Experience is a hot term in design, which is problematic as the theoretical frameworks offered to describe and explain ‘experience’ leave something to be desired. This provides the potential to develop a rich interdisciplinary research programme to explore this further. There is certainly some interesting and innovative research being conducted at the edges of the field, which need to be woven together. Some recent reading has highlighted three important contributions that have emerged from very different disciplines and research paradigms.
“Technology as Experience” by John McCarthy and Peter Wright starts out with the view that “technological development and business momentum may have outstripped reflective commentary and analysis (on user experience) …. which may take a potentially rich idea and reduce it to design implications, methods or features”. There is certainly sufficient evidence that a reductionist view of user experience is widespread, which their important book seeks to rectify. Reducing their argument to a few sentences is fraught with difficulties, but let me plough on regardless. Theirs is a philosophical argument on the nature of experience with regard to technology: “In this book we prioritize feltness to emphasise the personal and particular character of experience with technology. For us, felt experience points to the emotional and sensual quality of experience. Our first proposition is that these qualities should be central to our understanding of experience living with technology.”
They develop a pragmatist philosophy of experience that draws in particular on the work of John Dewey and Mikhail Bakhtin. This, they argue, is a philosophical approach that is particularly well suited to to exploring the shifting relationships between people, technology, and design. Significantly, Dewey was concerned with the production and consumption of artworks, while Bakhtin was concerned with our relationship to literature. A key point they make is that you can’t design experience. This of course is true, but there is a multi-million dollar industry predicated on the opposite point of view.
As I read their book, I try to draw some connections with the work currently being done by Laura Gonzalez. She is also looking at our creative relationship with artworks, but in a way that has implications for designed objects. Her research “aims at answering the following question: what makes a work of art seductive? There is a current interest in seduction, evidenced by a proliferation of monographs and exhibitions on the subject. This research is concerned with the relational aspects of subject-object interaction as experienced in contemporary art, and its underlying psychosocial characteristics.”
Her research is brilliantly encapsulated by this photograph. Drawing in particular on the work of Lacan “this research aims to produce a methodological innovation derived from an evaluation and synthesis of specific qualitative, psychoanalytical and creative methods (case studies of seductive objects like Juicy Salif, the iPod and Man Ray’s Cadeau, interviews evaluating subject-object interaction; the transference process; video diaries of the creative investigation).” On one level, anyone whose research includes Marx, shoes, seduction and iPods is worth checking out for novelty value alone – but the serious point is that her work is tackling an aspect of our “design experience” that I’ve seen little evidence of from elsewhere.
Ruth Mugge has recently completed her PhD from the Delft University of Technology that addressed the question of how can a designer increase the degree to which people bond with a product? Hers is a more prosaic focus that that of Laura Gonzalez, and the methods used in the research are more empirical and design-based. Delft has made some important contributions in this broad area, and Ruth Mugge’s work will I am sure be equally well regarded. So far I’ve only been able to get hold of a couple of her papers and read a summary of her thesis. But this seems to be the core of it: “One of her important conclusions … is that consumers bond more strongly with products which have a ‘personality’ agreeing with their own personality (e.g. extrovert or introvert). However, feeling attached to a product with an equivalent personality does not necessarily lead to a long-term relationship with such a product, because fashion changes influence the relationship between product attachment and product lifespan. Mugge also investigated the self-expression factor by determining the influence of product personalisation on the degree of product attachment… By personalising a product (for example, by painting it), an individual invests effort in the product and is able to use it to express his or her identity. Self-expression in turn has a positive effect on the degree of attachment to a product. For designers who wish to extend a product’s lifespan it is thus a good strategy to incorporate the possibility of personalisation.”
These three contributions are from diverse perspectives, but provide important insights into how we conceptualise and describe the design experience. Significantly, they take us far beyond the reductionist commercialised view of how we are supposed to “design the user experience”. A dialogue between McCarthy, Wright, Gonzalez and Mugge before an audience would be very interesting. It’s already on my to-do list.