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.
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    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."
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    « “From Information Design to Designing for Experience”: Keynote at 3rd International Conference on Information Design (ICID), Curitiba, Brazil, October 8-10, 2007 | Main | The (ever more painful) Dow of Experience, Redux »

    November 5, 2007

    DUX 2007: A great conference, but fundamentally off the mark

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Dux07 The DUX 2007 conference begins today in Chicago. Thematically, content-wise, and in terms of approach, this is the consummate conference on cutting-edge design. The speakers are top-notch, too. If I could, I'd be there. But ideologically, DUX is discomforting. For all its virtues, DUX embodies a set of values that, while commendable, are incomplete and off-kilter.

    Despite its aspiration to be universal, DUX remains user-centric, not human-centric. And experience, inherently and essentially, is human and thus, holistic.

    DUX stands for “Designing for User Experience.” It's the "user" part that continues to annoy me, while others seem blithe to its portent. According to Wikipedia, (quoting sage designer Don Norman's 1999 book, Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex and Information Appliances Are the Solution):

    "User experience design is a subset of the field of experience design which pertains to the creation of the architecture and interaction models which impact a user's perception of a device or system. 'The scope of the field is directed at affecting all aspects of the user’s interaction with the product: how it is perceived, learned, and used.' "

    200711051709 Designing for experience is about holism, understanding and working with the totality of human experience. “A user's perception of a device or system” seems a peculiarly narrow niche in which to ply one's experience design skills. Of course, it's important: devices and systems are what drive the machinery of commerce and government, and even how we as consumers conduct ourselves at home and in leisure time. But so mechanistic a conception of the human being is antithetical to our knowledge of how people holistically perceive, think, act, and experience their lives. Maybe that's why Don himself on more than one public occasion has eschewed the term he invented, “user experience design,” advising that we'd be better off without the “user.”

    DUX could more realistically portray the challenges facing experience designers, and champion their successes, by replacing “user” with “human” and thereby symbolically and practically opening the conference to a wider audience of designers and composers of experience.

    (BTW, I'm not reactive to the use of “user” in all R&D contexts: I'm about to take part in a multiyear, overseas study of “user-driven innovation” that aims to understand and enhance this innate human capacity. In this context, "user-driven" makes sense. Innovation by design is instrumental and goal-oriented. Innovation serves. But experience happens.)

    This isn't a trivial matter. Many of the presenters at DUX are willing to generalize beyond the scope of device and system development. This attempt to apply mechanistic theories best suited to things and systems to the larger world of human affairs can and likely will breed skepticism and perhaps even resistance to design for experience. The backlash against “social engineering,” a counterpart to DUX once advocated by structural-functionalist social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s could easily be repeated in our own time, especially since so many designs for experience fail in important settings at crucial moments.

    A potential reason why DUX and its organizers and participants haven't grasped this relationship may be that they haven't a long history in the work they do or sufficient familiarity with the scholarly study of experience. Perhaps it's a function of the organizing process, but it appears to me that with only a few exceptions, most of the speakers and workshop leaders -- and I suppose, attendees -- appear to be shy of 40 years of age. That means they would have been born sometime after 1967, when systemic thinking was king and every person was treated as a cog in some larger device; and that they came of age in the mid-80s or later, as information technology was replacing systems as the predominant archetypal metaphor. The inclusion of Harper's and The Huffington Post's
    Thomas de Zengotita within DUX, as an invited speaker -- a man who wears his years proudly and who's the antithesis of a “user-experience designer” -- is a welcome breath of fresh air. More like him would leaven the persistent technophilia that many other speakers manifest.

    It feels to me that the concern for audiences as human beings present in the work of such great designers of the past as, for example, Chermayeff, Bel Geddes, and the Eames, has evaporated in the fiery breath of Moloch aka The Machine (per Lewis Mumford's 1967
    Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine). Even those presentations at DUX that sound wonderfully focused on human fancy -- art and dance and travel to strange places -- seem prone to converting that fancy into factors that are part of technical solutions: making products and services. They don't really depict or serve edifying human experiences, although they may well fit the interests of those seeking to exploit experiences. This dog won't hunt.

    Doors of Perception's Designs of the Time (Dott07), a 23-month participatory project that will continue through year's end, is an illustrative counterpoint to DUX. Dott's slogan is, “Why our design festival has no things in it.” Besides being overtly human-centered, Dott's participation ranges more broadly by age and is geographically more diverse. Its participants are as often involved in public as they are in commercial projects. DUX's youthful audience, by contrast, comprises a bucket-load of North Americans, a moderate serving of Brits, and a dash of Dutch and German presenters mostly working in the world of business and academic/brain-trust institutions serving that world. Pragmatic instrumentality, the dominant ideology in North American, British, and Germanic cultures driven by economic, thing-maker philosophy, pervades most of what DUX is about.

    Transformation designers tell us that in order to change constituent experiences, one has to first change the constituents themselves. Broadening DUX and its focus requires broadening its base of its participants, and vice versa. Here's my call for “Designing for Human Experience” in 2008. To preserve the delightful waterfowl homonym, use the acronym, DhUX. Or continue to call it DUX -- but for gosh sakes, at least make the "U" mean ... “hUman."

    Comments (4) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Commentary | Events and Happenings | Integrative + Interdisciplinary Design


    1. Peter Jones on November 6, 2007 8:29 AM writes...

    Bob - Thanks for this insightful review, and for making it clear that designing for "User Experience" to the neglect of total human experience leaves us begging for understanding. Perhaps its a matter of gaining perspective, but I find very few design thinkers taking into account the powerful yet invisible binding of technics, or "technique" as Jacques Ellul first nailed it. Its the creeping favoritism of all things tech and equating new tech tools with "innovation," with help from the mainstream media. Its time to change our own use of language - Innovation has had its 2.0 and 3.0, and we need to look beyond it. (Remember, Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations was published in 1962!)

    I'm not sure I'd consider Web product design as a collaborator of Moloch - the Metropolis monster seems more at home in large-scale information infrastructures, consumer fantasy worlds, and politically-driven military systems. But I agree that it may be the monster behind the scenes, many of our best and brightest are caught up in designing for consumerist trifles.

    Most of us have become technophiles that cannot say "when," and we have few feedback mechanisms to identify the boundaries of meaning and purpose. I hope our exchanges help us keep higher purpose in mind.

    Peter Jones

    Permalink to Comment

    2. Shimon Shmueli on November 7, 2007 6:18 AM writes...

    Is it conceivable to have a conference about Design for Finger Experience? Yes, that one will bring experts that specialize in how we sense through our fingers, designers and engineers that design keyboards (for example), and everyone else that deals with design for the finger and how we experience the world through our fingers. Not a small matter at all, I promise you. Just ask a blind person. Just ask me, as I am having so many problems with the keys on my fancy phone. I know that at the end of the finger there is a human, where things are experienced, but my point is that the experience can and should be approached from various angles and at various levels in the hierarchy. Yes, it should be holistic, but holistic does not always mean looking at the total below and above, but more often, to be practical (and at the end of the day it musts be practical), we need to restrict the holistic approach only to the relevant parts in the hierarchy, mostly below. Meaning the finger, the fingernail, the nerves, and the associated parts of the brain (and whatever else is relevant), and how they interact with some polymer with some tactile characteristics.

    Experience cannot be solely addressed as a human experience. If you design a zoo, I hope you balance human experience with that of the non-human inhabitant. For that matter, isn't that part of green? Does that mean that now a conference that address human experiences is outdated and should be renamed?

    So now, I am not sure what is wrong with a conference that takes a look at the experience from a user point of view. Meaning ME. There are a few other billions that are as important as I am, many much more, and each one of us is a user. Am I part of humanity. Other than my x, everyone else thinks so. Do I care about humanity? Yes, a lot, and I am thankful to the community that chooses to think in terms of Humanity. I am part of it, but I am all for addressing the issues at all levels of the hierarchy and not diluting every conference by trying to address all the grand issues humanity faces. I am being a bit sarcastic here, but you know what I mean. Solve the finger problems that I have with my stupid phone, and you make a person a bit happier, less distracted, more productive, whatever. When I , trust me, the human experience is very limited, but as much experienced.

    While I recognize the very important role of those who challenge the design community, and I read many of them religiously (I am here, right?), and admire a few (Don Norman among them), I am a bit tired of the hype and religious approach. Sometimes I am so turned off by it that I feel like not mentioning the word experience in my firm again, but then I remember that it is here to stay and is very fundamental to what we do and how we understand, but I just hope that experience will mature beyond the hype and that there is a fantastic designer for finger experience designing the keys on my next phone.

    Permalink to Comment

    3. Bob Jacobson on November 7, 2007 10:38 AM writes...

    1. Thanks, Peter, for sagely reminding us of Rogers' work and the "higher purposes" that attract quality designers to the profession.

    2. Thanks, Shimon, for an equally thoughtful post. You semi-humorously raise a couple issues that deserve our attention.

    First, "design for fingers" -- let's use the term of art, design for tactility or more generally, universal design -- is no small matter, indeed. Nor is it a new idea. Roger Whitehouse, the distinguished information designer, has long been an advocate of universal design. In the 1990s, developers of immersive virtual worlds were very concerned with tactility as an input channel complementary with visual and aural channels. Today's game controllers are one result.

    Probably hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually on cellphone keypad design and billions on manufacture -- without apparent success. I'd be glad to turn readers on to team leaders always on the lookout for knights errant to send in pursuit of the Holy Grail, the easily used cellphone.

    I think your point about non-human experience is meant jokingly, Shimon, but it's not a joke for zoologists and zoo designers. Zoos are becoming the home of last resort for more species every year. How animals experience their synthetic habitats affects their comfort and even survival. However, animal experience is tangential to the main point you mean to make, which is contained in your last paragraph. And that is the concept of human experience.

    Your conflation of human and humanity suggests a moral position I'm not advocating or willing to address. Human experience is a phenomenon, not a Platonic concept. It affects, and is affected by, design. Because the human capacity for experience is holistic and all-involving, it creates contexts within which designs must function. I'm not saying that there isn't a role for user-experience design, if one is designing for devices and technical systems. There is, though user-experience designers are unwise if they externalize and cease to consider larger experiential contexts.

    But if one verges more broadly, for example into designs for social systems, then it's pure folly not to work in many dimensions, acknowledging that "users" are 95% of the time non-users and "using," when they do, in conjunction with other behaviors and in the context of experiential environments and rich personal experiential legacies.

    Does this make design more complicated and, yes, expensive in terms of time and money -- the bottomline? It certainly may. On the other hand, it might produce outcomes that are successful at least 25% or 50% of the time, rather than the 5-10% success rate reported anecdotally for most user-experience engagements. Marco van Hout's Design & Emotion, a portal for emotional design, suggests the broader dimensions of human experience that we need to take into account.

    Shimon, I sense your frustration having to deal with the unknown, but the fact is, breaking the path of successful innovation is probably more difficult that cruising the highway of conventional design. You wouldn't be the first design firm to ban "experience" from your daily lexicon, but banishing the word doesn't negate experience. Instead, it highlights the gaping void of knowledge about experience that plagues many designers today. I'm not saying that all designers have to develop this knowledge; some will, but researchers also can do it. To succeed in their work, however, they must acknowledge and work with this knowledge.

    This isn't pontificating, it's practical reality. To return to your first point: where would designers and the rest of us be without fingers? Respect the Finger!


    Permalink to Comment

    4. Bob Jacobson on November 18, 2007 3:58 PM writes...

    For further, post hoc discussion of the DUX 2007 conference, please visit Peter Merholz's Peterme weblog. Peter offers provocative observations from a speaker and participant's POV, and the comments in reply have a lot to say, too.

    Permalink to Comment


    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference DUX 2007: A great conference, but fundamentally off the mark:

    Bob Jacobson, design consultant and editor of the anthology Information Design (MIT Press, 1999), is on a roll these days. Today the focus of his provocative commentary is the DUX 2007 conference, which he thinks is “ideologically discomfortin... [Read More]

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