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The Ballad of Adam and Nathan, part 2. Posted on 12/07/2002.

Adam has posted the second part of his interview with Nathan Shedroff. I commented on the first part here. Following are my comments on the second part, sent to Adam after he showed me a preprint of the piece. They are much briefer.

I'm going to be annoying and say that "good user experience" is both a
bottom-up (emergent) and a top-down (authorial) phenomenon. I tend to
believe this is why good user experience happens in teams, where different
folks can take different perspectives. I don't think there will ever be a
truly transcendent or even "good" user experience that simply emerges from
paying attention to the details. I think it requires a Big Picture
perspective, a real Vision, to provide Insight that leads to experiences
that make the quantum leap from "workable" to "good."

I find the Cirque du Soleil discussion distracting. CDS is *not* experience
design. It's theater. If theater is a subset of ED, than I don't know what
ED is. Now, this does lead to a fundamental break that I know I have with
Nathan -- he tends to laud "experiences" that are totally dictated by the
creator. He loved that the last summit was in Las Vegas, supposedly a
high-water mark of experience design activity. Which is telling, because the
experiences offered in LV are largely, well, fascistic. Over-determined.
Discouraging of independence.

12 comments so far. Add a comment.

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I have kibitzed on these ongoing IA and ED debates for some time now and still don't know what they are all about: esoterica, arcana,or pettifoggery?

Though the jargon is new, their usage smacks more of the musty halls of old academia than of the pragmatic pursuit of a practical imperative.

Hmmm... How does III sound? Internet Interactive Imperative. Works for me.

An article in today's LA TIMES describes a company that seems to be examining all the IA and ED and III issues in very practical terms. Namely: what works and what doesn't work in a retail web site. I would describe this company as a Quality Control Inspection of the Internet Assembly Process.,0,518148.story

I just tested it, and for some reason, the above URL does not link from this site; but a Copy and Paste of the complete line will work in your browser's address window.
Posted by BJMe @ 12/08/2002 10:02 AM PST [link to this comment]

Well, obviously, I disagree. I don't think the topic is academic in the slightest.

Look, would you rather catch a flick at a forty-seat cinematheque with posters of Tarkovsky's "Stalker" in the lobby, where the guy selling popcorn can converse knowledgably about the importance of "Hellzapoppin'" to the evolution of American comedy? Or at a twenty-screen, cup-holder-equipped, megaplex?

Now let's assume we're designing a new movie theater for a neighborhood like Fremont, in Seattle, or North Berkeley - someplace like that. We want to provide something that feels like the good, quality, life-enhancing cinematheque - but we've also done enough research to know that the megaplex gets one or two things right - plenty of parking, maybe, or the ability to reserve tickets online, or even those cupholders.

I'm willing to bet you'd enjoy seeing a film at a theater designed that way, assuming the film was halfway decent. Conversely, I'm willing to bet you'd not nearly enjoy an overdesigned, overplanned, channelized Experience as much. That's all the debate between Nathan and I is about, really, and I hardly think it's pettifoggery to outline these positions.

If there's a weakness, it's that Nathan thinks the "overdesign" argument is a straw man, or, at least, represents a segment of the ED community he wishes not to claim or speak for. But you can't say these ideas are impractical, or unimportant to the final texture of your encounter with any complex commercial process.
Posted by AG @ 12/08/2002 07:45 PM PST [link to this comment]

I don't mean to be testy here because I think the two of you (Peter and Adam) are both incredibly intelligent people who have contributed a great deal to the design community....but this is a comment in response to Adam's aversion to "overdesigned experiences" like the statue of 3 soldiers at the Vietnam Memorial, David Rockwell restaurants, and Cirque du Soleil and to Peter's comment about Las Vegas being fascistic, over-determined and discouraging of independence...

I don't think information architects can speak for most "users" if they fail to understand why these types of "overdesigned experiences" are enjoyable to a great majority of people (at least in the U.S.)...perhaps more so than the more esoteric experiences that most designers or people of a certain class typically enjoy. I think rather than "judge" and "label," the process should be to look at the numbers and try to "understand"...and then even more importantly, to test and apply what what comes out of those investigations on your own projects.

And to Peter, I don't understand why you don't think Cirque du Soleil has anything to do with experience design! According to the dictionary, "experience" is "the apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the *senses* or *mind*." So the consideration of issues like color, scale, materials, light, and sound, as well as the organization of information are all vital to experience design and the people who put on Cirque du Soleil understand the *relationship* between these things much better than most information architects. Likewise with Maya Lin. She considered the relationship of *multiple components*, each of them vital to the design of the Vietnam Memorial. (Granted the scale of her project was much smaller than that of a complicated web site but she did not need an IA to suggest how to organize the names on the memorial! She asked the right quesions. Something that all team members on a project should do even if those questions don't seem to pertain directly to their "discipline")
Posted by May Woo @ 12/09/2002 10:25 PM PST [link to this comment]

Oh and one more thing :)

Ambient Devices

Here is a company that is working on some very interesting "information" products. One of them is a pinwheel (yes a real physical pinwheel!) that spins each time a user receives an email and spins even faster with each additional email. That way a person at home doesn't need to turn on her computer to actively check whether she has messages. According to one of the researchers quoted on the site, as people become over-saturated with information, "glance-ability" will be increasingly important. Rather than presenting information on a screen, information is rendered as "changes in form, movement, sound, color or light of a particular object."

I think as more and more "information" becomes embedded in our physical environment, everyday objects, and wearables, it will be increasingly important for designers to understand the relationship of the multiple factors that constitute an "experience"!!
Posted by May Woo @ 12/09/2002 10:55 PM PST [link to this comment]

Great to see you here, May, and thanks for the compliment.

I just want to problematize your assertion that Rockwell, Cirque de Soleil, etc. are "enjoyable to a great majority of people" a little.

I think they're enjoyable to a reasonably large percentage of people that enjoy events of that nature. Some people like puppet shows, some people like strip shows, some people like punk rock shows - but then, some people enjoy making puppets, stripping for an audience, or playing punk rock.

So I worry when minutely-planned experiences like Cirque are held up as an appropriate model for what ideally should be more participatory sorts of engagements. And you know what? That happens. I've sat around enough conference tables where "branded, immersive experiences" were trotted out as an appropriate way to guide people through (say) signing up for DSL service to be very, very wary indeed of the whole idea.
Posted by AG @ 12/11/2002 04:16 AM PST [link to this comment]

I don't know that you can draw such a strict dichotomy between people who are spectators and people who are participatory creators of an experience. I think people who enjoy making puppets, stripping for an audience or playing punk rock also enjoy watching those things if for no other reason than to see how other people are doing it and to see how other people respond. The aesthetic of Cirque is far from what I would would be drawn to myself but I enjoy going because I myself like to make and design things (and hell, I even like doing the occasional tumble and somersault too :). I'm inclined to believe that it is primarly critics whose job it is to pass judgement and aspiring tastemakers who who do not see that there is something to be learned especially from things that one would not normally be drawn to. And I think if you talk to people who make what are seemingly the most "open-ended" experiences, you'll find that those were very carefuly and minutely planned as well. The most minimal piece of architecture is very tightly planned...but for a different audience.

So I suppose what it boils down to is being clear about what audience you are trying to serve and why (depending on the service or product the "majority" is not always the desired audience as any luxury-goods maker will attest to)...and making sure everyone else is on the same page as well.
Posted by May Woo @ 12/12/2002 10:56 AM PST [link to this comment]

For me, it's what we as an "experience design" community laud. And I am made uncomfortable lauding CDS. I think that CDS is so out-of-bounds for what most folks in the "experience design" community are dealing with that it only confuses matters. And if we do look to it for inspiration, we'll be inspired to create highly-controlled environments that allow for little agency on the part of the "user."
Posted by peterme @ 12/12/2002 11:15 AM PST [link to this comment]

OK, Im only now finding this discussion. I wish someone would just tell me when they're bringing-up something I said so I can come join the discussion. I really don't make it a rule to take the time to visit everyone's blogs and sites to see what is being said.

Now, into the fray...

Obviously, there are some resonant issues here that have sparked some discussion (debate?) and we can thank Adam for uncovering them (and blame him too : ).

One of them is the term Experience Design and the way it is used as a field or industry. There IS a big disconnect between people in this field. I'm on the side that believes that Experience Desing is a correct term for people who DO take into account the entire experience someone will have with their creation (let's leave the "no one can create an experience" argument for a little later). This can be done in ANY medium as it's more about an approach and some additions to the standard methodologies than anything else. I don't see ED as being restricted to online or even digital devices and interfaces. If it were, than the field should be called Digital Design or go back to the original term Interface Design. Also, since all of this is still so new, there are no good examples to learn big ideas from (as opposed to procedural tactics). The best examples we have to learn from ARE in traditional media, like theater, mostly because we've had thousands of years more experience with some of these media (less in the case of TV, of course), than with online or other cupmterized interfaces.

The other camp sees ED as only worth talking about in the context of interface design for online and wireless solutions. This includes the AIGA ED group and, yes, I think this is very shortsighted and sad.

We have a lot more to learn from Cirque du Soleil or retail design (like, for example, the Apple Stores) than we do from Amazon, though they are very different sets of things. Also, of course, it depends on the purpose of the experience (information vs, entertainment vs. productivity, etc.).
Posted by Nathan Shedroff @ 12/12/2002 12:49 PM PST [link to this comment]

Now, about the whole "you can't design experiences" argument. Of course you can't in the literal sense that you can't crawl into someone's head and pull the neurons into the configuration you want them to be for someone to "feel" or "experience" EXACTLY what you want. But this is a very disingenuous point and one no one has ever argued. Saying that "experiences are designable" is a shorthand for saying that "experiences can be affected in predictable ways based on averages of human perceptions and reactions observed in the real world (as opposed to theory) and that these ways of stimulating responses in people are fairly reliable and, therefore, designable." Sheesh! Do we really have to start speaking like this? If so, there's something REALLY wrong with these communities.

No, you can't be assured that people will have exactly the intended experience with the thing you develop that you would want or expect. However, there are too many examples to list of experiences that are similar enough to what was intended to say that they were successful in their designed intents to be said that they were "designed." We're not talking about complete control here, just reliable stimulus to response.

This is what my first book was all about. I have found that there are topics or issues or vectors at which designed experiences can be made to be effective. I'm not saying that all experiences need to be designed for all potential people on all potential vectors. These include things like narrative and smell as much as they include usability and navigation.

More importantly, is this really worth debating? Are people really saying that we can't do this? If so, than all of IA has to go out the window with the "experience" bath water because what IA tries to do is create interactions that will lead people down reliable paths (experiences) without total control.

As for participation and interaction vs. "canned" or static experience, neither are better than the other. There are times when one type is more appropriate for some experiences than the other and, more likely than not, a mix is almost always desired (or required).

I'm sorry if I sound frustrated but it is exactly these kinds of discussions that seem so immenently obvious to me that they sound like a waste of time that cold be better spent learning new things than defending old ideas. This is part of the stagnation I referred to.

So I'm clear on this... are people really saying that we can't deliberately design to affect people in predictable (though not totally controllable or absolutely reliable) ways? If we can, than does this not apply to experiences in the full-sensory, time, emotions, and 3-space sense?
Posted by Nathan Shedroff @ 12/12/2002 01:03 PM PST [link to this comment]

I think the experience design community is a lot more diverse and multi-faceted than you think Peter. In it you'll find not only anthropologists, HCI specialists and taxonomists but also industrial designers, architects, visual designers, and filmmakers. Part of understanding the BIG PICTURE is realizing that all of these viewpoints are needed as information moves beyond the boundaries of a screen into our environment and everyday objects. That is the future and if we are not comfortable with that or find that negotiating between the ephemeral and the physical is out of our bounds, then I don't think we are getting the BIG PICTURE.

And with regard to CDS...looking to something for inspiration does not imply direct emulation...when there are a great many people who enjoy a particular experience, I try to understand why...because understanding people and what they respond to is important no matter where you draw the boundaries for "experience design." I try to test my assumptions. I try to LOOK SIDEWAYS.

And with regard to experiences that should be "ideally participatory" or that allow "agency," I think we need to be very clear and specific about exactly what those experiences are. Because I don't always want control over all my experiences. Yes, sometimes I even like sitting back and losing myself to MTV.
Posted by May Woo @ 12/12/2002 02:41 PM PST [link to this comment]

May, your last sentence suggests a good beginning distinction for me: design for experiences where agency is prioritized, versus design for experiences primarily about spectation. (I agree that the dividing line between the two is always shifting, even in any one engagement, but almost certainly any given experience is going to partake more fully of one over the other.)

The two produce different expectations, different flows (of users, information, etc.), different outcomes.

W/r/t your point about minimal architecture and other sorts of maximally open-ended "experiences," sure, they're frequently planned to the closest tolerances imaginable, far beyond the degree of planning afforded to more banal solutions. I would argue that, in many cases, this sort of care is required to avoid building something that overlaps into the user's decision space in real time.

That is, a John Pawson is relatively fascistic with finishes, fittings, proportions, viewlines, etc. precisely so he can present the people using the space with as blank a slate as possible, that their activities and choices are foregrounded thereafter. (I get this from a reading of his published works, especially "Living and Eating," so, again, to be certain this is accurate, I guess we'd have to ask the man himself.)
Posted by AG @ 12/12/2002 05:12 PM PST [link to this comment]

Perhaps we can agree that NS puts it best up there? :-)

"As for participation and interaction vs. "canned" or static experience, neither are better than the other. There are times when one type is more appropriate for some experiences than the other and, more likely than not, a mix is almost always desired (or required)."
Posted by May Woo @ 12/13/2002 01:18 AM PST [link to this comment]

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