I wrote this post to share how and why I design experiences. I hope you'll walk away with some questions you can ask and tools you can use to think about designing better experiences.
I knew something was wrong when a medical intake form drove me into a tree.
The receptionist gave me a form on a clipboard with a pen and the next thing I knew I was running out the door and climbing to the top of a nearby tree.
But it took me years to realize that most people don't feel like there are tiny blades stabbing their eyeballs when the lights are too bright. That most people’s throats don’t close up when a person in the room wears too much perfume.
Many people can fill an intake form, pay a new bill, or book a trip without watching their own brains shriek and howl and claw through error pages until something as simple as copying a passport number becomes impossible.
But all of us are struggling. We grit our teeth and navigate broken websites, broken systems, and inhumane experiences. Sometimes we complain, but often the systems for lodging a complaint are broken too.
To understand a product, a space, or a service we need to understand it in relation to the living beings experiencing it. All the spaces, services, and even products we encounter can be understood as experiences.
We are each born with a specific set of circumstances outside our control and some DNA. The rest of who we are and who we will become is shaped by our experiences: the spaces and things that shape us as we shape them.
Our experiences are shaped by the structures and spaces that contain our lives. These might be offices, prisons, hospitals, airports, or waiting rooms. These could be government services, insurance reporting forms, job interviews, or traffic jams. They could be conferences, music shows, or meetings. Increasingly, these include social media platforms, email inboxes, and apps.
Many of these spaces generate misery. Who is in charge of designing and planning these experiences, and why are they so terrible for so many of us?
Here are some of the reasons why experiences are poorly designed:
When I design experiences, I consider the space not as an object or product or an event, but as an experience: a space of possibility; a set of opportunities and constraints; something that we move through, interact with, that we help to shape, and that shapes us.
I’m inspired by all the bad experiences I’ve ever had or witnessed. And each broken system, each precious moment we dump into structures that carelessly grind away the human spirit, I see as inspiration for something better.
I design experiences to:
Experience design is not a pipeline: it is a flow of experiences through, underneath and around the project. And for me, the design process can be understood as an ongoing interaction between listening, design, and experimentation.
When I'm designing experiences, the first questions are always pointing inward. Here are a few sample questions:
To design experiences, we need to listen to the people we are designing with and for. We need to do more than ask questions at a diverse group of people and write down their responses. It’s not enough to group people into personas, speculate with sticky notes, and call it empathy.
We need to listen responsively, opening ourselves to a variety of listening tactics: stories, metaphors, images, play, data, interviews, and on-site interactions. Experiential truth is something that needs to be experienced to take shape.
We must be consent-driven in our practice, continuously open to our unexamined bias, deeply skeptical of all speculative empathy, and diligent in our validation.
A few questions to consider:
We understand our research as what it is: an abstraction. To conduct our research we abstract, dissect, categorize, and generalize. All this is useful, so long as we remember that there is no meaningful way of understanding a single experience outside of the complex and lived whole.
It's useful to build a temporary structure of understanding after the intense open curiousity of research work and before we jump into experimentation. This can include:
If we have worked through the questions above, we will have some intuitions bubbling up. We may even find that our heads are about to explode with delightful squirming ideas. Yes? It’s time to design a strategy for creative experimentation!
One of the magical things about designing experiences is that it can honour the people as people with choices, wandering around in an open world. We design experiments that simply invite people in particular directions, particular spaces or particular interactions.
Finally, we begin implementation. We execute our experiments and have the joy of watching them unfold.
Some experiments will succeed, some will fail, and some will have some unexpected results. Sometimes we may fail to understand the difference between the three. Don’t worry though, the people we are designing with (and for) will be able to understand the difference.
Documentation and on-site listening are critical for later review. Each experiment is a space for learning more about the people we are working with and about the act of designing experiences itself. And as soon as we begin to implement our experiments we begin our research again: listening, watching, and working to understand.
We each start our lives with some DNA and circumstances, and as far as anyone knows, the rest of who we are is shaped by the experiences in our lives. We can’t take our experiences lightly.
I design experiences for people.
I do this because of a lifetime of interminable waiting rooms, bureaucratic mazes, sales funnels, and other deadening substitutes for a meaningful existence. We deserve better. We are all capable of better.
I work with interactions, motivations, affordances, barriers, and flow. I work for and with people, working with identities and communities that intersect and overlap in complex ways.
I listen, watch, and gather information on the way people experience things. I invest time in considering the ways people and their environments are interacting. I design and experiment with tiny side-quests and adventures. And I facilitate an ongoing process where the needs of people inform the shape of the experience, event, product, or space.
There are some things that I don’t do. I don’t try to control the experience of people. I don’t push diverse people towards a rigidly defined experience. And I don’t work without consent.
My work isn’t aggressively transformational, at least not in a magic-wand kind of way. My work doesn’t take a mediocre or bad situation and use a touch of sparkle dust to make it good. It’s an ongoing practise, a continuous commitment to paying attention, a slow transformation towards better experiences.