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Phenomenal Systems

Over the last two decades, I’ve had to develop a simple, practical approach for bringing experience designing thinking to a huge variety of teams with innovation challenges. Sometimes, I’m expected to help supplement the strategies of an existing team. Other times, I need to coordinate the activities of a diverse collection of creators aimed at a new kind of goal. Often, I’m also trying to push my own thinking, looking for ways to expand the effectiveness of my own projects. Since each design discipline has their own language for discussing design, I need to not only learn speak their language, but also be able push the boundaries of what they think about without forcing them to speak the language of experience design.

I’ve settled on a system that thinks of the insights of phenomenology as something that is additive to each design discipline, instead of thinking that experience design replaces or supplants it. Writers, business executives, filmmakers, software engineers, museum curators, game designers, start-up entrepreneurs, theater producers – each of these fields (and more) can be enhanced by thinking about the phenomenal version of that field and, in the process, absorb a bit more experience designing thinking into their work.

It starts by thinking about how that design discipline (or client, or project) uses language to describe three big buckets that make up any experience: objects, people and context.

Objects are the traditional focus of most design disciplines: the film, the advertising campaign, the game, the exhibit. These are all things that can actually be experienced by people, and craftsmanship is poured into them. People are the customers, the audience, and the people who are experiencing our work. Context is the world where people encounter these objects, both the context surrounding the object (like the theater to a film, or the gallery to a painting) and the context surrounding the people (like their prior experience with your brand, or what they are already engaged with when they encounter your design.)

Very often, that’s also the hierarchy of thinking of the design discipline – a lot of nuanced language about the objects of design, some about the people experiencing them, and a little about the context that is happening in. Experience design thinking inverts this by introducing a fourth category: phenomena.

Phenomena are the properties that emerge at the moment of experience through the interaction of objects, people and context. Some phenomena emerge at that very instant, such as emotional responses or customer behaviors. Others materialize later, such as sharing something they found meaningful or the testimonial of a happy customer. These emergent properties of experience are the primary focus of experience design, which helps envision what kinds of objects, people and context can serve to help more reliably or richly produce them.

This simple, flexible framework hides a tremendous amount of depth. It can be used implicitly, to organize what you learn about a design challenge without having to impose that framework of thinking on anyone else – this is indistinguishable from creativity for the rest of the team. It can be used explicitly, as a way of helping teams expand the way they think about the problem to unlock that same creativity in them. It can also be used reflexively, as a way to switch from thinking about the craftsmanship of an object back up to the phenomena and then back down into a different school of craftsmanship for another kind of object, helping to integrate experiences with designs.

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1 Notes

Impact on Story & Meaning

If experience design theory at the dawn of this century was burdened by having to also argue about the nature of digital experiences, the experience design theory of today must carry the burden of the changing nature of story. Not because stories have actually changed, mind you, but because the nature of the Cartesian method of story is exposed as threadbare. Let’s look at some examples.

In the narrative theory space, Henry Jenkins' work often focuses on the relationship between fans and the stories they find meaningful, describing it as a "participatory culture" as if culture had been largely non-participatory in the past. The broader transmedia community has embraced the phrase "storyworld" to describe a broader narrative universe involving multiple stories. Meanwhile, some brand theorists are more directly assaulting the phrase “storytelling” with alternates, including Ty Montague's "story-doing" and Gaston Legorburu's "storyscaping," to remove part of the implications of a passive audience.

Experience design and phenomenology, as related practice and theory, offer up a different solution to this apparent quandary of the nature of story, because they do not start with the presumptions of the Cartesian method. Story isn’t something that you pour into an object and then pour from the object into a person’s mind. Instead, the things we design are triggers for experiences, and stories emerge from the audience’s minds in reaction to those triggers. This particularly true for meaning, which is the interaction of a person’s lived experience with the story in their mind that you triggered.

If this seems untrue to you, go back and re-read “Moby Dick” and tell me that it means the same thing to you today as it did when you read it in high school. The words on the page haven’t changed, but you have, so the meaning of the story changed. “Moby Dick” exists as a story not because it is printed in a book on a shelf somewhere, but because we carry around in our heads the story of having experienced reading it. Stories are the way we understand our memories and, thus, our experiences.

Understanding this as an artist and craftsman is a powerful insight, one that you can utilize to practical effect in whatever (or whichever) forms you practice. . French New Wave filmmaker Robert Bresson described it this way: “My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.”

This is more practical than you might expect.

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The Skill and the Specialty

Every design discipline has some experience design thinking built into its presumptions, best practices, standards and criticism. Many have theories, approaches and movements that place this kind of thinking central to their craft. This is true for a huge variety of design disciplines both formal (like film, sculpture, and advertising) and informal (like street art, black markets, and sideshow circuses). Learning any design discipline gives you access to skills based on how people experience the kind of thing you’re designing that can also be generalized to think about how people experience anything.

There are also disciplines that specialize in these questions about the nature of human experience, memory, and meaning. In philosophy, this school of thinking is called phenomenology, a 20th century innovation in thinking associated with the work of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Instead of thinking about the world the way René Descartes did (as a series of objects acting and reacting to each other), they approach the questions of philosophy that emerged from Immanuel Kant, that consciousness and the phenomena that enter consciousness are the most basic stuff of knowledge. As the Cartesian method helped drive the innovations of the 18th and 19th century, phenomenology has shaped the 20th and 21st.

This origin of phenomenology overlaps with the invention of what we now call the Internet. Heidegger was particularly fascinated by what it represented, and wrote extensively in the 1960s about cybernetics, the relationship between poetry and technology, and how the Internet would be the death of philosophy:

"No prophecy is necessary to recognize that the sciences now establishing themselves will soon be determined and regulated by the new fundamental science that is called cybernetics. This science corresponds to the determination of man as an acting social being … Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news. The arts become regulated-regulating instruments of information. The development of philosophy into independent sciences that, however, interdependently communicate among themselves ever more markedly, is the legitimate completion of philosophy. Philosophy is ending in the present age."

Experience design is the practical application of phenomenology in the age of the network, one that wasn’t really possible until Heidegger’s “independently communicate among themselves” potential came into place across so many disciplines. Surprisingly, though, the language of design in the age of the network is still surprisingly Cartesian: we talk about “pages” as if they were material things, “likes” as if they were a commodity to be hoarded, and “users” as if they were objects that interact with other objects. The Internet unlocks the ability, as a designer, to see the phenomena that emerge from people’s experience with everything. The most phenomenological medium ever invented has, surprisingly, the least phenomenological approach of any design system.

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Designing for Experiences

As an experience designer, I don’t believe you can actually design experiences, at least not the experiences of others. Then why is experience design important? Because experiences are the only way we know anything about the world, about each other or about ourselves.

You actually have a lot of design control over your own experiences. You can choose to get back up on that horse you fell off. You can decide to take a risk or speak to a stranger. You can set for yourself an outrageous goal and pursue it despite every barrier reality throws at you. You can choose not to watch that show, or go to that party, or even finish reading this page. Those choices do far more than just shape the experience you have with life. They shape you into the person that you’re in the process of becoming.

If you design anything – absolutely anything – that other people experience, you become a participant in their process. If you design razorblades into the case of a cellphone, you’re shaping the kinds of experiences people are more likely to have with your design. If the line leading into your theme park ride has all the charm and engagement of a cattle processing center, you’re also shaping the potential experiences that people will have. If your customer support services are frustrating, you’re creating more potential to be experienced as a frustrating company.

But, at the very best, you are just creating a potential, what Brian Eno calls "triggers for experiences." You have some control over which experiences are more universal than others, but every customer and audience member is the protagonist of their own story of experience. The things we design always sit in the context of the broader life experiences that people have that include those things we design … and what they are in the process of becoming.

Those with a background in performance arts have more comfortable metaphors to grapple with this than those with backgrounds in the media arts –there is a difference between the script and the play. Shakespeare might have written that script 400 years ago, but the play is emerging right here, right now, and responding subtly to the audience’s feedback, individual actors’ performances and a hundred other random factors. Historically, media objects have lacked that feedback cycle and the ability to adapt as they come into being: interactive media is the discipline that tries to bridge that gap.

Companies and product designers have an even tougher time. "The Cluetrain Manifesto" tried to explain that “markets are conversations” and “participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally” in 1999. Like many of the other experience design arguments of that era, the extra burden of having to justify digital’s impact in the face of a dot com bubble obscured the important lesson of the emergent properties of human experiences and how they are magnified when we can share them with each other. Instead, “brands behaving badly in social media” has become a familiar trope.

Experience design is a way of thinking about all these emergent properties while you are still designing something specific, and influencing those design choices to help create triggers for more meaningful experiences.

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2 Notes

Temporary Definitions

I’ve always been unsatisfied with the new terms that have emerged over the years that were applied to my work, because they were always pre-occupied with the objects that craftspeople make as their starting point, rather than the audience. And there have been a lot of these phrases, including multimedia, viral, interactive, alternate reality game, transmedia, and content marketing. I’ve come to realize that these are just predictable cycles, terms that come to represent both a technique and a time period.

When a term is aging past its zenith, practitioners often become embroiled in debates about definitions. Too often, that experience leaves them suspicious of any discussion of terminology and definition, even though these are important constructs for dialog among creators. “Less talking, more doing,” is a frequent refrain, as if these were mutually exclusive activities. Definitions are temporary … and then mutate. And that’s okay.

The definition of experience design is no different. In 2001, the most influential expression of experience design for me personally came from Nathan Shedroff, who’s work included both the perspective of an academic and the experience of a practitioner … one who should probably get credit for pioneering alternate reality gaming and transmedia in 1995, the same year I founded GMD Studios.

Nathan, in fact, offered up a glossary of terms and that are still useful more than a decade later, but the core of how he saw experience design at the dawn of the 21st century was this:

"Experience Design is an approach to creating successful experiences for people in any medium. This approach includes consideration and design in all 3 spatial dimensions, over time, all 5 common senses, and interactivity, as well as customer value, personal meaning, and emotional context. Experience Design is not merely the design of Web pages or other interactive media or on-screen digital content. Designed experiences can be in any medium, including spatial/environmental installations, print products, hard products, services, broadcast images and sounds, live performances and events, digital and online media, etc."

Today, I can look at that definition and realize the limitations and how much it had to argue that digital experiences could be as meaningful as physical ones. Such were the times. Because Nathan and I have talked on and off over the years, I also appreciate that my perspective is more based on phenomenology than his and that this accounts for most of our (slight) differences in expressing experience design.

So for the purpose of our exploration together, I offer up this new, simpler, but just as temporary definition of experience design: a system for examining people’s diverse, real experiences with designed objects and a process for letting those insights influence how you might design them differently.

Let’s see how far that can get us.

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2 Notes

Obscured by Dot Com

In the mid-90’s, the Web wasn’t particularly good for anything yet. In 1996, when working with bands like King Crimson, we could only imagine hard-core fans downloading songs as MP2s (MP3 hadn’t been invented yet) when a 28.8K modem wouldn’t pull it down for more than an hour. At the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, I remember telling the couple dozen people who bothered to show up for a panel called “The Internet for Filmmakers” that, one day, people might actually watch movies delivered by the Internet, but that that day was a long way off, even with brand new 56K modems that were twice the speed.

Because the Web wasn’t a tremendous solution on its own to any challenge, I was always focused on how it might enhance the other kinds of experiences people had, and how it could connect them together through those shared experiences. We developed clumsy metaphors to describe this that became key tenants for how we grew our own projects. We were “on the ground and in the ether”. We were “more interested in connecting people to each other than connecting them to data or media”. We were “using the Web as a prop not an actor”.

Many of my dearest collaborators that emerged from that era shared this perspective. How might the Web enhance the experience of a television broadcast? How could we cement a community that traveled from film festival to film festival with the Web? What would it mean to create a story with the audience and use the Web as a form of performance? The limitations of the Web forced us to ask more interesting questions of our work.

Because of the exuberance and novelty of the first Dot Com Boom, the birth of the modern era of experience design was largely ignored. By the time one of the movement’s key figures, Nathan Shedroff, managed to actually pen a book about this emergence in 2001 (“Experience Design 1”), the first tech bubble had burst and the idea of digital’s role in experience design seemed obscure and academic.

But an interesting thing happened as the space continued to mature: digital technology became more and more intertwined with everything, and more people started asking the questions some of us agonized over obscurely for decades. You began to see more practitioners choose to label themselves as experience designers, many of them veterans of modern forms of storytelling like alternate reality gaming and transmedia. Corporations began to think of customer experience as a key differentiator, and in recent years you even see titles like Chief Experience Officer emerging among Fortune 500 companies. Innovators, from advertising to live events, began to frame their arguments more and more around the experience of audiences and customers.

As an advocate for experience design thinking, I’m often asked for resources and reading suggestions, and always pained at knowing how few I have to suggest. As a community of practice, we’re diffuse (with no specific professional gatherings or publications of our own) and have done a poor job of documenting our processes and methods.

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7 Notes

Foundations of Experience Design

For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a book about experience design through the lens of phenomenology, a never-ending project that’s taken me into ever-more-surprising corners of where those ideas come together. I’ve reached the point where I realize that one whole pile of that probably isn’t destined to end up in the book: the part that is really about the introduction to experience design as the craft that accompanies phenomenology’s philosophy. Instead, I realize I actually have two half-finished projects instead of one.

Over the next couple of months, I’d like to share with you the affirmative argument for experience design’s role in the changing landscape of design thinking, explore the principles of the new questions it grapples with (that other designers should grapple with as well), and detail a system for developing practical toolboxes of techniques. More than half of it is material I’ve been polishing for more than a year, now structured in a way that I hope is modular and practical while still tackling the big questions that beg exploration by more practitioners. It is one of the most complete documentations of the processes I’ve been honing for 19 years, and it is doing no one any good just sitting on my hard drive.

Your dialogue and commentary on these posts are both invited and appreciated, as I hope to include parts of that commentary in some e-book version of the result to expand it as a resource for others. I’ll be updating this post as new segments go up to serve as a table of contents.

  1. Why Experience Design?
  2. Paths to Experience Design
  3. Challenges of Experience Design
  4. Insights of Experience Design


Be with me: Heidegger in the age of the smartphone

Heidegger’s late work was deeply fascinated with the role of technology, and this piece provides a great introduction to one of his concepts translated into the modern concept of engagement.

4 Notes

Bucketing Buzzwords

We recently relaunched the GMD Studios site and, from time to time, I’m going to find myself writing there about something that could also inspire conversation here. "Strangers in a Strange Room" is one of those, which looks at a workshop tool we use to help organize experience design thinking with collaborators and clients.

In those situations, we’re using that process to discover details and uncover nuance. It is also a useful way to organize my own thinking about whatever the buzzwords of the day happen to be, without feeling that I have to enforce that thinking upon others.


As an experience designer, I think of products & media forms - books, ads, movies, webpages, balls, widgets - as the classic objects of experience design. I believe concepts like story, game and brand emerge from people’s experiences of those objects, which makes them examples of the nouns of phenomena. I might argue that a ball (object) plus rules (context) plus players (people) come together to create the phenomena of game. Words like “social” are really a description of context for me, even when I hear someone else describe it as a trait to a media object.

My approach is heavily influenced by phenomenology, but I accept that not everyone’s is. I might believe story is a phenomenon, while others of a more auteur theory bent might argue story is something poured into the media object by a storyteller. Neither viewpoint is right or wrong, but these kinds of viewpoints color with personal nuance how people use terms that aren’t always obvious.

When someone tells me about an “interactive story,” my natural question is what (object) is interactive about it — for me interactive is a word about objects, but objects are part of the moment of phenomena, so the story can inherit the interactive quality from one of the objects that delivered it. Technologists might try to convince me that a 3D-HD TV is “immersive,” but I’m more likely to believe that immersion requires an audience and, thus, is also a phenomenon. After all, people can immerse in blocks and books.

For me, this is all about creating an environment where we can talk to each other about our work in meaningful ways, not so we can talk about the “correct” definition of terms. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own meaning for those words rattling around my head, just like you do.

As another example, people use a term like “transmedia” in a vast variety of ways. Some people use it as an adjective for objects, like “transmedia book,” in a way similar to how one might use “multimedia”. Others use it similarly to phrases like “cross-platform” or “second screen” and are talking about the additional context provided by the richer simultaneous experience. Yet others use it as an adjective for phenomena like “transmedia story,” where the concept conveys the audience’s richer experience with a storyworld involving any number of objects.

From the viewpoint of experience design, I fall into that last group. Where “multimedia” conveys packing more types of media into an object, “transmedia” conveys something we’ve broken apart into multiple media objects that an audience meaningfully puts back together. It’s an emergent property of the combination of objects, people and context. It requires a higher level engagement from the audience. At least, for me.

Having to translate in your head this way reminds you of another truth: it is up to each of us to make it easier for others to translate what we’re saying in their heads, too. This framework is useful for that, too. Take a dozen of the words you use frequently to talk about your work, and try mapping them against those four buckets of terminology. Then use that as a way to challenge your own assumptions and make them more explicit when talking to others. You’re likely to reveal something about the overall framework you use and where you might be able to push yourself further.

2 Notes

Phenomenal Work @ BOLO

Last week, my friends at the BOLO Conference uploaded a video of my keynote there in October.