Experience Design is an Understanding – Help Me With Mine

About this version:


1. Explain what Experience Design is.
2. Describe who is involved in designing experiences.

I don’t think User Experience people own Experience Design — developers, graphic artists, clients create the space we work in and are more than stakeholders.

Getting to knowing the minds of others is classic UX space, but this sort of empathy is also practiced by designers, marketing professionals, and developers. But, simply knowing people and their needs does not create an experience.

How the experience will be built from design phase deliverables to final experience is just as important as People. Of course, the decisions about what technologies to use are complex and rely on an understanding of who the experience will reach and what it’s trying to accomplish for the business.

At the most basic level, without someone to pay the bills, you can’t do much of anything. Whether it’s brand awareness or lead conversion, creation of an experience implies that there is a goal in mind that relates back to that investment.

Where a technology and people interface, you have an audience. If you choose a technology that few use, your audience is smaller. And if you pick a technology that lots of people use, you audience is larger, but perhaps the interactions you’ll be able to design for will be limited.

Where technology and business overlap you have a medium (or maybe a channel). The kind of technology selected for an experience has to suit the audience and the business. The technology that might provide the best experience may be too expensive for the business to invest in. We have to find the balance.

I mean this in it’s largest sense. It could be e-commerce transactions, but discussion is commerce in a social experience.

This is where the technology, people, and business come together for an audience engaging in commerce within a medium. Yes?

The definition of experience seems very cold and unemotional– almost like an e-commerce site’s checkout app. Story warms it up by adding the business’s story (brand), the people’s story (culture) and technology’s story (interaction.)

I feel like I’m getting closer, but please comment away!

Please Note: I put my previous post and versions of the model after the break to try and clean this post up a little for people who might be coming for the first time.  I’d create a new post, but the comments on this one have been so tremendously helpful and insightful that I don’t want to separate them from the updated model.


What I’m trying to do:

Last night I couldn’t sleep because I was trying to draw Venn diagrams in my head and keep track of all the overlaps. Eventually I got out of bed and jotted down some things in a notebook, but my old friend Visio and some time discussing technology with my husband really help me get this to a point where I’d like to share it and get some reactions.

I don’t want to over-explain this. If I have to explain it too much, it’s not doing the right job. My intent is to show that Experience Design isn’t a process, deliverable, or even a single discipline but a fundamental understanding of the interconnections of people, story (context and narrative), business, and technology. The purpose is to show how fields are interconnected and why collaboration at every stage is not just valuable, but help projects reduce risk by ensuring that all facets of the experience are considered.

My questions are:

  • Is it clear what I’m trying to convey and does it meet that purpose?
  • Are the 4 main circles the right things to start with? Have I left anything out?
  • Do the words I selected for the overlaps seem natural or too much of a reach?
  • Is there another type of diagram or way of showing this that you think would provide a better understanding?

Don’t be shy. If you don’t understand it, it’s my problem, not yours. I really need to know if I’m on the wrong track!

Based on Gavin’s comment:

March 6, 2010 11:20 PM Update

Thank you everyone for the awesome feedback so far. It’s really helping me formulate a clearer view of exactly what it is I’m trying to communicate and how best to do. This is where I am right now:

I’ve put the Experiencer and the Experience in the center. All the work that happens around the center is to create that magical connection between them. The circles that comprise the diagram are now skills that must be brought together in order for that magical connection to occur.

Where Storytelling and Empathy overlap, I’ve put Artistry. By than I mean something like a “house style.” If you are a great storyteller and know the mind of an audience, you can create a very pleasing style. But because Business Knowledge and Technological Understanding aren’t included, you may not be able to actually build it and if you do it may not suit the needs of the business.

Still a work in progress. Thanks again everyone. Comments still very much appreciated!


34 responses to “Experience Design is an Understanding – Help Me With Mine

  1. I can make some sense of the circles, the overlaps … and they kind of make sense … but I’m clueless … what is Experience Design?

    • I’ll tell you what I want Experience Design to mean and see if you think this diagram says that: “Experience Design requires an understanding of the ways that people, stories, business, and technology are brought together to things.” The things I mean are websites, advertising campaigns, and most other digital experiences.

  2. Great diagram – but what if – at the center – you had “people”? The diagram then still explains “experience design” but ensures that individuals are at the center of it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Gavin. I tried putting people at the center of it in the model I just added to the post. I’m all for that because I truly believe in a user centered design process, but I feel like some of the things I have to keep in my head as an experience designer are gone now. I’m definitely going to keep thinking about how to make it work with people at the center though. Great suggestion.

  3. I think it’s good, but it seems a bit dense. Although I can’t say I think any of those items should be eliminated, or that I have a way to simplify it. I agree that they are all a part of user experience.

    • You’re definitely right there. It is definitely not making something complex into something simple. It’s making something complex into something that is also complex. Will definitely work on it!

  4. yeah – that was my first reaction… people need to be at the center somehow…

    • I think that’s absolutely right. Now I’m wondering how I was ever abstracting people from the experience in the first place. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Lisa Yallamas

    If you have people at the core then what’s in the centre is the user experience (isn’t it?) that is also the engagement area. The three main circles are then business, design and technology. At the intersection of Business and Technology is medium. At the intersection of Technology and Design is functionality. At the intersection of Business and Design is Story (Brand).

    • Thanks for your comment. It got me thinking: Can I really put people in the center of a Venn diagram if they are not within the circles that overlap? My understanding is no, so I’m off to make another model and will post it shortly. I’m afraid it’s going to be complex-ier.

  6. I understand what you are trying to say, but I agree that people need to be in the center. I wrote about it strictly from the people’s point of view, but I also asked some questions in my post: Does the design control the guest’s experience or does the guest’s experience control the design?

    • That is an interesting set of questions. I’m a user experience architect and my job is (as I understand it) to find the design that fits the needs of the user and the needs of the business. Of course those needs include that the design be accomplishable with technology that fits the budget and available to the end user. The design also has to be pleasing to the user and true to the brand (unless we’re doing a rebrand). It is inherently complex. Thanks for your comment.

      • Emily, Today I am busy writing up some specs for a client, but I wanted to touch base with you. Respecting that you are an Information Architect, I spent 8 years in the IT department of a major insurance company. I worked as a Senior Business Analyst, supervising others, writing specs, QA, etc. What I always found is that the “user”, whether in-house employee or customer, must be part of the “diagram”, otherwise you may come in under budget…but if the GUI is too complex or not intuitive you have wasted your efforts. I know you have a tough job. Get to know the end-user and the end-user’s job. My best everyday example of this: I have a 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid with a navigation system. The User’s Manual for this navigation system is 244 pages! Wait! It gets better, Toyota decided that you cannot program the system while the car is moving, so that means the passenger cannot enter data while someone else is driving. You must stop the car to enter your destination. Previously I had a 2006 Mercedes E350 equipped with a navigation system. There may have been a manual, but I never needed it or read it. The system was intuitive and the front seat passenger could enter information. When I explained this to Toyota they said: Hmmm, you can come to the dealership and take a class!
        The bottom line, I have a navigation system that I paid for, but will seldom use. That is my story.

      • That’s a great story. It sort of goes to the point I was trying to make in the original post with the model – if you have to give a huge explanation before people can understand something, it’s not usable — no matter how useful it could be. I love the navigation system example and will probably tell your story to others :)

        I definitely believe in keeping users top of mind and I’ve done quite a bit of usability testing which always shows me how hard it is to know the minds of others while you’re designing. Often it isn’t until you see people struggle with something you thought was simple that you can truly solve a design problem.

        One criticism user experience people get (and maybe not to our faces) is that we *only* care about user needs and that our solutions often discount the very real issues of technology, business, and aesthetics. True or not, it makes some other teams see us as a problem, not a part of the solution. I’d really like everyone to see that it takes a wholistic vision that includes empathy (knowing the mind of others), storytelling (creating something that compels people to change), technology (knowing what’s possible and where you need to innovate), and business (value to the client has to be more than altruism even for .gov and .org).

        Thank you so much for your comments!

  7. The diagram is much simpler and clearer now. Great work.

  8. Lisa Yallamas

    That’s a great diagram Emily. I think I see what you’re getting at now.

  9. Emily,

    I think you have a great diagram — but too dense. I sense this would be better told as a story in 5-6 chapters. Each of the four circles you have in your one diagram needs it own story to be told — instead of the labels you have for each, tell the story (or relate in easy narrative) what are the elements that make sense to have in each. then when you simply put the four circles into the final model — the people reading it will have the understanding going in of what each circle means and what it is supposed to be.

    by telling the story of how you got to it, you are doing both the relationships of all the labels in each circle and the relationship of the four circles into an experience design concept.

    just a thought…

  10. Thank you so much. I think you’re right. I feel like I needed to do the work of figuring out the overlaps. So for me, it’s helpful, but I get exactly what you’re saying. A story would make it easier to understand and would allow me to simplify. Thanks again.

  11. Shouldn’t the experience be shared between the people and the business? Aren’t the most valuable stories ones where the audience and organization formed it together (that’s what great brands are about)? That said, I believe the experience (a single word) is still at the center, and people remain as one of the key circles. I appreciate those comments that suggest that people should be in the center, but I think that’s a fallacy – one that we as practitioners too often suggest in an effort to make clients feel good (“It’s about the people.”), and one that also gives the people more empowerment and credit than they sometimes deserve (“The customer is always right.”)

    I believe your “version 3” chart was closer to the ideal than you think. The change I would make is to label the entire yellow circle “people,” and place “experience” firmly in the center. From there, you can adjust the overlapping labels (“engagement” is still good. How about “transactions?” Think deeper here). The entire chart can then be labeled “Experience Design.”

    I liked your initial diagram. I struggled with the words, “audience” and “culture,” and I now see (with fresh eyes) that “Story” feels forced. Reducing the number of key circles from 4 to 3 was the right instinct.

    Version 4 is a mess, if you don’t mind me saying. I think the “people first” drum-beaters have lead you down the wrong path. I also think version 4 speaks too much to the attributes of the UX designer. Remember, you didn’t want this to be about “process, deliverable[s], or even a single discipline.”

    Take a deep breath. Pick one person in your life to be the recipient of this chart. Decide what you want that person to know about experience design and start over. My gut says that exercise will lead you to something closer to your first version than your most recent.

    Can’t wait to see the final product.

    Be well.

    • Thank you so much for this awesome and generous feedback. I actually did a v. 0.5 and 0.6 last night and realized I was going down some strange rabbit hole that wasn’t helping my understanding.

      This is exactly what I needed. I really do want to simplify it, but I’m pretty invested in “story.” Would it help if it were “context?” In terms of understanding it’s the world the business, people, and ultimately the experience must operate in.

      Thanks again. This is so helpful.

  12. My final two cents on this,

    Stories are about characters, timelines, and content in context. I agree that to tell the story you need at least a character (people? customer? consumer? stakeholder?) — probably more like two or three. You can consider each of the bubbles in your chart a character in the story. Their inter-relations can be the timelines — the way they relate to each other over time (people and business relate over time, so what happens then?). And finally, the way they relate and act WRT to each other would be the context to the content.

    Sounds simplistic, but it is far more complicated when you try to dice it and slice in regards to this model. Getting the characters and the timelines (The circles and the junctions) together is fairly simple — but getting to move them around and keep the context and content interesting it what gets most people.

    I think you are onto something, i am more inclined to believe that a simpler story (like v 0.3) is better than the others to use — and the “content in context” that you use in v 0.4 to fill in the bubbles and spaces would become your stories.

    • Thank you, thank you, thank you. I started again thinking of business, technology, and people as separate characters each with their own unique stories and timelines. The experience is made up of each of those stories coming together to choose the right audience, the right kind of commerce, and the right medium. The center is the experience as viewed by a customer. I’ll post the updated image in just a moment..\

  13. As a chart, I think you have captured it — probably some word “tweaking”… now for the “easy” part — telling the story of how all this goes together.

    very nicely done, good evolution…

    • Thanks! I’m taking a few days away from it so I can look at it more freshly. I did enjoy the process to get to this point though. Thanks for helping out.

  14. Emily the diagram makes perfect sense to me. I think you have it and I don’t see any other way it could be conveyed.

    Well done!

    I will sleep on it tonight and look in the morning see if I come up with anything furter.

    • Thank you for the compliment. I’m still mulling it over a bit, but glad some sense making has been accomplished.

  15. Here are my thoughts…I don’t know what to say about what to put in each circle, but I like the approach you’re taking.

    However, I wonder whether a Venn diagram is the best way to express the relationships that are involved with this. Venn diagrams are usually used to express sets or categories and the intersections between the sets/categories. With a heterogeneous mixture of things like people, technology, context, story, etc., maybe the diagram needs to express multiple types of relationships rather than just overlaps?

    I’m not saying that I disagree with the choices of the elements or the relationships that are here…but perhaps the diagram could show relationships such as agency, means, quality. That might just make it more complicated and confusing, in which case I’d be wrong, but mapping out the different types of relationships could also lead to a way of simplifying or even separating this into multiple diagrams.

    • Thanks for this. I think there problems with using the Venn diagram. I think because I’m so interested in the role story is playing, I really need to write the story that connects everything and then come back to the diagram.

  16. I admire your v.0.7.
    I figure out the factors what effect experience are expectation(price, market promise..) relevant(content, functions..) and emotional connection. These 3 factors just match your 3 circles: business, technology and people.

  17. It is amazing how far you have come in 3 days. Sometimes we are so close to a project that we can’t see the “potential” pit falls. An exercise I was once given with a group of IT employees was this: Tell me how to make and peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You would be surprised how many really critical steps were left out of some of the instructions. And the only way to see that clearly is to have someone in the group try to make the sandwich by following the instructions! Imagine a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly resting on a loaf of bread. You have all the ingredients, but you don’t have the desired end-product. It has been fun visiting with you.

    • Thank you for helping out and sharing insights. We did a similar exercise in a usability course. We had to write a technical manual for shoe tying. Very difficult indeed!

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