All Experience is Organized

User experience designers seem to come in two flavors. Those who tackle the big form. And those who master the small form. Big form being user experience from a situated but holistic perspective. Small form being contextual to use of applications, products, etc.

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Problems thus arise when we try to define what user experience (interaction design, experience design etc also) is. Where it ends, what it concerns, and what it can claim.

Nathan Shedroff touches on this in a good post in Boxes and Arrows. And suggests that we regard experience design in its larger form.

The way I see it, at issue is the question of abstraction. At what level, and on what basis, do we accurately abstract from the specific (situated, contextual experience)? What methods and what theories privilege our claims to understand our observations; and from there to recommend or even predict outcomes?

Experience design claims to know better both a user experience as well as its design. The paradox therein being that no experience is designed. Experience is either in the Now, in which case it is event. Or it’s in the past, in which case it is reflected upon and then retold.

Design, by abstracting according to principles, experience, tradition, and constraints, seeks to improve and master. It seeks to design what will be experienced later. It is already a projection forwards in time of something contemplated and designed now. There’s no escaping the abstraction of design from experience. Experience design abstracts its interactions with the help of concepts, models, and other factors by which we can better anticipate outcomes. Our entire disciplined is a forward thinking, and hopeful projection of future interactions and experiences in some correspondence to models and concepts with which they were thought through (designed).

Here designers seem to bifurcate in at least two directions. Those who seek effectiveness and those who seek pleasure. Experience design either measures its success on the basis of functional adequacy — a utilitarian model of the value of human activity. Or it seeks satisfaction and happiness — an experiential view of human activity.

Brands engaged in experience design practices will tend to receive advice according to the philosophical bent of the designer: use, utility, functionality, effectiveness, or satisfaction, happiness, serendipity, desire. Put simply, quantity vs quality. Or that value which is easily quantified (and measured) vs which is enjoyed (and appreciated).

These are a vastly over-simplified dissection of the discipline.

But it has struck me, over the years, that designers will tend towards the object of experience or the inner experience of the object. Towards the design and aesthetics, the functionality and objectivity of a “thing,” or the inner meaning of the thing, as experienced uniquely by an individual. Object and subject.

Both are needed, obviously. For a design practice to seek a full and holistic appreciation of its own field, it must have a well-articulated and descriptive language for what it observes. And it must have an honest and self-reflective understanding of how it organizes its observations and from which it draws its claims.

There is a vast amount of understanding of how people interact, of how interactions become organized, of how patterns (habits, traditions, rituals, pastimes, games, etc) form and persist over time, and so on.

I can’t see any reason why those of us interested in the place of technology, as object world and as subjective experience, would ignore the work of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and many others long working in the human sciences.

All design, at some point, must draw its boundary. How much does it claim and on what basis. Clearly we understand that the complexity of human affairs disguises a high degree of identity and repetition. Technologies sit within that complexity, and should not be regarded outside the context of their use if they are to be understood — as objective constraints on subjective experiences.

Unless we dig deeper and think harder about our own discipline, we risk losing the field to what much of design is, and always has been: a matter of taste.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

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