Can you really design experience?

I don’t think so. I often think of the way we phrase things or the terms we use to refer to things. While ‘user experience design’ is actually in my own work title, I don’t think it applies to what I do. Oddly enough, I was reminded of this issue as I was congratulated for my recent completion of the Boston Marathon. I really appreciate support for endurance events and I know that congratulations are nothing but well-intentioned. The issue that comes to mind, which relates to so many things, is that you can’t really understand successful experience from the outside.

For example, my race time was my worst ever. I won’t go into my long layoff from running, the past injury-laden year I’ve had, or that I’m presently nowhere near as fast as I used to be. With regard to Boston, while I had a great time it simply wasn’t a good race for me. When people congratulate you on an awesome race, you accept it as kind words, but in the back of your mind it actually draws attention to the fact you are unhappy with the results. At least in my head, that’s the way things work. A race time only has any meaning when viewed in the context of individual expectations and capabilities – or individual experience.

Experience is individual

What does this have to do with interactive design? In my mind, it’s the X-factor. I can follow all the UCD principles I want and I can probably do a pretty good job for most users of a web site or application. However, experiences are very personal things and I don’t believe I can design those for anyone. I can design quality interactions and build a solid site architecture as a framework for user experience, but that’s as far as it goes in my mind. That is, of course, within the realm of business and politics that exist in large organizations, like the one where I work.

Just like I can’t tell if a given race time is good unless I ask the runner whether they were happy with it, I can’t tell if a user’s experience is good with something I design until after it’s done, and often not even then. Prototyping and user testing will help me move toward the best design I can achieve, but it doesn’t measure the uniqueness of experience for the user. The notion is also applicable to learning. Particularly when referring to online learning, the quality of the interactions in the instructional design goes a very long way to determining the success of the endeavour, but the interactions are not the learning experience, itself. Adult learning is generally seen to be situated, authentic, experiential and both social and individual. Some aspects can be measured against prescribed outcomes, but there are way too many nuances to design a complete learning experience. The best I believe you can do is provide the environment, activities, pacing, tools and support to frame the experience.

Interactions and features frame experiences

Now that I’ve segued nicely from running to web and online learning design, the similarities between the latter two become greater. Social features abound on the web today. I rarely come across any site that doesn’t have a blog component, RSS feeds, and/or discussion forums. Many web applications now publish an open API so that users can build their own functionality on top of the platform and create something new. However, the important thing to remember is that these are all features or interaction capabilities. They are enabled, hopefully made easy to use, and feedback solicited about their use to continually improve them. They are not, though, experience in and of themselves. They are pieces of the framework of the user experience. You do all these things well and your users have a better chance of having a good experience, but there are no guarantees.

Your typical LMS is also a user experience black hole. The complaints one often hears about Blackboard or Desire2Learn are that they are closed systems, difficult to use and manage , have excessive licensing models and are a bit weak on social features. Starting from this place makes a good user experience all the more challenging, but the elements I mentioned earlier, done right, will do a lot to mitigate the problems with the LMS platforms. Again, though, regardless of how good or bad the software, instructional design, community-building efforts or support provided, no one can really design a learning experience. Constructivism tells us that while learning is a social endeavour, it is also highly individualized to each learner. I would have to be able to define the new knowledge that will be acquired to design the experience and that’s simply not possible.

Only one opinion

Web design and online learning are but two of many examples I could use, but they’re the two I have some understanding of and at some point they can up being closely related. When framing interactive experiences, I believe I can only do so much to give the user the best chance of having a good experience. Hey, but that’s only my experience and it may be individual to me.