Capstone, Design, HCId

You cannot design an experience

bubbles black and white

Experiences belong to the people having them. Designers do not own the experience. Designers are not god and designers cannot design an experience someone else is going to have. The experience belongs to the person (or people). There inlies the ownership.

I have been looking at a lot of portfolios, business cards, blog posts, tweets and job descriptions. “I design experiences” is a phrase that really bugs me. With all the tooting and fan faring about ‘user centered design’ and putting people first, it is awfully bold for a designer, developer or manager to claim they will decide and thereby design what kind of experience someone else will have. How can we possibly define their emotions, their thoughts, their environment, their fears, their childhood memories, their little delights? Have we lost all sense of humbleness and humility?

However, experience is a very important element to consider, if not an essential part of a design framework, philosophy or value. The experience people have using a product or service is what I care about. Well, let’s also not forget all the people whom our work effects that are not necessarily users. I bet that is something ringtone designers think a lot about, the non-users. Anyone notice how the chimes and bells have gotten more office friendly? The dude in the cubicle next to you is a non-user but certainly effected by that ringtone. But, I digress. Perhaps we can design for an experience. The difference is humble intent.

Human behavior never ceases to surprise me. People will always use tools and services in a way we may not expect. We’re humans, we appropriate. And if we do indeed appropriate, how can anyone other than you ultimately decide what experience you will have?

Disputes encouraged. Photo [flickr_lulalola]

Nina Mehta is a writer and product designer in Brooklyn, New York. She started writing online in the 90s and began her career design career in the journalism industry. Nina is from outside Chicago has since lived and worked in San Francisco, Berlin, London, and Tokyo.

4 thoughts on “You cannot design an experience”

  1. Brian Oppenlander says:

    Hi Nina,

    I agree that experiences belong to the people and that designer’s do not own the experience. There are too many nuances and humans are way too diverse and complex to be able to have complete control over the experiences they have.

    Designers can and do design experiences, they just can’t say that they know exactly what that experience is in every situation – If a designer was able to do that, they would basically be a god.

  2. Jeffrey Bardzell says:

    I disagree with the reasoning here and with others who make similar arguments.

    You state the position that we cannot design experiences, and then you seem to conflate that with straw-man arguments about designers “owning” and “defining” and “god”-like powers of control. I don’t think you will find any serious designer who thinks she or he “owns” people’s experiences or ever exercises god-like control. And that is why this is a straw man.

    I will state my position on why I think we can design experience. I look to Hollywood, which in my view is by definition an experience design industry. I say “experience” because they clearly are not about disseminating knowledge or information; people go to movies because they want experiences. I say “design” because Hollywood movies are outcomes of design, from market research to iterative cycles of sketching and prototyping, with a commercial product as its outcome that works more or less as designed.

    Choices about camera angles, narrative arcs, character types, filters, props, actors (etc.) all have known relationships to experiential qualities. If you want your audience at a given point to emotionally engage with a character, you do a closeup on the actor. This is hardly a mystery, and it is hardly solely up to the audience member whether they consent. Otherwise it would be a pretty big coincidence that everyone jumps in their seat at the same time during a thriller. Likewise, if you are a formula Hollywood melodrama like Brothers and Sisters, and you want to create levity in a dramatic situation, you use pizzicato strings in the score–this device is heavily used in TV shows because its experiential effects are quite well known.

    And yet (of course! obviously!) viewers’ experiences are their own. No one is being “god-like” or claiming to define in advance every single experiential possibility.

    * * *

    This whole “debate” was started by Jon Kolko a few years ago in a widely read blog post, and now everyone keeps repeating variations of it. I had an email exchange with Jon mentioning that Hollywood does experience design and he basically agreed.

    His point in writing the blog was not to stake out a philosophical position, but rather to counter a tendency of marketers–“brand experience designers”–who he believed were overreaching. They were trying to make “brand experience” the same as “experience,” or so he claimed. When you read his blog in light of brand management overreach, it makes a lot more sense.

    But all this nonsense about godlike control is otherwise a red herring. Of course we design experiences. They are not, of course, experienced exactly as we design them.

    I used a cheese grater to hold up a towel so it could dry. Does that mean the designer didn’t design a cheese grater?

    I saw a social drama about immigration earlier this week (Illegal, Olivier Masset-Depasse, 2010); I didn’t exercise the powers of my subjectivity to experience it as a horror movie or as a slapstick comedy! The film didn’t let me! Of course, I processed it and experienced it in light of my own life–other movies I’ve seen, experiences I’ve had. But I was piqued by the trailer, sympathetic when introduced to the protagonists, frustrated and stressed by their setbacks, tense and excited during the climax, and delighted and relieved by the denouement. The sequence of emotional engagement that constituted that “an experience”–in that particular sequence–were designed.

  3. Jon Kolko says:


    You said: “I don’t think you will find any serious designer who thinks she or he “owns” people’s experiences or ever exercises god-like control. And that is why this is a straw man.”

    Unfortunately for all, not true.

    Visit Dell’s headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, outside of Austin, and you can’t miss them. Nearly every bulletin board in every office has a sign that reads “The Customer Experience: Own It.” Hanging above a set of cubicles — home to employees who sell computers to government accounts — is a gift-wrapped box labeled “the ‘Customer Experience.’ ” That label serves as a reminder that at Dell, bonuses and profit sharing are tied to what those three words signify. Thousands of employees wear a laminated photo ID around their neck that spells out the Dell mission: “To be the most successful computer company in the world at delivering the best customer experience in markets we serve.”

    It’s something I hear over, and over, and over again from my clients – “we must own, control the user experience”. My peers bemoan this as much as I do. It’s a reality of design consulting, at this point.

  4. Nina says:

    Dear Jeff and Jon, thank you for your thoughtful responses. Jeff, my apologies on a late but promised reply.

    I see what you are saying about Hollywood and agree camera angles and sensory cues absolutely influence the experience.

    There’s a nice bit in Erik Stolterman’s book, The Design Way that sums up what I am trying to say: We can be god-like in the co-creation of the world, yet we cannot be god-like in our guarantee that the design will be only what we intended it to be, for the reason we intended, and with a full understanding of the necessity of the design in the first place. We will always be startled by the appearance of unintended consequences and other unpleasant surprises.

    I could have done better research before writing this post. I was not in the interaction design community when the ‘whole debate’ began. And just six months ago, our alumn, Dane Peterson, wrote an articulate post about essentially the same thing:

    The missed point from all of this was a call for humility and humbleness in our work–something seemingly lacking at Dell. This is more important now, than ever, as the products and services we make are reaching further, broader audiences whose values are very different than ours. This is a problem in our own country, city, states and schools of course, as well.

    Jon, I’m glad you wrote the post on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I have a blog post passing around in conversation over email as a response. I think what you said there is very related here.


    Thank you for your thoughtful responses!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *