TOTAL EXPERIENCE explores designing for experience: its theory, its practice, and how designing for experiences affects us socially and in our personal lives.


  • Bob Jacobson
  • Paula Thornton
  • BOB JACOBSON is fascinated by the experience of experience. A planner and technologist, Bob has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning & Design from UCLA. He's been a policy researcher, technology CEO, science writer, and consultant. As a Fulbright Scholar, he studied cellular telephony's impacts on transborder communities in the Nordic Arctic Circle. Bob edited Information Design (MIT Press 2000) and is now writing a book on the theory and practice of creating edifying, transformative experiences.
    ( Archive | Contact Bob )
    CORANTE PAULA THORNTON says, "Understanding human behavior (economics), optimizing interactions (design) and facilitating conversations (markets), are the means to achieve strategic differentiation. This is the focus of our discipline. It is not a 'nice to have'‚ and is not, like documentation once was, an afterthought. It is the means by which to start a strategic discussion and the means by which to drive a tactical initiative. All design should be evidence-based."
    ( Archive | Contact Paula ) >

    (Courtesy of Mark Vanderbeeken, Experientia SpA, Torino)

    Experience Design Websites
    Core 77 Website & Forum
    Business Week|Innovate
    InfoD: Understsanding by Design
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    Wayfinding Focus
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    DUX 2007 Conference
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    PingMag (Japan)

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    SmartSpace: Annotated Environments (Scott Smith)
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    Challis Hodge's UX Blog
    Anne Galloways's Purse Lips Square Jaw
    Bruno Giussani's Lunch over IP
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    Experience Design Podcasts
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    Design Matters Podcast, Debbie Millman
    Icon-o-Cast Podcast, Lunar Design

    Experience Design Firms and ED-Oriented Manufacturers
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    Hilary Cottam
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    Cooper Interactive Design
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    Cheskin Fresh Perspectives

    Education and Advocacy
    Centre for Design Research, Northumbria University (UK)
    Center for Design Research, Stanford University
    International Institute of Information Design (IIID)
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    UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Design Research
    History of Consciousness, UCSC
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    Total Experience

    « Information Design redux | Main | My unexpected experience as a “disabled driver” »

    December 8, 2006

    We need theories of experience design

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    In few other fields is so much reliance placed on first-hand, insider accounts as a source of knowledge, as in the various fields of experience design. The one exception, historically, has been the built environment, including architecture and landscape architecture. Otherwise, most of what we learn we learn from design practitioners, even if they have no personal agenda, is subject to their biases that inherently come with the job: idiosyncratic points of view, client pressures, career aspirations, ego, and so forth. We lack an objective perspective to measure the success of our work and commentaries to improve upon it. We need theories of experience design.

    64Worldsfair 12This realization came to me during an intense luncheon discussion with museum and exhibition designer Barry Howard, who practices in Marina del Rey, a suburb of Los Angeles. Barry is my ideal of an experience design. His self-effacing demeanor belies an incredible lifetime of accomplishment. Barry's career dates back to the highly regarded Coca-Cola Pavilion at the 1964 Worlds Fair (where Pepsi-Cola competed with “it's a small world,” now immortalized as a Disneyland attraction). Since then he's created attractions with a cumulative value of over $500 million. Barry is notably rare among experience designers in that he applies a reflective perspective to his work. (He calls it “academic,” although his training was as a fine artist.) I'll be doing a future interview with Barry, in which I'll get deeper into his experiences and insights. But one of lunchtime topics was worth separate mention: the lack of formal criticism in our field.

    I was sharing with Barry my plans for a forthcoming book on experience design. In it, I'll be highlighting best practices drawn from case studies in a variety of experience-design disciplines. My goal is to extract certain overarching principles and methodologies that can be synthesized as theories of experience design. Theories are important: they're tested short-cuts to knowledge that can be shared widely within the experience design community, including with new designers just setting out. If you think about it, it's pretty difficult to state a theory of experience design. Theories are rare in every design discipline, but in those where theories exist -- like the theory of taxonomical structure in information design or wayfinding theory in environmental design -- they're reliable guides to practice. Experience design is still considered mainly an art, because (in my opinion) of a radical disconnect between those who study experience (cognitive scientists, environmental psychologists, etc.) and the designers who create experiences. Sometimes I think that designers' ignorance of the pertinent science is almost willful, because science imposes constraints that require more than shoot-from-the-hip creativity to succeed. On the other hand, it may just be that designers are practicing remarkable heuristic feats, doing the science in their heads. (All of this goes for the ancillary professions marshalled to support designers, too, like ethnographers and market researchers.)

    In any case, Barry made the astute observation that if I lined up these case studies side by side and compared them, what would be most interesting would be, not what was common practice, but what wasn't common practice -- that is, the designs that didn't get done because Designer A didn't consider, or perhaps even know about, the experiences of Designers B or C; and vice versa. Everyone is so heads down pondering solutions and cranking out work -- strictly within disciplinary silos -- that whatever synthesis might take place or transcendent solutions found, doesn't take place or aren't found. Experience designers need a broader, interdisciplinary knowledge, but they haven't time or resources to gain it. This isn't news: I wrote about it in an unpublished article for the AIGA Advance for Design magazine, in 1999, when the now-defunct Advance was striving to become an experience design community. The article wasn't published because, I think, it was critical -- and because I really had no answers for providing that broader point of view, at the time. Now I think I do. Our field needs outside observers, formally trained critics who can remark on what we do without the burden of being a practitioner per se.

    I know, it sound pointy-headed to advocate formal criticism. Mark Hurst, in an email exchange, argued that first-person accounts by “do-ers” are inevitably more informative than critiques by non-practitioners. To a certain extent, he's right: if you want to practice as an experience designer, you need to learn how to hold your pencil from someone who knows. But if you want to practice highly effectively, you need to see things kaleidoscopically, including from the perspective of individual “experiencers” and society collectively. Formal critics provide this context for films, TV shows, product reviews, Web experiences, theater, architecture, advertising, musical performances and recordings, and innumerable other outcomes of cognate activities; and they're better for it. Why not experience design?

    Barry said that his exhibition designs are his art. Never do we want to give up the power of personal expression. But if we can alloy it with a deeper understanding of what experiences are and how they are invoked, how much smarter experience design will be. It's still not a popular cause. No one's getting hired by experience design firms to criticize their work. But one day, they will be. And that's when experience design will fully come into its own.

    Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary | Integrative + Interdisciplinary Design


    1. Paula Thornton on December 8, 2006 9:02 PM writes...

    So Bob, can you perhaps tease us into this anticipated publication of yours by sharing an example or two of what kinds of theories are missing and/or perhaps should be focused on? Or perhaps what problems we face that could be enhanced by a sound theory or two?

    Tying this piece to your recent CHI piece, as many practitioners are jumping ship from CHI claiming over-academic focus, how do we avoid a pursuit of something that might be both 'useable and useful' but no one is willing to acknowledge, let alone embrace?

    Permalink to Comment

    2. Bob Jacobson on December 11, 2006 8:35 AM writes...

    Dear Esteemed Co-Author Paula,

    Oh, you hold me to a high standard! Seriously, it's not for me to propose theories. What I can propose are hypotheses, but first I need to collect data: in this case, best practices from various fields of experience design, which can be distilled into hypotheses. Hypotheses can then be tested to produce theories.

    I figure the reason people are bailing on CHI and IA is that they're impatient: everything these day's is so now-now, rush-rush, that anything more deliberate seems to violate the cultural norm. Also, commercial practice, whatever the results, is lucrative regardless of its effectiveness or reliance on theory. That doesn't remove the need for critical thinking, it requires critical thinking.

    It's not wise to advertise the contents of a book before it's well into the editorial process, but sure, I'll take a crack at proposing topics that could stand some thoughtful reflection.

    Lastly, I wouldn't overemphasize the flight from "academicism." I suspect it has a lot to do with the fleeing individuals' discomfort with critical thinking in the first place and the impatience and sense of ineffectiveness that comes with middle-age. While it's difficult to become a critical thinker after a life of pure pragmatism and action, it's easier to get over impatience. You just do. And then you become effective.

    Thanks for your provocative (as usual) post. Now you post something for the rest of us to jump on!

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