What is experience design?

Tom talks experience design, what it is, what it isn't and why it matters.

An illustration of a person using a laptop with shapes in the background.

Every person-made thing creates a human outcome through its usage: every pen, every sandwich, every pair of shoes, every web page, every call-centre script... everything.

Normally when we make something for others we intend to make it useful and create a positive result for the people who will use it. But every day we encounter products and services which frustrate us and where our needs as a customer seem to have been misunderstood or ignored. The people who created these experiences often did not mean to cause this negative outcome, but it happened all the same.

This is often because there was an unresolved tension between the needs of the maker and the needs of the user. In a business context this is often because of commercial constraints which seem to limit our ability to satisfy all the needs of all our intended customers. We have to make trade-offs between what users want and what we can make.

Experience Design is a method by which we can improve the quality of the outcome for the user while working within resource constraints. It’s gaining attention at the moment because it’s becoming more widely accepted that if we can improve outcomes for customers, we can improve outcomes for business.

At my company we describe Experience Design as:

A design practice focused on human outcomes, in particular the level of engagement and satisfaction that the user derives from a product or service and the relevance of the experience to their needs and context.

Experience influences memory, memory guides future action

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman says that we have two selves. The Experiencing Self is the one which lives our life, which sees, hears and does. The Remembering Self is the one which occasionally takes stock of our experiences and draws conclusions. (Kahneman describes this as the difference between ‘being happy in your life, and being happy with your life’).

Experience design offers the opportunity to influence both of these aspects of ourselves. First, we can affect the outcome in the moment. A great product or service experience seems to make it easy for us to get on and use it. We find it easy to find out where everything is, and how it works. It presents us with understandable choices and offers us answers to any questions or concerns that we have. Our Experiencing Self enters what psychologists call a state of ‘flow’: we are engaged and concentrated on the process and have an enjoyable sense of progress and achievement. We don’t notice the passing of time.

Game designers do everything they can to engineer a sense of flow because it increases the amount of time that players spend within the game. It’s also possible to create a sense of flow in a mortgage application process. And if you do you sell more mortgages.

So Experience Design offers a way to influence outcomes within the moment of usage, but it also influences people’s memories and perceptions after use. When the Remembering Self reflects on a good experience it forms positive memories and associations. These become a reference point guiding future behaviours and decisions. This is really valuable if you want to encourage repeat custom, if you want customers to recommend your service to other people, or if you are trying to build a brand.

The result, in a business context, is very powerful. Good experience design will positively impact both short-term and long-term measures. You see sales go up and you see satisfaction measures go up. Revenue today, revenue tomorrow.

The two foundations of Experience Design

The first foundation of Experience Design is a rigorous, systematic approach to understanding what customers want. This puts an emphasis on gathering qualitative and quantitative information about the user and their context. In particular it favours observational research (watching what people do) over attitudinal research (asking what people think they did in the past, or what they think they will do in the future). In this way you can develop and document a rich understanding of the world from the customer’s point of view.

The second foundation is an equally rigorous, systematic approach to applying your knowledge of the customer into the design process. It’s not enough to have good information about the customer, you need to use it to make good design decisions. That will often include trade-offs between what customers want from you and what’s easy and convenient for your company. It also means checking your thinking as each layer of the design solution emerges. Experience Design projects move in iterative cycles from early thinking right through detailed design. At each stage you expose your work to the target user, and take this feedback to guide and refine the design.

The effect of these two foundations is to reduce the amount of guess-work in design. You stop guessing what it is that the customer is trying to achieve; you stop guessing about what design solution will allow them to achieve it. Less guesswork means less risk. You can spot and discard your mistakes and wrong assumptions before they become fixed in the design. And you can understand and build on what’s working while there’s still time to react.

As well as reducing risk it opens up new creative possibilities. When you have an intimate understanding of the customer’s needs and motivations it can lead you to new ideas for products or services which break your company away from the competitive pack.

So why doesn’t everyone do it?

OK, if Experience Design can have such a positive effect on business outcomes why don’t more companies do it?

The easiest answer is that it’s still a relatively new approach for designing products and services which has few experienced advocates within major companies. Worse, it offers a challenge to traditional ways of thinking about customers and running projects. To a Chief Executive with a mission to ‘put the customer back at the heart of everything we do’ it raises an uncomfortable question: how much are we willing to change our business in order to make that happen?

To achieve the most valuable experience for you and your customer would you:

Traditional approaches to design tend to give primacy to the short-term needs and objectives of the business, and then seek the least-bad customer experience as a solution. Experience Design recognises that the relationship between the two parties is not a zero-sum game – where there must be a winner and a loser. Instead its purpose is to discover a result where both parties are satisfied to the maximum extent possible.

It means re-channelling some of the energy we have historically spent on trying to out-think or outflank the customer into understanding the outcomes they are trying to achieve – and doing everything we can to deliver them.

I know that Experience Design is commercially effective: it’s how I’ve made my living for over a decade. But it’s also a way of thinking which – even in a modern, industrial setting – allows the maker to take pride and pleasure in the craft of design and the positive impact it has for the user.

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