Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Experience Design, Where to Start and End

Joe Johnston (merhl.com), Christian Saylor (Mighty), Grant Carmichael (knoware) and I have been having some great conversations around the concept of Experience Design (XD) lately. Late last year, pretty much during the MAX 2007 conference in Chicago, I latched on to the XD conversation in full force. I hadn't realized it, or labeled it as such, but XD is what I've been doing for a couple of years now... nice to actually have a name for it - I've gotten sick of saying "oh, I do web stuff" when someone asks what I do :) The idea of interaction design or web architect always flies over the non-web person's noodle.

One of the struggles I've been having in wrapping my arms around the discipline, is where does it end? In print, once the piece comes off the press, your done. But in XD, the conversations continue to get more and more lofty. Initially, XD is focused on the user's interaction with the site/application/widget/etc. But this easily begins to transcend this easy to define 'web physical' realm into the oh-so-fuzzy realm of brand, consumer relationships, trust.

The building blocks of XD for the web - in my opinion - are founded on the physical and emotional touchpoints a person has with a web solution. This can manifest itself in the things that a normal rich internet development/design process would undertake:

  • clearly articulated objectives

  • measurable success criteria

  • simplicity and focus

  • content is king

  • provide personalization

  • minimize the chrome

  • just enough is more

  • respond to actions

  • motion has meaning

  • preserve context

  • design with consistency

But lately, I've been struggling on where to put the cap on the conversation. A great blog I follow at Adaptive Path pointed out how experience design is not about brand. In my reflection though, brand is the culmination of experience design. Brand, from the perspective of an organization is inside-out - where the organization is attempting to shape public perception based on it's messaging and externally facing tools. Brand, from the perspective of a consumer is outside-in - where my perception of what a company represents and how it engages its customers is based on the experience you've had with an organizations products and services. These 2 perspectives do not necessarily end at the same point - a cohesive brand - but they do end at the same general point - brand.

This is where I'm stuck. I'm not sure how to tie the loose ends together or if they should be tied at all. The conversation of experience design can be capped at the physical elements of the experience - graphic design, motion design, interface design, etc. Or, it can elevate to the level of the entirety of a brand.

The fact that I bought Apple stock at $19 (and sold it at $50 before the split... DAMMIT!) points to the value I held in Apple back in the day - my 'experience' with Apple products and services formed a personal brand experience with me that was valuable and made me purchase the stock. That experience was rooted all the way down to the icons and sounds in the OS and the little smiley face on start-up. Did the designers at Apple consider my perception and acceptance of this experience at this low level so many years ago? Was it a conscious effort to engage me to that degree or was it just creating something cool for coolness sake?

So my question is, where does an experience designer start and stop?


Christian Saylor said...

So the question is “where does an experience designer start and stop.” Its been my personal experience that within such design the end is just another beginning. Designing for a particular experience, be it web, kiosk, mobile or otherwise, I find that interactive design is so much about its ability to evolve. Unlike the print world where things become immediately tangible and die, the design of great experiences is at once an ever morphing medium where the end is only just the catalyst for the new. New sets of experiences spawn new thinking, new interactions, new rules that are ultimately inspired by, and for, the brand. In my head the question is not where we start and stop but rather as designers how do we continue the dialogue. Users of digital media are already keen on the idea that things are continuously being updated. When visiting a website a user might see an image on the homepage but the next time they come back it might be another. This gives the user the comfort that things are continuously being updated, not the typical boring experience that is predictable and routine but rather dynamic and engaging. Users have grown to accept this dynamic media, be it occasionally connected applications, all the way to online experiences, and now we, as experience designers, must be cautious in our delivering something that is considered finished. Audiences today are vastly different and more engaged with an experience that is adaptable, flexible and changeable. To answer the original question I think the experience designer will be at an ending point when he delivers something that has sustainable, flexible, dynamic characteristics to it in order for it to accept the pace of change, not the change of pace. Because as we all know the change of pace is only increasing and if your application/design is not growing, morphing, adapting to this change then its dying. The new question is “how do we design for constant change.”

Erik Loehfelm said...

Would you then explain this continuously changing solution in terms of it's flexibility to adapt for future iterations? How do we as design professionals explain this to a client that may not understand the idea?

Could it be, that the next generation of solutions are built upon the idea that a quick solution that can respond to iterative improvements is one that we are working toward? I think this could be a valuable position to take. One that I think we are already taking with savvy clients.

But, I still struggle to provide a tangible solution to a client where they are focused on the transactional approach to a design solution. The client relationship must truly be more for the long term and based on a partnership that morphs and changes over time just as the solution does. Otherwise, the solutions we're creating are commoditized and don't hold any lasting value. Then, after a few months or years the inevitable redesign occurs with us or some other design goober, and the process repeats itself.

This is where some of this is troubling to me. As a Graphic Designer, I'm brought in to translate or create a graphical solution to the web. As an Interactive Designer, I'm brought in to create dynamic interface elements, animations and transitions. Both of these seem to smell like commodities to me these days. However, Experience Design can encompass these and extend to the deeper connections with brand and customer relationships. How do we explain that in layman's terms?

Grant Carmichael said...

Make it easy to be happy. This was a wonderful insight I found at baekdal.com (whose tagline is, "The Goal is Pretty Simple" – just beautiful). That's what Experience Design strives for by keeping the outside-in perspective of the user needs vs. the spec-driven need to create a thing or system. Peter Merholz goes further to state that the "Experience IS the Product" and the more you strive for the experience, the less you get caught up in convoluted product development and risk of creating the wrong product. To call back to your Apple mention, the iPod isn't about the most features or buttons, it was about getting people to enjoy their music wherever they want, get more when they want it, and do this without having to read an instruction manual.

XD can certainly help or hurt a brand but I wouldn't tie the two together. Some companies get it and embrace the outside-in, some don't and project their idea of what their users want (inside-out) causing a mis-alignment of user experience with brand experience. I would argue that XD as an approach isn't limited to commercial pursuits and "brand". XD could make recycling efforts more successful for instance, because you start with people's desire (I feel good about recycling) and explore how to remove barriers (I don't know what/where/etc. to recycle) to participation. The design artifacts should grow from that. Lacing end users into the process (testing prototype iterations, etc.) will help ensure that the experience is being addressed.

I go back and forth on the idea of Experience Designer as a role, I'm drawn to "XD" like a moth to the flame, 'tis cool, but I wonder if that is flawed. I hope XD doesn't muddy into just a buzzword, I see XD as an overarching term for an approach that encompasses many disciplines such as information architecture, interface design, industrial design, etc. Can one person be an XD designer? Or does XD guide each discipline's contribution to a solution – the interaction designer, the graphic designer, the human factors practitioner, the cognitive psychologist. I guess if XD continues to get traction in the industry as a term, it will be appropriate. And hopefully not with the shelf life of 'New Media Designer".

XD has always been around in a sense, I marvel at how new avenues and depth for user interaction have evolved over the years. 15 years ago, motion transitions were largely limited to linear, passive formats such as video. Computing power, embedded displays and touchscreens in products have opened up new interaction opportunities for both delight and pain for users and that's put further emphasis on XD and interaction design in particular. But it all boils down to the experience, making it easy to be happy.

Here's a great chart of Experience Design.

On a side note, I just saw Cloverfield, which was quite an experience. And while the 'found videotape with over-recorded subplot bits' was a fun device, I really enjoyed that it was created with a multi-spectrum experience in mind – it's mythology is played out beyond the screen in viral videos, fake myspace pages and product websites. Granted, it's only for entertainment, but attention to the experience is undeniable.

grant carmichael said...

This thread at IxDA.org poses the same question...

In the beginning was Interface Design. Then it was argued that it's more than 'just' the 'interface', which regular folk take to mean pretty looking screens — that it's actually 'Interaction Design'; that we are interested in matters beyond 'merely' the 'interface', and in fact we would like to design the entire interaction process. Further along the way, we became interested in the entire User Experience, and not just the process of interaction. And who knows how much more will be included in the scope of what we claim to be our domain in a few years.