Experiences are Emotional

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As Experience Design broadens to take on the challenge of delivering experiences that are clearly related and consistent regardless of context or channel – the aim of customer experience initiatives in many large organizations – we run the risk of failing in our attempts if we persist in adopting terminology relevant only to a single context, and focused only on a small portion of the experience itself.

As Experience Designers we are running the risk of failing in our attempts to enable experiences that are clearly related and consistent regardless of context or channel. Our persistent use of terminology relevant only to a single context, and focused only on a small portion of the experience itself, hampers the efforts of customer experience initiatives in many large organizations.

To design experiences that are consistent across different contexts and environments we need to focus on the qualities of the experience that do not change, rather than the means through which we enable that experience.

Experiences are a combination of the actions we take; what we perceive through our various senses; and our emotional response to both.

Form constrains

Actions are constrained by the physical or technological environment within which the experience takes place. A person’s behaviour, and context, are inexorably tied to this environment. The form of an object or space both implies and constrains its use. The availability and type of controls; the physical or virtual dimensions; the presence or absence of pathways; all contribute to, and constrain, the range of available actions.

Similarly, the range of senses we can stimulate is also limited by the environment. Digital environments lack smell and touch, producing a greater reliance on thought, sight and sound. Physical environments provide different perceptual constraints, allowing for the use of aromas, for example, to enhance the experience. At the same time, the presence of these additional stimulants also acts to dull the influence of all sensual influences.

Our focus, then, falls to the emotional response participants have when undertaking these activities, and perceiving through their senses. It is the emotional response that provides a consistent design intent across environments, touchpoints, interactions.

Articulate design intent

We need to articulate our design intent using the language of emotion so that the same resultant experience can be delivered across the various environments within which customers might interact; working within the constraints of action and perception imposed by each environment.

The transition from usability and HCI-type practices to one of user experience has been represented by a shift in focus from the functional characteristics of a system or interface, to a focus on the slightly more abstract qualities of those functions when executed in a certain way.

We need to articulate our design intent using the language of emotion

This can be seen in a lesser reliance on measures such as task-completion and time-to-complete, and the increased use of descriptors like ‘ease of use’ of a system, or whether a system is ‘intuitive’ to use. These are qualities of the functional implementation. And whilst these contribute to the emotional response a user may have when interacting with the system, they can be seen merely as descriptors of the qualities of the actions undertaken within one very specific type of environment; and then only at the plane of interaction between user and system. Descriptions of perceptual attributes within this UX tradition are similarly narrow. Talk of “speed” and “performance” provide some level of broader application – to, say, the efficiency of a service – but focus solely on one type of perception – namely the passage of time.

Emotive qualities

UX designers with a more visual bent, coming from a graphic design or visual communications tradition, (typically) speak more to the emotive qualities of a visual language or aesthetic. And it is here that we really begin to see an appropriate descriptive focus for the resultant experience, albeit within the realm of the visual domain.

The process of arriving at an emotive description often works in reverse, however, with the designer choosing an emotive language to describe a particular visual exploration or aesthetic, rather than receiving a direction in experiential or emotional terms to begin. Where that direction is given, such as through the guise of brand values or personality, the description is of the organization – not the emotional response of the customer or user.

Such descriptions tend to fall short in two, significant ways:

  • the perspective and focus of brands is, by definition, around the personality of the organisation; and;
  • this emotional perspective is kept distinct from the work of designing the activity and perceptual qualities of the system/service.

Whether we look to the qualities of actions undertaken as described in usability/HCI circles of the UX field; the narrow perceptual lens of time; the broader perceptual lens of aesthetic; or the language of brand personality, we fail to articulate the qualities of an experience we may wish to reproduce in a consistent manner across environments.

Mac App Store

An articulation of the emotional qualities of our intended experience is, therefore, essential when we take on the more holistic challenge of designing systems or end-to-end service experiences. For example, when aiming to deliver an online experience consistent to one delivered in-store – such as with Nespresso; or when extending a product line into a product-service system – such as the introduction of the new Mac App Store.

Coming back to the example of the phrase ‘ease-of-use’, let’s explore why such descriptors are insufficient as a means of articulating the experience intended. Something is easy-to-use when the actions possible within the context of the system are clear, well-ordered, work as expected, and do not require complex or complicated input sequences in order to achieve some desired end.

Express our intent

However, our desire for such ease-of-use – from the perspective of experience design – is not an end in and of itself. Our aim might be, for example, to instill our user with a sense of confidence, capability, or willingness to act. Perhaps our aim is simply to avoid frustration and maintain a sense of calm.

When we express our intent in these terms, we’re much better equipped to execute across different contexts and environments and achieve the same experience. “Easy to use” might be a useful descriptor for a digital interface, but it is inappropriate, and therefore largely meaningless, when designing, say, a retail presence or the logistics capability for an online purchase. Much better to employ ‘willingness to act’ as the desired experiential characteristic.

To what extent are organisations attempting to craft the type of consistent, multi-context experience for which these emotional descriptions are needed?

Similarly, we find ourselves woefully ill-equipped to make decisions about other experiential elements that become relevant in different context. For example, how should our retail environment’s lighting be designed? What aromas or smells might be appropriate?

Vice versa, if scents or lighting are being used in a physical environment – such as the signature smell of some hotel chains – do we simply ignore them when designing a customer’s interaction with a call centre? Or is there an emotional intent behind the use of a particular scent which can be translated into a contact-less environment like a call centre?

Is this really a concern, however? To what extent are organisations attempting to craft the type of consistent, multi-context experience for which these emotional descriptions are needed?

Modern practice in architecture, systems, interaction and service design all require the type of multi-context consistency described above. Corporations and Government agencies in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia are actively pursuing projects designed to introduce ‘customer’ experiences designed around an holistic, unified set of characteristics – and mostly failing to achieve the level of consistency desired or needed.

Let us ensure alignment

We can better ensure alignment across contexts and environments if our objective is described in terms more suitable for such application. Once we begin to think of experiences as experiences, rather than actions or perceptions, we become much better able to critique each specific incarnation of that experience in whatever context it might occur.

We cannot ignore the actions customers will want or need to carry out; nor should we. Similarly we should not ignore the characteristics of customers’ perception. However, it is the emotional qualities of the experience that provide us with the means to translate the full range of experiential qualities of one system or service component to another, thereby delivering on the promise of experience design.

A very special thanks to Janna DeVylder, Livia Labate and Leisa Reichelt for their ideas and feedback on this article.

Steve Baty

Steve Baty, principal at Meld Studios, has over 14 years experience as a design and strategy practitioner. Steve is well-known in the area of experience strategy and design, contributing to public discourse on these topics through articles and conferences. Steve serves as Vice President of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA); is a regular contributor to UXMatters.com; serves as an editor and contributor to Johnny Holland (johnnyholland.org), and is the founder of UX Book Club – a world-wide initiative bringing together user experience practitioners in over 80 locations to read, connect and discuss books on user experience design. Steve is co-Chair of UX Australia – Australia’s leading conference for User Experience practitioners; and Chair of Interaction 12 – the annual conference of the IxDA for 2012.

9 comments on this article

  1. Vicky Teinaki on

    Great summary! I’m going to avoid the S-word (hint: it ends with ‘design’) as there are others more knowledgeable about it than I am, but at a more micro-level of alignment am reminded of Aynne Valencia and Guillermo Torres’ use of the word multi-targeted experiences: http://www.uxaustralia.com.au/conference-2009/in-context.

  2. John Labriola on

    Great piece Steve. I totally agree. I’ve been thinking a lot about this the last few years. Trying to think in what ways can I further align the projects I work on with one another. Traditionally as you move from one product or service, or encounter it in a different form (physical vs. digital) the experience has been rather jarring.

    I’ve always come into an existing product or service and trying to shift gears has been difficult. Especially from stakeholder buy in. Many times there are many because different ones own different aspects. Do you have any tips?

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