Yes, experience can be designed


Experience is one of the most compressed areas in human life. It brings together so many, complex factors like emotion, perception, reason, memory and intuition. In itself, it is an immensely complicated concept and it exerts a — sometimes overwhelming — responsibility on a designer's role as a systems creator.

With each day we learn something new that helps us better understand what human experience is really about, it repeatedly challenges our perception of it in some fundamental way.

But looking back to how design has shaped the necessary tools to study, influence, mediate and sometimes even control the way we experience the artifacts we interact with, it raises the question if that experience can really be designed. And it certainly triggers lively debate.

First, semantics

An apparently simple statement like "experience can/can't be designed" requires at least a working definition of the terms at hand.

experience /ɪkˈspɪərɪəns, ɛk-/ noun an event or occurrence which leaves an impression on someone

Oxford American dictionary

design /dɪˈzʌɪn/ verb do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind

Also, logic dictates that can implies the principle of alternate possibilities while can't implies absolute. So, on one hand we have a possibility and on the other, we have a bold statement according to which, under no circumstances, an impression — admittedly, with all the associated cognitive implications — can be planned and resulted for. Dismissing all other possibilities seems a bit drastic.

But a dictionary definition will not suffice. The complexity involved in dealing with human experiences can be obtained by merely considering behavior; the sheer number of functions we have to call upon is simply astonishing: stimuli, reception, expectancy, response, function, meaning, mental models, perception, encoding, memory, engagement, interaction, emotion and so forth.

This involves insights from a long array of separate disciplines like linguistics and communication, cognitive and perceptual psychology, information architecture and design, sociology and social interaction. We learn what we have to. Only to inch closer to solving a problem. And we constantly redefine ourselves to better design a system in which all these insights come together harmoniously, regardless of medium, be that a brand, a website or an application.

But complexity can also be judged by the minimum information content that can trigger a observable reaction. If we can look deep enough at the smallest, simplest entity that can further form the simplest, quantifiable, controllable and repeatable sequence, we can then get an idea of how we can control and maybe design experiences.

The god helmet

Up until recently, one of the most common and also powerful experiences known to man involved religion in some form. ( 1 ) Reasons for this are varied and irrelevant in this context. What is relevant is the fact that, if we can find a way to mimic and simulate a religious experience, an experience so basic that our society has evolved throughout thousand of years directly into our brains, we just might discover the argument and inspiration we need to pursue designing experiences properly.

This is where the god helmet comes in. It is a device designed originally by Stanley Koren to study creativity. But the participants reported a sensed presence and about 1% claim to have experienced God. This obviously lead to a media hype which also gave it it's dramatic name. Although the experiment still awaits proper scientific peer-reviews, it successfully proved that a subjective experience can be induced by using specific brain functions.

Basically, a small set of brain cells in your right temporal lobe can produce a powerful sense, a memorable experience. And if we can map out the stimuli to which our brain responds to — in this case a magnet on your right hemisphere, but we can safely extend the list from physiological stimuli to psychological ones — we can determine a sequence of different stimuli, all carefully controlled to trigger a response. We can develop whole systems and procedures to induce a certain type of impression.

Even if this example explicitly outlines the physiological nature of the experiment, nevertheless it supports the idea that there are possibilities to design experiences. We just have to find them. Signs of patterns are everywhere.

Just look for psychological tripwires and think about how people think.

Experience designers are structuralists

Or rather, they should be. In the words of Carl Sagan, only a small group of individuals, men or women, who find all human knowledge — the arts and sciences, philosophy and psychology — interesting and, most importantly, accessible can truly look for insights and connections to coherently synthesize a system and manipulate it in such a manner that it results in a real, hopefully lasting, emotion.

Practitioners of specialized crafts like typography, usability, information architecture, interaction design, content design can greatly influence a user's perception. But experience finds it's roots in systems.

Structuralism, as defined in the Oxford American dictionary, is a method of interpretation and analysis of aspects of human cognition, behavior, culture, and experience that focus on relationships of contrast between elements in conceptual systems that reflect patterns underlying a superficial diversity.” Thus, structuralism straddles multiple disciplines, such as language, architecture, graphic design, sociology, and anthropology, to name a few.

It is the one trait that sets us apart as an industry and enables us to take on the role of system creators: the ability to make connections. Norman Potter refers to it the trait that unites the very disparate standards that coexist in any one profession, ( 2 ) Milton Glaser calls it a way to unify separate occurrences and create a gestalt, and experience in which this new unity provides insight, Simon Collison calls it our spirit of inquiry and Dan Cederholm describes us as 80 percenters.

The risk of mistaking ignorance
for perspective

A structuralistic approach to design is not without risk though. Scientific observation, a process that is to observe, collect, sort, analyze, postulate a theory, test also leads to mountains of data, that more often than not are hard to make sense of.

Getting data is easy, but selecting, storing, indexing, updating, and most importantly contextualizing the information is rather difficult.

To accurately form conjectures about possible interactions between insights obtained from brain physiology and human behavior, comparative and analytical thinking is critical. Observations need to be rigorously studied to be adequate enough to form a basis for solid reasoning.

But the benefits of churning through cognitive complexities far outweighs the costs. Mapping out common sequences of particular cognitive functions is a solid way of mediating and creating experiences, regardless of medium.

  1. 1. According to a Voice of the People survey of more than 50,000 interviews in over 65 countries, released by Gallup International for International Day for Tolerance, November 16 th. Two-thirds (66%) of all world citizens interviewed declared themselves to be religious persons.

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  2. 2. Norman Potter, Hyphen Press, What is a designer: things, places, messages

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