity is exciting because it helps us not just to be artists but to provide a lot of material for the audience to particpate in - so that eventually they become artists themselves and can use what we create, in a sense aas collage material, as stuff to explore and learn about from the inside." (Peter Gabriel, 1993)

The phrase "experience designer" came to me during a time in my career when I was teaching and intensively designing new ways to use technology with students. So, for me, the idea of experience design is immersed in ideas about learning. The quote from Peter Gabriel resonated with me because he refers to learning directly in his comment, I have a close affinity with his music, I have a background in ethnomusicology, I agree with McLuhan's comment that it is the artist (not the technophile) that finds new and innovative uses of technology, and I was searching for ways to transfer these musical metaphors of creativity and communication into the realm of education. The phrase "experience design" became a symbol of what I was trying to do in learing innovation.

"Experience Design is an emerging paradigm, a call for inclusion: it calls for an integrative practice of design that can benefit all designers, including those who work in the new, interactive media" Experience Design by Bob Jacobson, 2000)

I believe that "a call for inclusion" is an axiom of Experience Design. At the time, and things haven't changed much, I was interested in finding ways of making the learning environment more inclusive for students. This meant that the traditional assumptions about curriculum, instructional design and evaluation had to be challenged and in some cases eliminated. By the way, this is an approach that does not tend to make a person many friends and one tends to quickly get dismissed as being rebellious. A great deal of education is fundamentally based on a one-to-many model of communication, but experience design demands something entirely different.

Designers need to step outside of their field in order to explore uncharted territory. By this I mean that developing more and more expertise inside the traditional domain of design may not be the most effective path to developing a radiant vision of experience design. This is not merely a "multi-disciplinary" venture in which different kinds of expertise are combined and integrated - although there is benefit in that. It is more of a trans-disciplinary approach in which the traditional boundaries of what constitutes an expertise or a discipline are transcended. And expertise in experience design is something that is equitable, shared and distributed across a broad range of participants. It is an encouragement to, as Peter Gabriel says, "to explore and learn about from the inside."

The source of design in traditional education systems is the curriculum which is basically a scope and sequence master plan that articulate what is to be taught, when it is to be taught, to some degree how it is to be taught, and how it is to be judged. It is a self-referential system that positions the learner as a kind of receiver of the desired knowledge, skills and attitudes frrequently under some vague and over-generalized notion of "preparing them for successful participation in society."

Current practices in marketing are not unlike this model of communication. A marketing strategy can be seen as a one-to-many model of communication in which the "curriculum" is a kind of scope and sequence created by marketers, advertisers, brand specialists, and copywriters. It is also self-referential in the sense that it judges its own performance on the basis of sales, and does not necessarily fully take into account those people that are actually using the product or service. I have seen many prominent copywriters boast about how a sales letter dramatically increased the sales of a product due to some unique use of language they have command over, yet the actual value and experiences of the people who have bought the product or service is noticably absent.

Experience design is not something that is limited to designers, nor is it something that is limited to web-based experience. If a design is "inclusive" then it must in some way evolve and change as it is being used. The danger is that the designer sees him or herself as the source of design, rather than seeing their poetnial audience as the true source of design. The audience must be proactive in the design process, not reactive :

"The idea of designing experiences invites all participants into a world of authentic narrative creation and preservation, the human ecology of interactivity, and the private and public mobility of our mind, body and spirit."
(The Experience Designer: Learning, Networks and the Cybersphere, p19)

If a design is inclusive, then it must be sensitive to the current circumstances and situations of the participants. In education, for example, I have often been appalled at how the curriculum continues to demand servility even while students are faced with life-changing and sometimes traumatic circumstances such as the break-down of their family, bullying, the suicide of a friend, or a death in the family. Aside from the obvious inhumanity of this, this points out that the design of the curriculum is not inclusive since it does not treat the participants as a source of design. The curriculum may be put on "pause" so assistance can be provided, but it does not make any attempt to proactively include the real everyday life experiences being had by those subject to it. It's a band-aid approach to living and learning.

This broad idea of inclusion also points toward one of the most fundamental approaches to what is called "e-Learning." It seems that, as far as my own experience goes, that most e-Learning systems are an extension of traditional ideas about curriculum, instruction and evaluation - although very often the language surrounding them might lead us to believe otherwise. In other words, e-Learning has largely adopted a one-to-many model of communication rather than embracing ideas about experience design. Our early versions of e-Learning can be summed up by a statement made by Marshall McLuhan, "We tend to use the new to do the old." None of this is to say that we won't find a way to eliminate tired assumptions from our thinking, and perhaps these assumptions are already being challenged by innovative uses of weblogs, social networking and mobile technologies.

The "What is Experience Design?" post also offers a collection of definitions about Experience Design. While some insights can be gained by surveying a variety of definitions, we should not (nor was it the intent of the entry) try to create "the" definition of Experience Design. What we need are examples, stories and case studies that illuminate the potential of experience design through real-life examples.

Eventually, thinking about experience design will lead us into the realm of narrative - those stories that inform our lives and create our private and public identity. "At its summit, a narrative clarifies what we know, how we came to know it, and what we must now do about it."

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Thanks Paula. I agree that the core principles of experience design are built on a broad view of human interactions, connections and relationships.

Paula Thornton on Design: What is Experience Design? | 16.04.04 | Comment Permalink

The beauty of Robin Good's post is not in the comments posted by the 'disciplinarians', but in his own observations and references made as he spoke of a "multidisciplinary culture" and "an emerging paradigm, a call for inclusion". This cross-disciplinary opportunity is the core premise for optimizing the potential of anything -- proven by the science of complexity (see references at The opportunity to leverage the collective collaboration of cross-disciplines was my intent for creating the experience design discussion group at definition on the page there). But little progress has occurred.

I believe some of the missed potential still lies at the point where Robin's thoughts fell short of potential -- when he aligns the discipline specifically to "interactive media". I see this as a symptom of youth. As I postulated in a white paper (, the digital age brought many of these concepts to the 'surface', but they are fundamental needs outside of digital -- digital being just one form of interaction. For those of us who have been around since the birth of the digital era, and/or who have a deeper understanding of business strategy as a deep discipline, this is far larger than a digital concern (opportunity).

It continues to puzzle me as to how so few can see the distinction.

Human interaction is all around us. The most significant value proposition to business is in all the human touchpoints that exist. But where, in the typcial organizational design (read: responsibility and corresponding budget) is there executive accountabilty for such? Where there is no intentional design, there is lost potential. The leaders in the industry don't see it this way (see comments from Don Norman

Taking the lead from other disciplines (architecture, et. al.) there are 'core principles' that have to be developed. The core principles of experience design rest upon the fundamentals of human interaction, which is not digital.

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