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.
previous | next