Thursday, October 02, 2008

Where futures meets experience design

Six dimensions of experience design
Diagram: Nathan Shedroff | via Pantopicon

Over at A Thousand Tomorrows, Antwerp-based futurist Nik Baerten has published the transcript of a recent interview with experience designer Nathan Shedroff, about the intersection of futures and experience design. Below, some [abridged] highlights...

NB: We have learnt that both as a means to inspire future thinking and to communicate and discuss alternative futures, experiences add significant value to the process of participatory futures exploration and envisioning. [...] How do you look at using experiences as tools, as a means to an end (e.g. gaining insight, anticipating & preparing for change)?

NS: Everything we perceive is an experience so, fundamentally, it’s impossible not to create an experience. The difference between what you're suggesting and much of futures work is done is simply about considering more of the dimensions of experience in the delivery. For example, reading a white paper or watching a video are still experiences. They're just not as immersive as immersing audiences in scenes or environments in realtime. All have their place, however.
Many people in the business world have trouble truly visualizing opportunities or even any sense of an alternate future. To help transform their perspectives, it's important to immerse them in an appropriate way -- sometimes widely and sometimes deeply. Usually, the more that the experience models how people live and work in their present lives, the easier it is for them to accept changes that transform their perspectives. This is why immersive experiences like environments and even workshops can be so much more powerful than reading a report.

NB: The fields of foresight, visioning, scenario planning etc. are not unknown to you. You have dealt with future scenarios a few times as well. Could you tell us something about your own experiences?

NS: Scenario Planning is an incredible tool. [...] However, it can be tricky in business because, often, executives "get" the new vision but they're still left with no way to implement it and alternate scenarios are often purposefully provocative extremes. Taking these visions and weaving them back into present strategy is often too confusing or difficult for managers and leaders to do.
Artifacts from the future that relate directly to an organization's business (whether part of the original future studies or completed in a second phase) can help support courage and commitment to innovation since the tangible attributes of prototypes helps leaders "see" examples of offerings and not merely imagine details between the organization’s current and potential strategies. It's extra work but usually well worth it.

NB: In my personal humble opinion design and futures studies are intimately linked. Both basically deal with the yet-non-existent, both look for creative solutions to challenges, both are about changes of perspective, both are about thinking in terms of alternatives.

NS: You're absolutely right. Whether the design process is being applied to future studies or current offerings doesn't really matter. It's still, mostly, the same process. That's a powerful situation because it means that the same development teams that produce an organization's solutions can usually turn to future studies with little change to their process (thought they could always use a chance to change their own expectations to the new context) and vice versa. The same teams that work on future artifacts can turn their same skills to integrating what they've learned to real products and services. Of course, they need to be given permission to actually do this, something that takes a special kind of management.

NB: One could say that an experience is always co-designed, in the sense that it emerges from the interplay between creation and beholder. [...] Co-creation, co-design, participatory design … how do you connect those to the design of experiences?

NS: There is no one, right way to design or develop anything. To a large degree, it needs to reflect the culture -- especially the innovation culture -- of a company. [...] Future scenarios are often used as a way of confronting an organization's leadership, purposely jarring their thinking. That works for some organizations and not for others.
You're absolutely correct that design and development is a co-creative process. It's best when there are multi-disciplinary teams that represent al of the key areas of development, production, distribution, messaging, and service. These teams can be difficult to manage because there may be so many people and many may not be comfortable suspending their disbelief in order to explore new options.

NB: Do you see a certain evolution in the types of experiences we expose ourselves to and why? Where do you see it going?

NS: We definitely hunger of meaning in our lives. That's the most important aspect of any experience. [...] I don’t think we're accelerating the pace or strength of experiences in any way, other than to recognize them and build them more deeply and more thoughtfully. In terms of storytelling, entertainment, and information, we are getting back to more interactive forms of experience than we have in the recent past simply because interactive media have become so prevalent in our lives.
In terms of business, however, we still have a long way to go toward making truly compelling experiences part of the way we learn within organizations, collaborate, share understanding, and build strategies.

NB: [H]ow do you look at design aimed at transforming society instead of companies (and their product/services)? Where do you see similarities and differences?

NS: A product, service, event, or environment can all be transforming -– or not at all. There's nothing exclusive within the categories.
Everything an organization does has a social impact, whether intended or not. Creating people social impacts, as well as better environmental ones, is simply a matter of addressing and valuing these issues at the strategic level of the organization as well as the tactical level of product and service development and implementation.

A strange conversion is taking place in the business and NGO worlds. Not only are business people learning that they can address social and environmental issues through their work -- profitably -- but, also, leaders of NGOs are waking-up to the fact that just because they have a social mission to their organization doesn't mean they can't learn to be a more successfully managed group using leadership and management techniques from the corporate world.

Cheers to Nik and Nathan for sharing their ideas! [Link]

Related posts:
> Cheap prototypes, valuable insights
> Reality prototyping
> Findability features FoundFutures


Nathan Verrill said...

Hi Stuart –

This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. In experience design efforts are often made to get into the heads of the audience/customers/users to understand what they bring to the table - their mental models, their histories, their expectations, as well as their context – usually through some sort of research activity. So we aren’t just designing for ourselves, but rather for someone else through empathy.

So my question to you is this: How do futurists get “into the heads” of the hypothetical participants in a scenario? And similarly, when someone is immersed in a reality prototype, is any effort made to condition them into a particular frame of mind beforehand? Or is it better to drop them into the possible future unprepared, so the jarring experience is more powerful?

Looking forward to more discussion on this topic…


Stuart Candy said...

Natron, good questions.

Futures practitioners vary wildly, so I won't pretend that one response covers the field. We can however talk about the distinctive approach to workshops and experiential interventions (FoundFutures projects described at this blog) that have emerged from the Manoa School.

On the question of how we get "into the heads" of the participants or clients; I don't know if that's possible, and even if it were, I couldn't be sure that it's desirable. If we go back to the point Shedroff makes in his interview about design as a co-creative process -- and let me add that pursuing preferred futures is probably the ultimate collaborative "design" process -- for that purpose there's no need to get to "know" a client inside out. (Indeed, to me here's something very scary about a supposition that to really design well, you need total information awareness.) On the contrary, I think the reason for engaging in an ongoing process of futuring "out loud", or what you've called reality prototyping, is to partner with them in an exploration process that may be hard or perhaps impossible for them to undertake alone.

So let me reframe the challenge a little, around that qualifier: yes, there does need to be some deep digging that goes on, into the sorts of things you described -- mental models, histories, expectations. However, what matters is not us "getting in" to examine those in the role of experts, but rather, helping those things to find their way out. And, seen from that angle, we can add two points: (a) the client is in a much better position than we are to do the digging, and (b) it may be fine for those things to come out in an embodied form -- embodied in a better decision, in greater confidence, in an innovative change of direction, in a next-generation prototype that's closer to the mark. All that valuable information we're talking about needs to be somewhere in the mix, but getting into the head of someone isn't the job of the futurist (or designer) per se, but of the scenario, prototype, or experience that the futurist / designer offers up. The goal as I see it is more to trigger a reflexive process which empowers them to make wiser decisions, than to lay them out passively on the couch for inspection or treatment.

Of course, futurist and designer roles, while similar, aren't identical. So when you speak of designing *for* someone, with empathy, that makes a lot more sense when you're talking about a website or a car (design) than it would when you're talking about society at large (futures). My strong preference for a collaborative ethos comes from the latter context, which is bound to differ from more constrained exercises.

Anyway, I've just passed the mind-mining buck along from the futurist to the scenario or experience she produces. To answer your question in this setting -- how does a scenario or design get what's needed out of the head/s of the client -- I guess the answer is twofold.

Offering alternative futures gives people a basis for appreciating the different ways that their product, industry, government, or world could unfold over the timeline in question. Let's call that divergence.

To engage in exploration of alternatives on an ongoing basis rather than just once lets you learn and progress (what works and doesn't; what's scary, thrilling or mundane; etc). Call that iteration.

Structurally, this is pretty much the same way biological evolution works: mutation (divergence) and descent through generations (iteration). The difference is that evolution does it blindly, where design and futures are guided by norms or ideals, so doesn't have to iterate millions of times to achieve a good fit. An important part of the purpose of futuring is, I think, to discover what those ideals are.

Divergence and iteration however don't tell you much about how to make an effective experience, one that elicits the kind of good stuff you're interested in. That's no small part of what this blog is about, so it's hard for me to distil that into a short answer.

The hallmark of a good scenario comes for us by balancing provocative absurdity with compelling reasoning. Dator's second law of the future is that "Any useful statement about the futures should appear to be ridiculous". Something that seems outlandish at first blush but which has an underlying logic that begins to shine through as you spend time with it: that's a useful future.

As for how to prime people, when we do a futures workshop where written scenarios are distributed, we have a spiel that asks people (at first, anyway) to hold off on criticising the assumptions made in their scenario: "Whatever you may initially feel about the future into which you have been so suddenly placed, please suspend your disbelief! You have no more control over your being in this future than you had over when and where you were born. This is your life. Love it, because you can't leave it. For the next few minutes, make the best of the future you find yourself in, just as you obviously do in the present."

After spending some time dealing with conditions "in-scenario", there is an opportunity to ask questions from a critical standpoint outside of it.

However, it's partly because not every learning style is readily able to engage such thought experimentation that we have turned to more thoroughly immersive interventions, which invite, by setting an in-world example, an in-world response, which you can always switch out of later.

Whether (and if so, how) to drop people into the scenario without warning is a tricky judgment call. Since you're not aiming to confuse anyone permanently, you need to consider what cues are available and how those will be (mis)read. A little cognitive dissonance that people can resolve for themselves goes a long way to engaging them. They may on the other hand get alienated by too challenging a setup, although this is no less true of (very non-immersive) written scenarios. So, echoing Shedroff again, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. What's key is to try to get people willing to "play", which is a lot harder in some contexts than others.