Experience Design explained by four design experts

This is HCD are collaborating with human centered design experts from Google, Fjord, Airbnb and other leading design teams to answer your questions. You may be new to design, considering a career in design or a refined practitioner, let us know, via Slack or email, what you’d like to know and we’ll reach out to them for answers.

Experience Design explained by four design experts
October 2022
Experience Design explained by four design experts
Georgia Rowe
Experience Design explained by four design experts

Experience Design explained by four design experts| This is HCD

This is HCD are collaborating with human centered design experts from Google, Fjord, Airbnb and other leading design teams to answer your questions. You may be new to design, considering a career in design or a refined practitioner, let us know, via Slack or email, what you’d like to know and we’ll reach out to them for answers.

You asked us “What is Experience Design? And what does an Experience Designer actually do?”. We’ve reached out to four design leaders, including Gerry Scullion, who’s on the other side of the mic for a change!

Gerry Scullion

Gerry Scullion, Founder of The HCD Network and Principal at Humana Design, Dublin

Well, the answer is entirely dependent on who is asking and how Design is used inside their organisations. But Experience Design when used correctly, permeates several disciplines that contribute to the delivery of value to the customer.

Experience Design is an attribute that lies within areas of User Experience, Service Design, Customer Experience, Product Design, Research, Product Manager, Web Development, Business Design, Sales, Marketing team etc. the list goes on. Every discipline listed contributes to the experience a person using the system will experience, and it’s arrogant to believe that Design alone can deliver a positive experience for people.

Looking at the origin of the term experience design, we need to look back to the father of experience design, Don Norman. I have seen it too many times, where organisations buying into UX and hire a team of designers who are good at interface design and who possess only a basic understanding of research. The organisation is happy. They now have a team called the “UX Team” but the organisational appetite is purely at the interface level, and the desire to create new things. UX is about more. It’s about the true understanding of the people using the products and/or services. Experience Design is an attempt to move closer to the disciplines original intent.

Don Norman — Image: Ivo Gomes CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

So what do Experience Designers do? When working in a mature organisation, who uses Design as a strategic tool, and who possess the right mindset, an experience designer will work across many areas of the organisation, and following the common design frameworks and methodologies.

Alexandra Williams

Alexandra Williams, Group Design Director ANZ, Fjord, Melbourne

By the time Don Norman became the first practitioner to include the words ‘user experience’ in his job title in 1993, he’d coined the phrase, in his words: “because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual.”

Don Norman came to product design as a cognitive psychologist. He initially published “The Design of Everyday Things” using the word “Psychology” in place of “Design”. His early focus was on design for comprehension and usability. Later he acknowledged the importance of our emotional response to design: “the total experience of a product covers much more than its usability: aesthetics, pleasure, and fun play critically important roles.”

As a cognitive psychologist, Don Norman was helping specialised disciplines involved in creating new physical and digital products intentionally support the way humans prefer to analyse, integrate, and interpret information when we interact with something.

The ascendance of digital has blurred the line between product and service design. Relatively recently, we’ve increasingly dropped ‘user’ from experience design in a way that seems to reflect Don Norman’s original intent that experience design both zooms out to consider the experience ecosystem (and all actors in it) and zooms in to consider a specific interaction.

So, what does this mean for an experience designer? For me, Don Norman’s framing of experience design is a reminder that within our multi-disciplinary teams, we are advocates for the people we design with and for. You could be uplifting an existing product or service experience: working at journey/episode or interaction and touchpoint level; or you could be co-designing new propositions at ecosystem and concept level. The specifics of what you’d be doing at each end of the spectrum will differ, along with cadence, but there are some commonalities.

What’s important is to develop a test and learn mindset; to express thinking leanly, hold onto solutions lightly and test early and often, and remember we are not the person we’re designing for.

Discover and Describe

  • Understand and represent people — their goals, attitudes, behaviours and the pain points they experience trying to achieve their goals as they relate to your product, service or unmet needs.
  • Gather input — through qualitative immersive research (e.g. observation and contextual inquiry), interviews and quantitative data analysis or surveys.
  • Express your findings — as archetypes (e.g. mindsets), actionable insights e.g. Jobs-to-be-done, use cases, as-is experience maps, task flows or problem and challenge statements to solve for.

Create choices

  • Develop hypotheses — frame evidence based descriptions of what to solve for why, and for whom coupled with suggested solutions and ways to measure your impact.
  • Co-design experiments — regularly bring together representatives of the capabilities needed to change an experience to co-design an outcome together, balancing desirability, feasibility and viability along with capturing how you can measure impact. Where possible, you’ll be able to include people you’re designing for.
  • Design and prototype — Alongside product or visual and interaction designers (you may be one yourself!), you’ll make new experiences tangible by representing them with ‘just enough’ fidelity for people to understand the new proposition and measure the likelihood of adoption. You’ll capture how a new experience maps against to-be task flows, or experience maps and possibly, you’ll describe the content needed to support it.

Make choices

  • Test and iterate — you’ll facilitate evaluative research i.e. you’ll test experiments with the people who’ll use them; directly — in interviews or indirectly — via digital multi-variate tests. You’ll analyse the outcomes and use them to inform your next design iteration.

As confidence increases, and an experiment becomes a production design, you’re likely to stay close to monitor its performance in market which might in turn lead to further iteration.

Experience Design is such a broad domain these days it’s very difficult to describe a typical day-to-day. If you love understanding what makes people tick, and working with other disciplines to improve the way people live and work, then experience design is an immensely fulfilling and satisfying practise.

Zafer Bilda

Zafer Bilda, PhD, Senior Product and Service Designer, London

There are many layers of experience design. We design “customer experiences” with retail brands e.g. the sum of your interactions with Amazon. We design “user experiences” based on interactions with technologies e.g. buying a train ticket using an app. We design
experiences in physical environments e.g. a visiting an art exhibition to explore new works. We design experiences at the intersection of digital and physical — e.g. booking an Uber,
meeting and riding with the driver.

Understanding experiences can be complicated — because people’s experience of the same thing can be very different. Experiences are subjective — which means they are framed by the value system, expectations and motivations of the person. So when we design an experience we cannot expect everyone to have the same path and outcome. Imagine visiting a museum, most people stick to the entry, exit but they don’t even follow a recommended path. If we ask people of their experience they will be telling different stories of their journey. One may pay attention to installations while another may spend more time in classical paintings.

What helped me understand experience design better is Wright and McCarthy’s (2003) user experience framework. The authors identify four threads by which experience may be designed: compositional, sensual, emotional and spatio-temporal. I will try to explain the four threads in the context of visiting a museum.

Composition is the narrative structure of the exhibition. Curators bring together the pieces to tell a story to the audience. A great composition helps the visitor interpret and fit together all elements to understand the narrative as a whole.

Sensual thread is about visitor’s perception of the museum atmosphere, e.g. the music and sounds playing in the background, the textures on surfaces, the scale of the pieces, the balance of the lighter and darker areas, colours of the walls and the smell (if any). Designers’ sensual choices are closely related to the story telling, and the brand experience.

Emotions triggered during the visit leads to how we remember the experience later on. Was it fun, pleasant, reflective, or stressed for the visitor? Designers may use the emotional quality as a measure to evaluate the experience for example by asking how the visitors felt about the exhibition.

Spatio-temporal thread draws attention to the quality and sense of space and time. Imagine a grand entrance with a staircase leading into two different rooms with high ceilings on the right and the left. The visitor moves with a slow or quick pace, maybe avoids the crowded rooms for the time being with an intention to visit later. We may sometimes analyse these movement patterns to improve the quality of the space or to change the speed of the

So what makes us good experience designers, and how do we bring value? We have to be systematic observers through our research activities with people. We often define a baseline of the observed experience (current state), so that we can show the impact of the proposed or implemented changes. We visualise ideas and create experience prototypes (being a digital interface, a redesigned space, a conversation) and test them with potential user/actors. We systematically observe to understand the different paths people take, to see the gaps in the design so we can iterate the prototype.

Carol Ng

Carol Ng, UX Design Lead, UBank, Sydney

My, what a loaded question! Firstly, the role of the experience designer really varies from place to place. It can easily cover Service Designers, Customer Experience Designers, User Experience (UX) designers, and Product designers. Personally, experience design is pretty much the interaction humans have with whatever you are designing, ranging from the first time they read about your product from an ad on Instagram, their purchase experience from your online shop, all the way down to the emails they receive, and how internal staff use your system to support the customers. In the end, it all boils down to what sort of outputs are you looking to deliver, and which phase of the project you are at.

A lot of times, what we do is very much aligned to the well-known double diamond framework, ‘Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver’. It is not a linear process, but what an experience designer can cover day to day varies between the following:

  1. Research and talking to people
    This goes from doing desktop research to understand more around the background of the topic, to having interviews with stakeholders or customers to understand their pain points or problems. This includes lots of synthesis, and of course, heaps of post-it notes.
  2. Workshop/design sprint preparation, facilitation, synthesis
    Good designs are a result of people with different expertise and experience, coming together to discuss and work through the sweet spot between the trinity of technology (feasibility), business (viability) and human values (usability and desirability). It takes a while to plan, prepare and facilitate workshops or design sprints, so this can take quite a bit of our time. Of course, in many projects, it takes a few workshops, each with different goals and objectives, to achieve what the team needs.
  3. Design, test, iterate
    Once enough information and understanding is been gathered, the designer will then do a draft design of what the objective of the project is. This then gets tested with users, stakeholders, followed by a few more workshops to iterate, where the team will then decide what the next steps are, be it building out the minimum viable product (MVP) or the need to pivot.

Hopefully, this gives one a glimpse of what we do.

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