Can we design user experiences?
by Ali Carmichael, Managing Director and Owner

Is it impossible to design an experience?

How often is a UX brief focused on designing an experience? Our world of UX is often attempting to create experiences for people. Yet, when you stop and listen you might notice that human experience comes from within. As Michael Neill says in The Inside Out Revolution, “People think experiences come from the outside in, but it’s actually coming through them from the inside out.”

If this is true, we realise that we do not hold the power to design the experience. We can only design the environment in which an experience will take place. I’m exploring this, and I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Martin Lindstrom illustrates this well through a story in his book, The Ministry of Common Sense. Working for a chain of global luxury hotels, he flew from LA to Europe to stay in one of their hotels. His 12-hour flight with 2 out-of-order toilets, crying babies and a broken entertainment system, collided with jetlag leaving him feeling weary and exhausted. Arriving at the hotel, from the receptionist to bellman, he received the business-as-usual ‘luxury’ customer experience. The no-exaggeration 15-minute monologue tour of his hotel room ended with, ‘would you like to browse the pillow menu?’ He just wanted to go to bed.

He asks the question:

What state of mind are guests in when they arrive at a hotel? The answer varies, but in general, guests are thoroughly exhausted and jetlagged. That’s why one of the first exercises I do with hotel employees around the world is ask them to simulate how guests feel.

In designing what they considered to be a luxury experience that sought to accommodate his every need, they failed to take into consideration the context in which weary travellers find themselves. Once the staff recognise that, arriving at a hotel can become a very different experience.

Our unique experience of the world is based on how our thoughts and senses digest our environment and context. Instantaneously processing our past, present, and how we perceive the future; the distinctive filters and lenses through which we view the world determine our experience.

In Western society, we have learned to react to outside influence. We believe that how we feel is determined by what is around us. I feel happy when my football team wins and sad when it loses. But this experience is not guaranteed. Sometimes, following a win or a loss, I might feel a bit “meh”. If I have a lot on at work and family life, the result might just flow past me without any reaction, whilst my next-door neighbour might celebrate excitedly.

Everyone’s experience is different

One role of UX is to create an environment in which the user has the experience they need to have, not what we think they should have; to remove barriers as opposed to adding features. All too often, organisations focus on creating an experience and miss the fundamental point of what the user is trying to achieve.

On the contrary to what you might be thinking, this gives rise to the need for exceptional creativity.  By building the foundations on solid usability, the creative process can design around, and upon, these foundations. The end-user will be able to reach their goal whatever experience they happen to have on the day.

Good usability is invisible

Good usability provides the user with a clear runway. A designer must therefore be careful not to ‘force’ an experience, rather to allow users to engage, interpret and feel what they need in reaction to the creativity in the front-end design. If a user is in a rush, feeling low, has many other things on their mind, the creative experience might be lost on them but, subconsciously, will still have a positive effect on their day.

When we seek first to create the environment in which an experience will take place, we design from a place without judgement of past or future; for an individual in a single moment in time, regardless of what is happening in their world. I argue that the result is an experience that is much more human and will therefore sit naturally with the user.

Form follows function?

We could argue that good usability simply provides the function ahead of the form, though I don’t believe it is as simple as that. As excellently put in his Smashing Magazine article, whether you agree that form follows function or not Steven Bradley concludes that, either way, you need to define your criteria for success.

If you are reading this, I hope that your success criteria balances user and business (with some favour to the former). With that in place, success is to not get in the way of the user’s journey, whichever experience they need to have. is held in high acclaim for its usability. Not for its stunning visuals but for simple functionality. It is not trying to create an experience, rather it enables the user to complete a task quickly and easily. However, and let’s be honest, the Internet would be a bit dull if everything was just a user-friendly functional journey.

What demonstrates is a good foundation of usability. Of an environment that allows a user to complete their task easily, and to have the experience they need to have. If all website owners began their website briefs by creating a foundation of good usability, the scene is set for creative solutions and design to align the success criteria of the brand, of the business, and of the user.

Whilst it is a subtle difference, I believe that this perspective has a positive impact on the quality of the output. I am sure many designers understand this intuitively. However, there are many other people involved in the website creation process.

Designing our experience is the easy route. So we must create a space in which the user can have the experience they need, not force them to have our experience. And you can’t go wrong with good usability.

UX Consultant Matt Fisher

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