Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Experience and medium

While in San Francisco recently I had a fascinating conversation with Jesse James Garrett, President of Adaptive Path, about the terms or framing concepts for their operation.

Jesse explained that when AP was founded eight years ago, its key people came from a web design background, although they were working with the beginnings of something "higher", as in more aspirational (or "deeper", as in more fundamental) that at the time was called "user experience", although it was still rooted specifically in the online medium. For several years, they were careful not to overemphasise the verb "design", preferring the noun "user experience", to avoid importing inappropriate expectations on the part of their clients about the nitty-gritty of engineering code. About two years ago, however, the notion of "design" having come to connote a broader, less minutely technical process, the company's stated bailiwick became "experience design" and "experience strategy".

As the above story illustrates, the terms in this field are rapidly evolving. Part of the evolutionary process is found in a current tension between two distinct camps among designers, and their corresponding interpretations of "experience design". On the one hand, says Jesse, the Mediumists are convinced that experience design is simply a newfangled term for what they believe designers have always sought to do -- good design, in whatever medium they happen to be using. The Anti-Mediumists, on the other hand, regard experience design as enabling discussion, and pursuit, of good design of a different order. The former, trained in and committed to a particular medium of design (whether websites, or chairs), tend to focus on the characteristics and qualities of the artifact; while the latter, looking past the medium to the experiential substrate, ask what the thing is like to use, look at, or be around.

Through the lens of a particular medium, specialised language enables certain specific features to be apprehended and readily discussed, while through the encompassing, medium-agnostic language of experience, its net effect is opened up for conversation. For example, the formalism implicit in a medium-focus may lead to the conclusion that a technically accomplished piece of work is entirely admirable: the chair is distinctive, elegant, well constructed, sustainably produced, and appropriately priced. But an experience focus will always keep the user's bottom line (so to speak) in plain view: is it comfortable to sit in?

It seems likely to me that where or if this dilemma requires resolution, it is for designers to aspire to grasp both perspectives at once, or in any case to be able to alternate between them, as when switching between two Gestalt views of an optical illusion. But, as someone not formally trained in any particular design medium, the Anti-Mediumist perspective makes perfect sense to me, especially at the early stages of a project when the task is designing backwards from a desired outcome. In all our FoundFutures projects, and especially on "Hawaii 2050", we had to work backwards from the hoped-for insights and outcomes. We brought a series of (intially very muddy, gradually clearer) constraints into play, setting the context for producing a desired experience. The constraints are resources (space and budget) and intent (audience and scenario). Medium-expertise may be brought to bear on the job once we've deduced and decided (it's a combination of both) which media will be involved: text, slideshows and video, ambient audio, graphics and printed matter, handcrafted "future-museum" artifacts, performance...

If the medium is the message, then in our work to date, the first question has concerned the experience of the message, including the circumstances of its reception, and we've worked back from there to figure out which medium fits best. Often enough, the best solution requires working not in just one medium, but in several at once.

Related posts:
> Cheap prototypes, valuable insights
> Open source futures and design
> Where futures meets experience design
> Manifesting vision
> Future-jamming 101

(Thanks, Jesse!)

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