"The only source of knowledge is experience."
- Albert Einstein
What is experience design, and why does it matter?
To find something about anything, many begin by Googling it, as over a trillion Google searches in 2016 alone suggest. The results for "experience design", for example, appear almost instantly, and a discreet grey line at the top of the results list indicates "about 1,270,000,000 results (1.03 seconds)". So many results, in so little time, with so little effort on my part--what an awesome user experience!
On second thought, spending just one minute to evaluate each result would take anyone interested in doing this over 200 years, working 24 hours a day. So, perhaps, so many results are useless and the experience is not that awesome?
On the first results page, the fifth listing is a link to Wikipedia, which many consider to be a trusted source of information. Google's algorithm not only finds an enormous set of results, it also ranks them, placing results it considers to be most relevant higher on the results list. This saves the user a lot of time. So, perhaps the experience is pretty good after all!
Except that occupying the most valuable real-estate on the page are the four results above Wikipedia. These are paid ads with links to commercial products. The highest bidders for the keywords that make up the search term win the top-most ranking. That's how Google makes money off the free search service it offers, and the user experience it provides prioritizes Google's needs above user needs. This situation is very different from the company's original approach.
In the late 1990s, Google, a small, new, and unknown company, entered the highly competitive internet-search market. Within a few short years, the company took over decisively as the global leader in search. In the process, Google eliminated or greatly diminished most of its rivals because its search experience was second to none. To find out how this happened, we need to step back in time.
It may be hard to believe today that back in the 1990s, search was generally the domain of experts such as reference librarians and professional researchers. It was nothing like the almost trivial activity performed by the general public worldwide billions of times each day. Back then, the search experience was technical and frustrating--one had to create a "query" by typing keywords into specialized search fields and use logic terms to expand or restrict the search. Even when done well, one often ended up with no results, or with the task of sifting through irrelevant results in search of a relevant one.
Internet search companies' approach to solving this experience problem was to reduce the need for user-run search altogether. Instead they offered curated links to popular categories, such as travel, sports, health, and many others. The assumption was that, since people were not used to search, clicking through ready-made links to useful search result pages would shield users from having to perform searches and provide instead an easy, satisfying browsing experience.
Consequently, home pages featured a plethora of links while obscuring the search field. Users often clicked through a sequence of links that ended in a dead-end. Links that worked well were usually limited to those curated by the search companies, but user-initiated searches were often a mixed bag of irrelevant results.
From the get-go, Google's search user experience offered a dramatic departure from prevailing conventions. Instead of a busy screen saturated with links, the user was presented with an almost empty, pristine white screen that featured a single search field and two buttons:
Google Search and
I'm Feeling Lucky.
User-initiated search was the only option Google offered. Moreover, astonished users quickly found out that typing in what they were looking for, immediately yielded relevant links on the first page of the results, often close to its top. Soon after, Google introduced features such as
Did you mean, which resolved major search frustrations caused by misspellings of the search term, and "type ahead", which suggested possible search terms while the user typed in the search field.
Google revolutionized the search experience by placing the user in charge of search and demonstrating that search can be easy, fast, and productive. Fast forward to the present. The growing unease about how Google uses the personal information it collects from search activity has shifted the context of the search experience and created an opening for alternatives to Google. For example, DuckDuckGo, maker of a search engine of the same name, assures its users that it does not collect or share any personal information, does not store search history, and therefore has nothing to sell to advertisers that track users activity on the internet.
DuckDuckGo and other contemporary search engines have access to fewer resources than Google and lack its advantages in search technology. Yet, as previously suggested, millions of links to a search are useless. Ultimately, informed users assess a search engine's user experience by considering both the quality of its first results page and the extent of lost privacy.
As illustrated in preceding screenshot, searching
experience design with DuckDuckGo places the link to Wikipedia at the top of the search results page. Isn't this experience better than Google's?
The brief journey through the maturation of internet search illustrates the evolution of product experience in the context of competition and the intersection of personal and commercial interests. The main thrust of this book, is the attempt to piece together the intricate puzzle of motivations and perspectives that shape product design, either physical or virtual. What makes this an exciting and perhaps futile effort, is the fact that the number and shape of the puzzle pieces constantly changes, and the number of possible images tor the assembled puzzle is infinite.
Nowadays, many people are getting increasingly cozy about holding a conversation with their devices-- talking to Siri, Alexa, Assistant, or Cortana. Such conversational interfaces represent an emerging experience that, until very recently, has been confined to the realm of science fiction. In fact, as more products are becoming "smart" thanks to embedded processors, artificial intelligence, and ubiquitous hi-speed network connectivity, the sun seems to be setting on the beige box and monitor known as a personal computer and the experiences that gave raise to existing technology giants such as Google.
This is a perfects segue to the Wikipedia entry for "Experience design". The Wikipedia page, as viewed in early August 2017, is curiously short. The definition is reproduced here verbatim:
Experience design (XD) is the practice of designing products, processes, services, events, omnichannel journeys, and environments with a focus placed on the quality of the user experience and culturally relevant solutions. An emerging discipline, experience design draws from many other disciplines including cognitive psychology and perceptual psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, architecture and environmental, haptics, hazard analysis, product design, theatre, information design, information architecture, ethnography, brand strategy, interaction design, service design, storytelling, heuristics, technical communication, and design thinking.
A few additional paragraphs discuss various aspects of experience design. Overall, though, this is what we learn about XD:
- A highly interdisciplinary, collaborative and iterative approach to product design
- What is being designed is defined very broadly, ranging from physical to digital, from material objects such as buildings and devices to non-material entities such as processes and journeys
- Understanding, predicting, anticipating, nudging, influencing and ultimately changing user behavior through engaging product experiences is what binds business, technology and design.
As of August 2017, the search for more specific and authoritative definitions of experience design has not yielded reliable results. There are scores of personal opinions, musings, and debates. Many of the results point to related terms, such as "user experience design". Perhaps this limited range of findings reflects the fact that currently, only a handful of academic settings offer programs in experience design. It is worth noting, though, that programs that teach the key components of XD exist under various other titles.
For example, the Illinois Institute of Design in Chicago (IIT) is a graduate design school. One of its programs, a Masters of Design, lists the wide-ranging backgrounds of the 2015/16 student body on the program's overview page for 2017/18 prospectives:
- Business consulting
- Chemical engineering
- Communication design
- Computer science
- English literature
- Economics and finance
- Fine arts
- Industrial design
- Interaction design
- Mechanical engineering
- Non-for-profit management
The page then lists a sample of the careers and professional directions pursued by program alumni:
- Brand strategist
- Innovation methods
- Interaction design
- Product development
- Strategy and new business development
- User research
- Information architect
- Innovation strategist
- UX designer
Similar programs across the country and the world share comparable interdisciplinary characteristics. Of course, people enter the field of experience design in a wide variety of ways, and many deliberately skip formal academic training, preferring instead to gain hands-on experience in any of the diverse opportunities offered by this emerging domain.
Experience design is concerned with developing a holistic understanding of the relationships between person and product over time--meeting needs and exceeding expectations in ways which users perceive as valuable, effortless, and emotionally satisfying. Key to an emotionally satisfying user experience is the speed of need fulfillment--a product's ability to meet needs as soon as possible, or better yet--anticipate needs before they arise.
To illustrate the evolving nature of experience design and the role it plays in the life of individuals, this section presents a few highlights from a day in the life of M, told as a series of positive and negative experience touch-points with products and technologies. Some of these are probably familiar. Note how your experiences with these touch-points are similar to or different from M's.
Similarities and variations in individuals' experience highlight an essential aspect of experience design--it transforms simple daily activities most would consider both trivial and intimately personal, into a shared social and commercial experience. When we engage with our smart products throughout our daily routines, our interactions and experiences generate a new type of industrial raw material: Data, lots of it. Our individual data is transmitted, and aggregated with data from millions of other users, to reveal common patterns and trends.
And so, the following examples focus on typical mundane activities we perform routinely, activities that feel almost automatic. But, are they really almost automatic? As you read about M's experiences and compare them to yours, think about the subtle but powerful ways in which product experiences can effect behavioral and emotional change, what might explain this power, and what are its limitations.
M wakes up at 6 am every morning and drinks a glass of filtered water from a refrigerator that was purchased less than a year ago. A prominent digital display on the freezer door informs M about the temperatures inside the refrigerator and freezer compartments, and the status of the replaceable air and water filters. These indicators turn from green to orange when it is time to order new filters, and to red when the filters need to be replaced. The refrigerator can order these filters automatically from Amazon, but M is not yet comfortable with having a kitchen appliance make purchasing decisions.
In fact, M is disappointed with the expensive refrigerator. The external water/ice dispenser was the key feature that led M to choose this particular model because M is concerned about of the quality of tap water in the residence, and all members of the household drink a lot of water throughout the day. In the refrigerator models that feature water dispensers, many are internal. The users have to keep the refrigerator door open while pouring water into a glass or water bottle. The model M selected was one of the few with an external dispenser, promising convenient and energy-saving access to filtered water.
As it turned out, filling water bottles from the refrigerator water dispenser is difficult and messy due to a design flaw. The plastic nozzle from which water is dispensed is hidden from sight, making it difficult to align the opening of the water bottle with the nozzle. The result is spilled water. Everyone in M's family refills their bottles with water several times a day. Water spills, the kitchen floor gets messy, and someone has to mop a few times a day.
Design flaws in product features that are frequently used become amplified by repeated experience of the adverse consequences. M's positive opinion about the refrigerator's brand, based on 15 years of satisfying use with the previous refrigerator owned by the family, has now turned less favorable. While the old model did not feature a fancy digital display, its water/ice dispenser worked flawlessly.
M boils water for coffee in a recently purchased electric kettle. Inexpensive and easy to use, M's previous kettle was safe and easy to use. It had a single-purpose function, time-to-boil was fast, and the appliance automatically turned off once the water boiled, or when it was nearly empty. After several years of frequent daily use, the kettle malfunctioned.
Captivated by the latest generation of kettles, M had a hard time selecting a replacement among models with features such as precise temperature control, adjustable temperature control, multi-temperature control, keep-warm controls, and remote control via wireless smartphone app. Moreover, the prices of advanced kettles seemed reasonable given the added capabilities, and yet, they were twice or three times more expensive than the single feature kettle. M wondered whether the swell of technology features was an overkill for the task of boiling water.
M settled on a cordless model with pleasantly glowing blue buttons, keep-warm feature, and precise multi-temperature controls. The kettle's options included boiling the water or heating the water to lower temperatures recommended for white, green, or black tea. The appliance's price was triple that of a simple boil-the-water electric kettle.
Although M and family members frequently drink tea, they don't bother with the various tea-related temperature settings on the kettle. M is concerned about the energy wasted when the kettle is set to keep-warm and so this feature is also rarely used. However, the layout of the multi-temperature buttons is confusing and often M and other family members unintentional switch from boiling to a lower temperature setting. As a result, they end up with a luke-warm beverage and find this very annoying.
At home, M likes to drink instant coffee which, despite the popularity of home roasting, grinding, and brewing of coffee beans, accounts for half the sales of coffee worldwide. M prefers instant because:
- It is easy and fast to prepare
- No special equipment is needed
- M has full control over how strong is his coffee
- Each cup is fresh
- M finds the warmth of the drink pleasurable
- M happens to like the flavor and taste
- M likes coffee, but is not fussy about it
- M has been drinking instant coffee since youth and is emotionally and sentimentally attached to the beverage
This is M's list and it cannot explain why M's good friend A takes an opposite approach to coffee. A roasts small batches of raw beans in an artisanal roaster, grinds a few beans for each cup in a high-end burr grinder for ultimate freshness, aroma, and flavor, and makes the coffee with a high-end Italian espresso machine. It may seem irrational to use this expensive and time consuming process for each cup of coffee. Compared to M's, A's coffee is:
- Not easy to prepare
- Requires special equipment
- Time consuming
To understand the motivation behind A's coffee-making efforts, let's look back at M's list of reasons for preferring his instant alternative. Asking A's opinion about items six through eight on M's list would reveal that:
- A does not care for instant coffee
- A is very particular about coffee
- As a young person, A also drank instant coffee, but he never liked the taste and was happy to discover other coffee options.
A also greatly enjoys having full control over the coffee-making process and he enjoys experimenting and tweaking its various aspect. The end result is extremely satisfying to A, as are the complements received from family and friends. Seen from A's perspective, expensive and effortful coffee making is completely rational.
Across town, M's brother and sister-in-law just stick a cartridge of high-quality coffee into an espresso maker that they keep in their bedroom. Like M, they want to minimize the time and effort involved in the preparation of their morning cup and, like A, they appreciate excellent coffee and dislike instant.
M's colleague, G prepares coffee using a simple aluminum stove-top espresso maker, a coffee making method favored in Italy. G uses roasted beans purchased from a local coffee house that takes pride in its freshly roasted, high quality, fair trade beans. It took a little time to figure out the stove-top coffee pot, but after that, G's coffee making has been a fast and easy process.
We saw four different ways to make coffee. Each choice and process drives an industry geared toward offering consumers a product that responds to needs, desires and preferences more complex than the basic act of preparing and drinking coffee.
What we learn from this example is that:
- People are distributed across a wide spectrum of innate preferences and attitudes towards the experiences that satisfying their needs. Some examples are:
- From artisanal, do-it-yourself users to those who prefer ready-made solutions
- From casual users of a product, to power users
- From a desire to tinker, tweak, and customize every aspect of a product to being complete oblivious to how it functions
- From prioritizing price and value to prioritizing aesthetics and experience
- From being influenced by fashion and social trends to strongly individualistic choices
- The importance of recognizing the motivations and preferences of individual users:
- Members of M's social circle share many demographic traits, such as education, income level, the type of neighborhood where they live, and so on. Yet even with relatively homogeneous groups, paying attention to individual variations and unique characteristics, helps designers create product experiences that better meet users' needs and desires.
One morning, M noticed that coffee will probably run out by the end of the week. Within seconds, M switches from skimming an article in a newspaper app, to the Amazon app. M scans the coffee jar's bar-code, selects the matching product in the search results, and uses the
1-Click purchase option to pay. A new package of coffee will be delivered the next day and M is back to the newspaper, waiting for the water in the kettle to boil.
M is not an impatient or impulsive person, and yet, when it comes to spontaneous purchases that occur at a point of need, M has a propensity for bypassing more rational and economical ways to purchase goods. These include options such as combining multiple items in a single order, price comparison, and exploration of new options--the type of actions that characterized M's shopping behavior only a few years ago.
Grocery shopping, which for M used to be a time-consuming weekend activity that included preparing a shopping list and making trips to several stores, has now blended flawlessly into M's daily bursts of atomic online purchases, often of a single item.
In fact, during the 10 minutes that pass between waking up and taking a sip from the first coffee of the day, M completes numerous tasks, some compound, other micro-tasks, some sequential and other simultaneous. Here's a partial list:
- M is brushing teeth while scanning the news, Skype, and WhatsApp notifications that popped overnight on M's smartphone's screen
- M is filling the kettle with water, turning it on, and adding a teaspoon of instant coffee to a coffee cup, al the while scanning the list of unread email
- While waiting for the water in the kettle to boil, M is deleting unwanted email, reading new email, ordering coffee online, responding to emails when a brief response appropriate, and scanning the breaking news section on a newspaper app
- As soon as the kettle beeps, M is getting the milk out of the refrigerator, pouring boiling water into the cup and adding the milk. These activities are done using the left hand, because the right is holding the phone so that M can continue reading the news
- While drinking this first cup of coffee, M is quickly checking the weather app, then switching back to the news and beginning to prepare a second cup of coffee
- While all of this is happening, M is thinking about the day ahead -- meetings and deadlines at work, evening plans with the family, and the contents of the emails and news scanned earlier
Just reading the list is exhausting, and yet M makes no mental effort to perform so many simultaneous tasks in rapid succession.
Experience designers spend a lot of time understanding tasks in order to optimize, simplify, and if possible, eliminate extraneous aspects. Tasks can be prioritized by the frequency of their occurrence, how dependent they are on other tasks, whether they take precedence over other tasks, their complexity, and so on:
- Tasks that require multi-step processes and take longer to complete are divided into subtasks
- Bursts of independent tasks are squeezed into available slots between the subtasks of multi-step ones
- Many subtasks are more demanding then they appear to be. For example, pouring boiling water into a cup requires coordination and care to avoid bodily injury, and sorting through a list of work-related emails requires concentration and snap judgment.
Another observation about the sequence of tasks M completes in the morning, is how unique it is to our times. M's primary activity is preparing and drinking coffee--an experience that is centuries old. Interspersing morning coffee with a complex array of personal and work related tasks performed in quick succession--this reflects a behavioral change enabled by the fusion of technology and experience design.
The availability of all manner of content on demand - anytime, anywhere - is powerful. Our habits and behavioral patterns change as we fold into our lives the devices and activities that deliver this rich access at a relatively low cost. We adapt and learn to fill the gaps between life-sustaining activities with bursts of new activities.
And so, M can accomplish a lot while idling. Throughout the day M keeps checking news and other social network sites regularly. Various apps send notifications to M's phone, which can be accessed from M's laptop, phone, and iPad. M still subscribes to the home delivery of the Sunday edition of the New York Times. It used to be an anticipated weekend leisure activity, but the truth is that nowadays, M never finds the time to sit down and enjoy the paper. In fact, M begins to feel stressed from the intense and seemingly never-ending interaction with technology. Technology, which was supposed to save time and money, seems to be all consuming and, micro transaction by micro transaction, also expensive.
In recognition of user fatigue and mental overload, experience designers must develop and continually evolve engagement strategies that deal with task fragmentation and shorter attention spans.
There are many examples of animals that build amazingly intricate structures--honeybees, birds, and termites come to mind. We don not know whether the animals have an aesthetic appreciation of their designs, but repeating patterns suggest that they follow some internal instinct. We also do not know why humans create art or attempt to infuse products with aesthetic value, but there is ample evidence dating back to prehistoric times to suggest that design is an innate human trait.
Archeological remains and historical documents capture an essential aspect of design patterns: They are the outcome of continuous cycles of refinement, evolution, decay, and revival. The diagram above illustrates the journey of the book from clay tablets used thousands of years ago by the ancient Egyptians to the Kindle, an electronic tablet that echoes the stone version. Of course, we now have even more ways to experience books, including audio books, books in Braille, and interactive digital books.
Despite the significant evolutionary and revolutionary changes in the book-reading experience, three fundamental dimensions have been preserved during thousands of years of change:
- Sensory dimension: The book experienced through the physical features that address the senses--format, size, material, weight, tactile quality, typography, and visual imagery. Audio books are experienced through the sound of the narration, and Braille books, by touch.
- Temporal dimension: The book experienced through the duration of engagement (reading, listening, looking at pictures) and the impact of the ongoing interaction with the book on cognitions, emotions, moods, and mental perceptions.
- Content dimension: The book experienced through the information it contains (fiction, non fiction, poetry, and so on)--understanding, contextualizing and responding to the content.
The three dimensions of experience are not limited to books. For any product, the intersection of the physical, temporal and content dimensions creates a unique experience signature that binds a particular person to a particular product. When a single product supports multiple experience signatures, the products is transformed from a mass-produced item into an object of personal significance. This does not happen to every person with every product, but experience designers strive to achieve this type of emotional attachment as frequently as possible.
Experience design seeks to transform mundane ingredients, such as business requirements, budgets, release schedules, and deadlines, into experiences that create an enduring emotional attachment to a product. To make this possible, the processes, methodologies, tools, and techniques of experience design draw from a wide variety of disciplines.
There are dozens of specialized design disciplines today. Each one has come into being in response to emerging needs. Some disciplines, like architecture and tool making, go back thousands of years, while others, like sound or game design, are very recent. The boundaries between these disciplines are not as clearly defined as their title suggest. Automotive design, for example, includes the design of both exterior and interior of the vehicle.
The interior include seats, which are furniture, and sophisticated dashboards, which are essentially computers.
The division of various disciplines into sub-specialties reflected a need for subject-matter expertise and specialized design approaches to address design challenges and opportunities in highly specific situations. The automotive dashboard design is a good example. Experience design, on the other hand, emerged in response to the converging needs of multiple product categories. The fusion of physical, digital, mobile, and virtual experiences within a single product, requires close multi-disciplinary collaboration. Since many of the specialized design categories share similar approaches to design methods, it is possible to envision them folded into a single unified discipline of experience design. These changes in disciplinary boundaries reflect a number of fast moving trends in the global and social economy.
- Computing: Significant advances in computing performance at much reduced costs to companies and consumers; including hardware, software, data centers, and so on.
- Manufacturing: Advanced materials, miniaturization at the atomic level, 3D printing, and other innovations in manufacturing technology.
- Global shift to mobile computing: Aided by inexpensive smart devices, affordable hi-speed broadband and wireless networks, and high-precision global GPS coverage.
- The logistics revolution: The invention of the shipping container, fleets of mega container ships, and the complex operations that make it possible to scale manufacturing capacity to vendors all over the world, maintain low inventories with on-demand assembly, and move massive amounts of products around the world fast and reliably.
- The democratizations of the means of production: The creation and distribution of products and content is now within reach of individuals and companies regardless of size. Social networks and the emergence of a new type of user, who is activity engaged on a global level by creating and publishing content, from blogs to feature films.
- The Internet of Things: Billions of embedded chips in a wide verity of products and objects collect and transmit continuous streams of data. This data, aggregated and processed in real-time, reveals patterns that help develop insights about people and societies on scales never imagined before.
- Artificial intelligence: AI endows systems and devices with reliable cognitive capabilities, such as correct interpretation of human communication and decision-making, leading to new types of sensory experiences with sensory and conversational interfaces; complementing, and potentially phasing-out the need for manual input
These trends open up tremendous opportunities for individuals and companies, who can tap into the vast and relatively inexpensive design and development space, and dream up product experiences that respond to demand for engaging productivity, content, and entertainment. Experience design is no longer regarded as a non-essential "creative" sub-activity that is relegated to specialists.
Experience design means different things to different people, and a profusion of acronyms and passionate opinions regarding their exact scope and meaning further complicates things: CX, HCI, IA, IXA, PD, SD, UCD, UEA, UI, UX, UXA, VD and XD, to name a few. Additionally, changes in the industry are so rapid, that even during the year in which this book has been written, new experience trends have emerged, existing one solidified, and others faded out. Striving to capture an enduring snapshot of experience design, the following themes are revisited throughout the book:
- Scope: Experience design is not limited to websites, apps, or mobile devices. Rather, it is an attempt to consider the entire spectrum of manufactured experiences, from architecture to products and services.
- Historical perspective: "Innovation" seems to be applied indiscriminately and trivially these days. This diminishes the value of true achievements. We explore experience design as a point in a continuum going back thousands of years, providing context and linkage.
- Diversity: Many established disciplines originating in academia, business, design, and technology, contribute to what is still an evolving approach to the creation of product experience.
- Art versus design: Art for art's sake is beyond the scope of this book primarily because the underlying motivations, approaches, and techniques in art as such are usually different from those found in the experience design disciplines.
- Privacy: For the first time in history, intimate behavioral, physiological, and social details about hundreds of millions of individuals are captured continuously and in great detail by numerous corporations: what we eat, our sleep patterns, exercise routines and associated vitals, multitude of our personal preferences, who we talk to, what we say, and much more.
- Inter-connected world: Billions of devices that make up the "Internet of Things" are connected to the network, tracking vehicles, homes, devices, conditions on Earth and in pace, as well as individuals.
- Data science: Data is a raw natural resource. Processing it makes new services and products possible, such as analysis of past events and predictions of future trends. Insights from matching data patterns reveal potential affinity clusters, which connect individuals to other people, companies or organizations.
- Artificial intelligence: Great advances in artificial intelligence are impacting human decision support processes and infusing predictive guidance based on statistical probabilities derived from vast data collections.
- Taking over: Product designers use technology, data and design to drive the simplest, easiest interaction paths for users, reducing the need for learning and decision making. increasingly, humans are being replaced altogether by products that perform autonomously--from vacuum cleaners to cars and airplanes.
The recognition that experience design is an emerging discipline calls for embracing its fast evolving nature. While no one knows the full potential of XD domain, science fiction and dystopian visions provide a wide range of scenarios from hopeful to dire.
And yet every day, experience design work is being done. Multi-disciplinary teams are assembled, strategies are set, research conducted, requirements gathered, concepts developed and tested, and products released to market. While shaping our world and being shaped by it, time-tested methods and tools are being used, while new ones are introduced to meet changing needs. A journey through the experience design process is presented in the next chapter.