Experience Design

“No man’s knowledge can go beyond his experience.”
John Locke

Experience Design is an emerging paradigm, a call for inclusion: it calls for an integrative practice of design that can benefit all designers, including those who work in the new, interactive media. Unfortunately, the intense time and project pressures faced by designers in all disciplines, together with a parochialism or provincialism that is disturbingly constant among designers, prevents interdisciplinary conversations. Web designers are too busy to talk to architects, who are too busy to talk to graphic designers, who are too busy to talk to automotive designers, and so on. Not only at professional association and trade events, but also on the ’Net, we miss the opportunity to learn from and work with each other.

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This month I completed a survey of practicing experience designers for the AIGA, to be published in the new online journal and print magazine for interaction designers, Gain. I interviewed via email and over the phone more than 50 leading designers from a variety of disciplines: graphic design, industrial design, architecture, interaction design, advertising and branding, environmental graphic design, web design, landscape architecture, automotive design, HCI researchers, information scientists, and even the leading expert in “captology,” the science of persuasive technology (Stanford’s B.J. Fogg).

Because Launch champions the new paradigm of experience design, my interviewees were all self-styled experience designers for whom experience is a central concern and organizing principal. Experience designers strive to create experiences that produce desired perceptions, cognition, and behavior among their clients’ “users,” “customers,” “visitors,” or “audiences.” (Different disciplines favor different nomenclatures.) Under the experience-design rubric, designers of many specializations successfully work with each other and with non-design professionals.

We spoke at length about what moves experience designers: their motivations, challenges, and rewards.

My findings were occasionally surprising. For example, designers who work in the physical world –   designers of themed products and environments –   have a vastly more developed theoretical base they can call on than do designers who work in the online world. While the latter have recently gotten most the ink, a lot more money and labor goes into the design of tangible objects and places intended to engender experiences. Designers in the physical world also have developed rigorous project-management and client-service skills as well as a heightened ability to work with cross-disciplinary teams. Comparable skills and methods are not prolific among online designers.

Even traditional designers, however, credit online designers with favorably shaping public opinion about design generally and drawing attention to its value.

Incorporating in design practice the knowledge provided by ethnographers, phenomenologists (scientists of “experience”), sociologists, psychologists, historians, storytellers, and other design disciplines is another challenge facing designers. Experience design is a wildly popular new paradigm that may provide a solution. Experience designers strive to create desired perceptions, cognition, and behavior among users, customers, visitors, or the audience. Experience designers of many specializations successfully work with each other and with non-design professionals. There are real synergies in cross-disciplinary design.

Several countervailing forces work against integrative design, however. Good intentions notwithstanding, designers aren’t communicating with colleagues enough to find out what else is going on in the world of design.

For one thing, their noses are to the grindstone. It was disappointing for me to learn, for example, that a leading theme-park designer responsible for the most wondrous attractions hasnt the time to learn about virtual-presentation techniques from the world of simulation. Or that a web designer with responsibility for a critical e-commerce exchange is unaware of cognate work being done by an interactive product designer and hasn’t the time to find out about it. We all need to carve out more time for staying up with developments in our field.

An interdisciplinary disconnection results also because there are few places for designers from different traditions to meet, virtually or in the physical world, on a regular basis.

Online design communities, like their offline counterparts, cater to specializations. If the inhabitants of these clubhouses actually knew how much was going on elsewhere in the profession that was new, exciting, and relevant, theyd be appalled. Our tidy online worlds are too narrow.

Most conferences do not do the trick, either. Sponsored by associations set up to intensify and extend their respective members’ skills and abilities, these focused gatherings inadvertently prevent the easy exchange of knowledge among designers. Even those that preach ecumenism are limited by the fact that no design organization can be all things to all designers. Similarly, publications and services provided by the various professional associations, while striving to be open, necessarily hone in on their dues-paying members’  most immediate concerns, and these tend to be parochial.

Two professional organizations, the American Center for Design and the AIGA Advance for Design, defy this tradition. Their programs transcend disciplinary boundaries.

The Chicago-based American Center for Design, led by the visionary and indefatigable Chris and Diana Conley, regularly pushes the disciplinary envelope. The ACD throws together practitioners from many disciplines at its well-attended workshops. Regrettably, the ACD’s reach is limited somewhat by its Midwest location. Its website is not sufficiently interactive and participatory to make up for the ACD’s remoteness from designers practicing in other regions.

The AIGA’s Advance for Design has taken a different approach to broaden the dialogue among designers. The Advance has been organized by leading interaction designers responding to the demands of their practice, which keeps getting bigger and more complex. The Advance’s mission is to expand the meaning of interaction design and integrate within it lessons learned from other design modalities. At its inaugural 1998 meeting in Nantucket and at last year’s meeting in Santa Fe, the Advance’s ranks were heavily weighted with web and high-tech system designers.

This August Advance will gather in Telluride, CO, and again take up the question, “What constitutes contemporary design and how can it be better valued?” As before, AIGA members are in the majority among the 80 registered attendees, but the Advance this year is more robust with input from other design professionals. Moreover, its leadership, whom I interviewed, is determined to be more inclusive in the future. For the sake of AIGA’s members as well as designers outside the organization, it’s a promise worth keeping. The appearance of Launch as an Advance-sponsored online resource for design ecumenism is a welcome opening.

Also, I am part of a team organizing a new website, Experience Design, whose purpose is to break down the professional silos and barriers that separate designers. We intend Experience Design to be fast and efficient, a place where designers can duck in, catch what’s going on all over the design universe, share opinions, visit a gallery of the best design efforts (in many media), and be part of the larger design community. Our small team, for whom the website currently is a labor of love, gladly welcomes others to join it.

For designers everywhere, the message of my research is clear. If our work is going to develop and get better, we need to spend more time sharing ideas and collaborating with designers whose practices may be quite different from our own. The Internet Time thing,  “We’re too busy!,” is no longer a good excuse for ignorance and seat-of-the-pants design thinking, if ever it was.

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