I gave this presentation on October 8th by Skype, speaking before the 3rd International Conference on Information Design (ICID) that took place in Curitiba, Brazil, 8-10 October 2007. It sums up well my current thinking about information design, user experience design, designing for experience, and the composition of memorable experiences. My thanks to event organizers Carla Spinelli and Stephania Padovani, and technical helpers Tiago Maia, Re-nato Bertão, and Charles Costa. Your comments are welcome. © Robert Jacobson 2007
BOM DIA! It’s a pleasure to join you this afternoon, albeit by digital communications and not in person as I would have preferred. Thanks to organizers Carla Spinelli and Stephania Padovani, and media men Tiago, Renato, and Charles, for making this presentation possible. Our plan is to have me make a short presentation and then for us to interact via Skype. You may see me working at the keyboard occasionally, to keep the connection running smoothly. In the film, the Wizard of Oz, the Mighty Oz loudly tells Dorothy, with great blasts of fire, “Ignore the man behind the curtains!” That’s me.
This is an interesting study in information design. I’m speaking to you from the living room of my home in Tucson, Arizona, in the heart of the Sonora Desert. The video you are watching today was edited in the camera, harkening back to the early days of the 1970s-era, worldwide “Radical Software” movement, when activists around the world used portable video cameras to elicit honest communication in a formerly media-dominated information environment. Theirs was authentic video, without embellishment. So, 35 years later, here is my authentic video, no frills….
I was invited to speak to you as the editor of the anthology, Information Design, a collection of essays by world-class designers, published by the MIT Press in 1999. In the eight years since, there has been no satisfactory revisiting of the issues we raised in ID – especially the questions: what is information design and what will it become?
Today, I’d like to talk to you about why and how I believe information design will evolve into a new practice, “designing for experience” or, as I prefer to call, it, “composing for experience.”
Experience is the proper center of the design universe. An environmental outlook comes next. Conventional design in many ways is pre-Copernican in this regard and new approaches to conventional design, like user experience design (about which I’ll speak later), only add more epicycles. I’m optimistic that information design will more quickly adopt the new paradigm.
In eight years, a lot has changed, not least the quantity and quality of the information environments in which we live and work. Today, technologies of communication and information are abundant, and networking computing is more pervasive than ever – many would say, invasive – changing how we live, work, play, educate, and communicate.
Despite information designers’ high aspirations, the sheer volume of informational activity has nearly overwhelmed their ability to design for it. (Image: Artem)
Our anthology anticipated this future. Our collective concern was not for better construction of representations and artifacts. Instead, unanimously, we called attention to the ever more complex information environments into which people, individually and collectively, are plunged almost at birth and through which they must navigate their entire lives. We agreed, on this if on nothing else, that information design, as it had been practiced for 25 years – rationalizing the presentation of information, usually in graphical form – must grow conceptually as well as technically, even epistemologically: information design must become experientially and environmentally wise.
Eight years later, the concept of information environments is no longer exotic. We are more cognizant of the systemic relationship between information and the environments – physical, social, and personal – in which information is produced, shared, and acted upon. There is a change in orientation among information designers from the particular to the global, even universal context. (Image: David Armano)
In the name of informational environmental awareness and holism, all sorts of recipes are being promoted for messages that are more easily assimilated.
Apparent is the intrusion of the market: information is now more often than not treated as a commodity that must be designed for consumption. One narrow but broadly applied variant of information design, perhaps responsible for the majority of information designs these days – on the Web and incorporated in products and services – is called “user experience design” or more baldly, “customer experience design.” Say it loud and say it proud, its practitioners have one purpose: to get people to use things and to buy things.
Over the last decade, “interaction” has been added to the stew as a necessary element of instrumental design, a way to draw “users” into the purchasing process. Dan Saffer of Adaptive Path in san francisco has written a pretty good how-to book on Interaction Design and IDEO co-founder Bill Moggridge has published a mighty tome of interviews with “interaction designers.”
BJ Fogg, a professor of design at Stanford, whom I admire, has the gumption to call this branch of information design captology, the science of persuasive technology that captures and keeps an individual’s attention. (Image: Cache Creek Casino)
But technology can’t do the job alone.
Vast armies of ethnographers, anthropologists who study culture, have been deployed to observe, describe, and annotate the lives of those whom their mainly business and occasional government clients wish to affect via “user experiences.” These costly cultural explorations are justified by the unique insights that ethnographers can supposedly provide to designers. (Image: Business Week)
In these circumstances, however, for these insights to be acted upon, they have to relate to business, and so does the design that results from these insights. Ethnography and design thus form a neat little tautology that offers employment for ethnographers, validation for designers, and comfort to the business executives who pay for each.
What’s remarkable is that the success rate of designed user experiences, even those informed by ethnography, is anecdotally reported to be a sparse five to ten percent. It might even be less. The vast majority of products and services designed according to the tenets of user experience, supported by ethnographic findings, do not achieve their goals.
The plethora of stupid cell phone designs foisted on the public is an observable case with huge consequences. Cell phones come laden with cameras, downloadable ring tones, miniscule web browsers, and banal programming, when what most people want – so the surveys report – is voice phones that are easy to use, with simple directories, good reception, and just maybe the ability to text.
How many unobservable products and processes – things we cannot see or touch, but things we may depend on – are also designed to fail? It’s a chilling thought.
… And time for another approach.
John Thackara and Don Norman, leading design theoreticians, have reacted to this professional culture of failure with a different approach: stop thinking of people solely as “users” and don’t try to know, let alone meet their every need. Instead of ethnographically cataloguing every aspect of the audiences for whom we design, Leave some needs unmet. Preserve the unknown in the environment so that people can take delight in discovering objects, information, and relationships for themselves. It’s A risky position, both experts agree, that requires finesse. Designers who adopt this retro mode must ensure that people have or can acquire the skills required to find what they need in the environments in which they live.
But it’s also a realistic position, because there is not and never will be a reliable, total encyclopedia of human needs, Wikipedia notwithstanding. Every finding is partial. Observers filter everything. And unless a researcher does something to alter the subject’s response – a violation of ethnography’s Rule No. 1 – every finding to a greater or lesser extent is reifying; That is, supportive of the cultural status quo.
Faced with this reality, Thackara and Norman would argue, the designer’s role is to provide education and tools, including the ability to navigate the environment and discover useful information, and leave it at that.
Norman, who earlier renounced the use of the term, “user experience” (which he invented) observes that everything we perceive, think, and do is the result of prior sets of experiences and the cause of others. Designers should be designing for human experiences, not simply designing to betters serve “users,” he argues.
But because well-read journals like the Harvard Business Review, Business Week, and Business 2.0 have done such a superb job of touting the alleged value of user-experience design, businesses eagerly hire user-experience designers to craft compelling experiences – “user experiences” – for products, productions, places, brands, customers, the Internet, our civic lives, our private personas, how we live in this world and even how we leave it – enclosed in a wooden box, baked in an oven, or exploding overhead as fireworks.
Before this carnival arrived in town, there was already a sizable community of designers working with experience as Don Norman described it and as he prescribed the practice: museum designers, exhibition designers, themed attractions designers, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, industrial designers, environmental designers, media designers … and information designers.
Experience designers, the whole lot of them – for whom the entire ambient environment is their canvas – obey canons that may at first blush sound exotic, even otherworldly; certainly not “design-y.” After numerous talks with experience designers in the fields I just mentioned, I can boil these canons down to two: edification and commutation.
The first canon, Edification, means improvement. The result of an edifying experience is that the condition of the person undergoing the experience is noticeably improved, objectively and often subjectively. Perhaps the person knows more, is more empowered, or is more personally satisfied. “Uplifted” is a spiritual way to define edification. Ethical experience designers, through the environmental conditions they create and the experiences they hope to engender, pursue their audience’s edification.
Commutation, the second canon, in the Middle Ages was a term used by the Church to describe the process of the Communion ritual. The wafer ingested allegedly turned into the body of Christ and the wine drunk became His blood. Via commutation, the communicant literally became one with Christ. Experience designers have returned to this original theme: mutual exchange. Interacting with the audiences for whom they design experiences, experience designers identify with their audiences, become empathetic, and communicate with their audiences more easily. They “co-mutate,” jointly evolving.
A case in point is “transformational design” as developed by Hilary Cottam and her award-winning RED team, formerly the practice branch of the UK Design Council. Hilary, now separated from the Council, is now at work putting together a design firm to work exclusively in the realm of transformational design, design that challenges the designers to change as much as it does the people for whom they design.
Experience designers share a calling, possibly even a faith. They work using intuition, empathy, and intense communication with their audiences – not via surveys, focus groups, or ethnographers, but firsthand, in the field. I have watched E-D teams struggle for months coming to grips with the problems with which they’re confronted, and then months more arriving at solutions (which sometimes take years to successfully implement).
Experience designers remind me of Renaissance artists employing every available modality – paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, even poetry and theater (that era’s performance art) – to create extraordinary sensory environments in which their audiences can have novel and powerful experiences.
Information designers are being drawn into the same future, creating multiple, continuous, multisensory environments: part material, part virtual, and part nouminal. Preparing for this presentation, I perused the website of Pentagram, the UK design firm that invented the term “information design” in the late 1970s. Its practice has broadened to include, in addition to traditional graphics, “products, environments, and buildings.” Environments and buildings? That's new!
What’s true for Pentagram is for many of today's information design firms. Progressive practitioners of information design are transcending the field’s historical limitations, expanding from two to many dimensions and from graphics to many technologies. Information design is, in effect, becoming experience design.
The last required change in information design’s transformation will be when it shifts focus from the conveyance of information to the result of that transfer, the engendered experience – and designs accordingly.
Now that I have made my case and perhaps persuaded you to abandon your posters, database designs, and filing systems, and launch yourself into the field of holistic experience design, let share some reservations regarding this emerging practice.
Many designers and critics have thoughtfully argued that there is no way to design experiences. experiences occur by definition only in the minds of those who have them, not at a designer’s behest. There is no way to reach into the head of individuals and implant or create particular experiences.
However, the same designers and critics do endorse designing for experience. Designing for experience means creating the conditions by which target audiences can be made, persuaded, or encouraged to have desired experiences – and because design these days is mainly in the service of instrumental political and commercial interests – to take desired actions like heeding a governmental directive, using a public service, buying something, or pursuing more experiences. (Truly good experiences are addictive.)
The principle obstacle to the successful practice of designing for experience is that we as designers know relatively little about the nature of experiences, except for our own. We don’t study experience. To the extent that ethnographers successfully interpret the behavior of the people they study in designers’ behalf, they are implying experiences that their subjects have had or are having. But except in the tales their subjects tell them, ethnographers are mainly studying only what they can visually record – and experience is invisible. Does our ignorance about experience render us impotent to design for it?
No, because we can learn from what others have discovered and written about. For a book on designing for experience that I’m now preparing, I took it upon myself to survey the literature on experience in four domains: spiritual experience, the philosophy of experience, experience as a scientific phenomenon (including perceptual and cognitive science), and design.
I had no concept of the enormity of the task I had set for myself! The literature on spiritual experience alone, which spans prehistory right up to our own time, is copious. I’m still just skimming the surface. Months of study lie ahead of me. I’m sure this is equally true of the other domains.
Knowledge about the phenomenon of human experience exists and is readily mined with the necessary investment of intellectual energy. Information designers who choose to evolve into designers for experience will have to allow substantial time to acquire this knowledge and incorporate it into their practices.
Many structural changes are required in the profession for this to occur: a reformed pedagogy, canons of practice, agencies to employ people, and above all, the education of clients to recognize the value in designing for experience.
Learning is one thing. Inspiration is another.
People have been designing for experience from the earliest historical times to today, always with mixed results, which lead me to conclude that even the very best education and training may not result in the ability to successfully design for experience. Knowledge about experience is prolific and available, but knowledge about designing for experience is not.
In a posting to my blog, Total Experience, I identified a dozen books that take have something to do with experience and design, but only two specifically tackle the issue of designing for experience: Nathan Shedroff’s typographically challenging but pioneering Experience Design, published in the mid-90s; and Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore’s bestselling business book, The Experience Economy, also published in the 1990s.
Among the few articles on the subject, two stand out: Adam Greenfield’s recent critique of experience design, “On the Ground Running: Lessons from Experience Design,” on his Speedbird blog; and California artist Erik Davis’ chapter in the obscure 2001 Australian anthology, Arcadia: Writings on Techology and Theology. Davis’ chapter, “Experience Design and the Design of Experience,” is possibly the best discussion anywhere regarding the significance, practice, and consequences of designing for experience.
Earlier, I mentioned the extremely small success rate of the misnamed user experience design profession – essentially, Web, interaction, and service design – even when informed by that new panacea of the progressive design community, ethnography. You would think the intersection of user experience design, which is well understood, and ethnography, which has a long history, would result in a higher rate of success. Instead, their union introduces more degrees of freedom into the solution space than these teams can convincingly handle, at least not with the rational, professional methods that they employ.
Merely providing designers of experience with more knowledge about experience, necessary though that may be, isn’t sufficient for a solid practice. We need to take a different approach.
I believe that inspired designing for experience is more akin to architecture and musical composition than it is to conventional design. The variables one must deal with are vast and unknowable in their entirety: the audience’s cultural and experiential legacy, individuals’ past personal histories and experiences, the interplay among design elements and the audience’s interaction with them, the conditions in which experiences are to be had, heuristic filters (how people perceive and evaluate conditions), and so forth.
In terms of the designer’s capacity to know about and take into account all of these factors, the list might as well be infinite. no designer is omnipotent.
Recently, Adam Greenfield acquainted me with the philosophical concept of the quale (a Latin term, plural, qualia), the basic building block of experience, and its drawbacks. Qualia are locked within our minds: indescribable, immeasurable, and impossible to share. thus, they are inaccessible to the designer.
So, is there also a theoretical barrier to the totally rationale, systematic approach to designing for experience? Possibly. But I don’t consider it fatal.
We do have good, even excellent experiences, serendipitously or by someone else’s design: a home, a workplace, a concert, a lesson learned, a spiritual moment, an encounter with nature, a coffee at the shop, a working plan, a keen machine, a friend made, a child saved, a sunrise or a sunset, a policy that works, a film, a theme park, a trip, a moment of repose, a sense of enlightenment … all good experiences constituting, we hope, a good life concluded by an honorable, comfortable death. We know we have good experiences; they happen all of the time. We also have bad experiences.
The majority of our good experiences do not rise to the level of memorability. But of those that do, we often know their inventors by name or at least affiliation. they are that significant. We cherish Bach, Jobim, and springsteen for the auditory experiences they’ve left for us; Shakespeare, Sappho, and Neruda for their poetry; Michaelangelo, Picasso, and Hokusai for their 2D and 3D visual art; and so on. Many more such luminaries exist in these and other fields; more are on the rise. Each period and culture has its own pantheon of identifiable great creators of great experiences.
There are many other creators of experience whom we do not know them by name, but only by affiliation: for example, the nameless animators and sound designers working for Walt Disney Studios in the 1940s who became the original Disney Imagineers, the inventors of the modern theme park, Disneyland.
I consider these creators of experience, the great and the less well-known, to be “composers of experience.”
We remember the experiences the composers create, the great and the less well known. what we do not know is how do they accomplish their feats. How can we understand their compositional methods? We haven’t the language to dissect and analyze the process of creating compelling experiences. In English, we don’t even have a word, other than “experience,” to describe the phenomenon of experience!
For the moment, composing for experience remains more an art than a science. We can teach lessons about composing for experience, but we appear unable, at the moment, to teach how to design for experience. The rules and procedures seem so vague, the conditions so variable, the outcomes so unpredictable. As designers, this rightfully makes us very uncomfortable. design, with a big D or a small one, isn’t the whole answer.
We know that individuals and teams intuitively, empathetically engender great experiences for others. we know that they don’t do it by procedurally plodding their way to “just okay” design solutions. How can they rapidly, accurately apprehend and comprehend the complex physical, virtual, and social environments in which their audiences live, work, and play, and design accordingly?
These are questions that beg answering, and they can’t be answered examining conventional design methods. those don’t work. We need to examine what it takes to become a composer of experience. not everyone will succeed at this profession. But more may succeed at composing experiences than designing them.
Composition means gathering elements of meaning and emotion from the environment, the audience, and in one’s self, applying what one knows and feels about experience, and then expressing not so much a solution as a creation. the process of composing has rules by which it’s conducted, but the actual composition of a work – including an environment that provokes desired experiences – remains a personal feat and something of a mystery.
Cognate to information design, the graphic and industrial designs of Chermayeff and Geismar, Saul Bass, Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, and Charles and Ray Eames suggest the process I’m talking about. Composers work from a place of deep meanings, intuitively, with the intention of creating new experiences for their audiences. Passion powered their activity.
Composers, more than designers, are allowed – no, expected! – To experiment: to make errors, have failures, but also to achieve memorable successes that dramatically enlarge how we experience the world that we live in.
Learning from these notables, we can compose scores of environmental elements to create experiences that satisfy our audiences’ needs, wants, and desires. The work of the American landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who scores his landscape projects, suggests how we can compose for experience, using new languages of meaning and representation. Halprin takes his inspiration from the work of his wife anna halprin, an accomplished choreographer of dance.
in a similar vein, the great Danish information designer, Per Mollerup, has developed “wayshowing” as an evolutionary substitute for the now common practice of “wayfinding,” a methodology to assist people to navigate an environment. Wayfinding identifies landmarks, regardless of their significance to the people using them to find their way. Wayshowing takes a different approach. it presents information that helps people to understand their surroundings as they make their way through them, based on their own discoveries in the place and reflecting on their own prior knowledge.
The natural next step will be for designers of experience to integrate and apply the methods of scoring and wayshowing concurrently, Thus creating places, not only in the physical world but also in the virtual worlds of knowledge and understanding, that reveal themselves in the same way that a musical composition is heard. this is composing for experience.
Halprin and Mollerup describe a new role for the information designer turned a designer of experience: not a tour guide dispensing partial, predigested information, but rather as a co-explorer of knowledge with the “experiencer” of knowledge, of situation, or of place via the medium of designed experiences. Which is a good place for me to stop, so that we can explore How we might design for the experience together. Thank you.