Design & Emotion Blog

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Experiencing Experience: Tom Guarriello’s view on experience design.

I found this wonderful article at UX Magazine by Tom Guarriello via Convivio.

Tom starts by saying that “no matter what else you think about human experience, it can only be described, never measured.”
And: “It’s exciting to see so much energetic interest in understanding users’ experiences, and designing environments that lead to desired user and customer experiences. Phenomenological psychology’s insights can be very useful in helping businesses gain a sharper focus on their users and customers.”

Experiences are personal

“Every time I hear people talk about “designingâ€? experiences. Because, the truth is, it can’t be done. Designers design occasions for experiences; experiences themselves are personal.

That’s why different people having different experiences in (what are supposed to be) the same situations.

Ah, but there’s the clue: the situation isn’t the same for all participants because each of us brings a unique set of perceptions – perceptions rooted in unique personal histories – to everything we experience.”

I think Tom has a point here and when I talk to people about experience design, this is something I always refer to: you can NOT design the experience itself, you can only design FOR that experience. In my opinion, the same goes for designing FOR emotion. I think we will never be able to evoke a specific targeted emotion, but what we can do is to design such elements into a product or service that will help to evoke certain emotions. Especially because just as that experience is personal, emotional responses are also personal. They are a result of an appraisal process that is influenced by both the stimulus as a person’s personal context.

Tom again:
“Technically, most designers are attempting to design meaning, not experience. The experience of eating a cookie, for instance, can be described in very clear terms. But, capturing the unique meaning which that cookie had for one individual was what made Proust’s madeleine the stuff of great literature. A simple cookie for one person is a trigger for emotion-laden memories for another. But, most often, designers must create experiences for people they don’t know. So, how can designers create opportunities for meaningful experiences for people they don’t know? By paying close attentions to patterns.”

So, it all comes down to meaning, according to Tom experience designers won’t be able to create any really pleasurable experience when they do not dig deep enough in the people who will use or experience it in the end. The more you have an understanding of who your users really are, the better you can understand their personal context and try to capture the unique meaning the product/ service/ etc. can have for them.

“What makes it more or less likely for an individual to experience the experience the kinds of things you’re aiming at? The key to design is developing this kind of understanding. And, the key to understanding is immersion in other people’s life-worlds.”

Read the complete article at UX Magazine >>>

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Discussion (5) Comment

  1. I agree that most designers are attempting to design meaning, rather than experience. The desire to separate the two in such terms however, is not entirely clear to me. Eating a particular type of cookie may have a meaning for me that is different than other people, and the emotion/experience that I have will change based on what that meaning is.

    A commercial comes to mind here. Dove recently came out with a line of shampoo. For the advertising, they chose to use female characters from cartoons that were popular twenty years ago, in a clever campaign highlighting the fact that these characters’ hairdos never moved. The origin in time of the cartoons made it clear who their target audience was; women in their 30s and 40s who would associate Dove shampoo (which as a brand focuses on purity – 99 44/100 pure soap!) with the feelings of innocence they had as children.

    Here, like everywhere else, the meaning that is attributed determines the emotions that are felt. By associating their product with something that evokes almost universally positive memories for most people (i.e. cartoons), they have, in turn created a positive experience. Obviously, not everyone who saw these cartoons has positive memories of them. In this case, the commercials may have been attributed a negative meaning, and created a negative experience. Either way though, the two (meaning and experience) are so closely tied together that it is difficult to seperate them. Marketers and designers can never ENSURE that all their users/customers will have the same experience. But, by focusing their efforts on things that have commonly shared meanings for people, marketers and designers can elicit positive experiences from a majority of customers/users. The trick is to identify those common experiences.

  2. I agree completely with you Trevor. That’s why I always say that we can only design FOR emotion or experience, and not the experience itself. We cannot seperate meaning from experience, because experience comes from attributing meaning to a particular product, service or brand. Different things have different meanings for people, and you are therefore right that we have different experiences because of that. In his article, Tom gave the example of going to see “the English Patient”, which many loved, but he almost fell asleep.
    I think your comment that marketers and designers will have to look for the commonly shared meanings was spot on. Nevertheless, I agree with Tom that we should not generalize these shared meanings so much that in the end it weakens the actual experience for the majority. I think it’s best to try to understand your target group as good as possible and look for their most commonly shared meanings that evoke the most powerful experiences. Then, that’s your focus right there. So, in that case it is no problem if some women in your example won’t have pretty thoughts and feelings associated with the cartoon characters. As long as the specific target group DOES.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post on my article, Marco.

    Trevor’s comment about the desire to separate “meaning” from “experience” is an insightful one. I believe experience occurs in the here and now; in that regard, it is ethereal. That is why I believe designers are aiming for something more lasting, meaning. Meaning grows from, and, as you indicate, informs, experience. This is what some phenomenologists have referred to as a “hermeneutic circle.”

    Some may find that a distinction with difference but it helps me to highlight the differential paths that can lead to meaning. For example, the meaning, “innocence” which Trevor cites as connected with Dove’s Wilma Flintstone campaign, arises for others from disparate experiences. But the meaning adheres to childhood nonetheless.

    We might also say that meanings cluster and form beliefs, while beliefs cluster to form identities. Not in a linear fashion, of course, but in a system of interpenetrating threads, woven together through a diverse flow of experiences. Identifying the common experiential patterns that underlie the broadest set of desired meanings (that is, explicating the underlying existential structures of those meanings) is the holy grail of designing with purpose. Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote an extensive piece in The New Yorker about work now being done in musical composition and filmwriting to do just that. It was a fascinating article and I recommend it highly.


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