PoetPainter - Thoughts
Friday March 27, 2009 / 3 Comments

The Fundamentals of Experience Design

Photo of my poster presentation at the IA Summit 2009

For some time, I’ve described the design of experiences with this potent little phrase: 

It’s all about People, their Activities, and the Context of those activities.

That’s it, really. Whether we are designing a Web app or new office building, simply ask: Who are the people we are designing for? What is the activity (or activities) they are trying to do? And what are the contexts in which they are trying to operate? And ‘people’ can be an individual or group. It’s that simple. On the surface…

Behind every explicit piece of information, we can dive much deeper for a richer understanding of the space in which we are designing. People are much more than users (or markets, prospects, players, stakeholders, or…). An exploration of activities yields more insights than simple task or use case definition. And context is so much more than a device or platform— from the environment we as information architects define to the environmental and economic context in which we work.

It’s these ideas that form the basis of my “Fundamentals of Experience Design” Model, which I had the pleasure of unveiling at the recent IA Summit 2009 conference . Think of this as my “grand, unified model” of experience design. Or something like that!

Download The Fundamentals of Experience Design model
(10M print quality pdf file!)
Download The Fundamentals of Experience Design model
(not quite so large 2M png file)

The origins:
This model/poster, as with previous Summit posters, is a personal attempt to resolve a number of different threads and conversations, this time around “designing for experiences”— any kind of experience, from shopping online to going out for dinner to checking out a book from the library.

The model covers the basic UX stuff like moving from a focus on tasks to a focus on activities, as well as more theoretical discussions like activity centered design vs user centered design. I also wanted this model to represent where I’m moving professionally: As evident in my seductive interactions presentation, I’ve become more focused on subjects like psychology, social design, game mechanics and other “deeper” human considerations when designing for experiences.

The elements:
For years I’ve been discussing experience design in terms of people, activities and the context of those activities. These are the core elements of this model. FYI, the poster you see is actually the third iteration— for several years, I’ve been exploring (1) how these elements relate to each other, and (2) whether there should be any other core elements added (I wrestled with things like “objects,” “tools” and/or “content”). Along with the considerations listed below, I’m comfortable with this particular representation of the ideas:

This is a simplified explanation (the poster explains all this much better!):

  • Experiences should focus on individuals and groups as people first, followed by our various roles as users, consumers, segments, stakeholders, employees, etc.
  • Activities can be anything you do, and aren’t necessarily task-focused (this is a problem I have with many of the UCD and Agile discussions). Consider passive experiences like reading The Onion, or entertainment experiences like iSteam. There’s a motivation for these activities, but there isn’t always an explicit task involved.
  • Context contains people and activities. Context for activities is fairly straightforward — environments, cultures, devices, etc. For people, there is a personal, implicit context that may affect an activity — having a bad day or finding out someone is in the hospital for example may have nothing directly to do with the activity (say, buying a pizza) but will affect the experience of that activity. Context also extends out further to consider the business, technological, cultural and social contexts that enable or affect the activity in some way. An easy example of this deeper cultural context is the editing out of the Twin Towers from the original Spider Man movie following 9/11— this editing decision recognized the emotions outside of the film itself that would have affected the movie enjoyment experience.
  • With the resulting peanut shape, I draw horizontal a line between explicit considerations (tasks, users, business goals) and deeper considerations— the insights, motivations, behaviors and other “softer” focus areas that separate good experiences from the great ones.

Here’s a “Cliffs Notes” version of all this, using first person callouts:
1st Person explanation of the Fundamentals of Experience Design Model

Some things I learned making this:

  • The importance of context.
    I’ll probably have to write a whole separate post on this. Needless to say, context is SO MUCH more than screen resolution and browser size! One theme that kept surfacing at the Summit was “context shapes behavior.” This is so true. On one hand, you do need to consider things like device constraints. On the other hand, you have to step back and look at the business context that is enabling (or standing in the way of) an experience.

  • These fundamentals are largely input considerations.
    In describing how different UX tools and activities might map to this model, I realized it was best suited for those things that provide input and insights. The output will vary base on your discipline (interaction design, industrial design, etc.)
  • Distinguishing between internal (personal, for people) and external (related to the activity) contexts. Basically, this is how something like “having a bad day” may affect an unrelated activity. How often do we factor in these personal contexts into our designs? This could be especially useful for contexts such as hiring sites, where a personal, emotional state might vary widely from individual to individual.

Feedback from the IA Summit:
During the reception and poster presentation, I got some great feedback from a ton of different folks. Here are some of the highlights:

  • “Aren’t motivations specific to people, not activities?”
    I got this feedback from about 3 people, two of whom work at the same company. This was clearly a semantic issue, not an issue with meaning or intent. For me, motivation is specific to an activity— why you do something. I’d call those abstract motivations that get us up in the morning (to be happy, to change the world, to avoid conflict) “goals” or “desires.”
  • “What about the cultural context for people?”
    Behind activities is a deeper cultural context, why not the same for people? I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m thinking this is part of the internal context specific to a person. But, something to consider…
  • “Why are people separate from activities?”
    This has been the most challenging question, as there are good reasons to join people and activities within context (think two halves of a circle inside a larger circle). I’ve been sketching this, and while there is cause for this, it would also introduce new discrepancies — for example, business context is specific to an activity and not a person. I exist outside of a given activity until I choose to do whatever that is. This would introduce a problem not currently in the model.
  • “Should behaviors be a core element?”
    I’ve also been thinking a lot about behaviors, specifically the idea that “context shapes behavior.” I think the model supports this just fine. We design for activities, and we design or consider the context. The behaviors are how the activities occur within a given context for a particular person or group of people.
  • One final comment— people really connected with the floating chunk of earth! Apparently this a powerful visual metaphor for these ideas. Several people described this as a better iceberg model. I’ll go with that! When I chose this, I was thinking about tumbleweeds, and how badly designed experiences have no roots in natural human behaviors, desires or motivations. I like the idea that the deeper your roots go (more human insights and applied behavioral economics), the better the experience being designed will be… And I like the analogy that roots aren’t readily visible.

What’s next?
So, that’s some of the thinking behind my Fundamentals of Experience Design model. What are your thoughts? Does this help you in some way? In the poster, I list some ways this might be useful with clients or with practitioners. But, I’d like hear more about how you might be able to use this in your work…

Comments closed for this post.

  1. On Mar 27, 08:58 AM Cam Beck said

    Have you explored possibly putting this up on CafePress as a poster? I’m having difficulty reading the printout, and I don’t have a large-format poster printer.

    If the result is good enough, it might even help you draw in some revenue (or not — your choice).

    Let me know if you aren’t familiar with the process. I’ll be happy to help set it up and test it.

  2. On Mar 27, 01:01 PM Roberto Avendaño said


    Great post, thanks for writing it! I want to digest it properly.



  3. On Mar 29, 01:42 PM Joel Laumans said

    Hey Stephen!

    This is a really great model!! Thank you for this.

    In my opinion, separating people from activity is exactly what needs to be done. Your model does a great job of illustrating where UX design will be (or should be) going towards.

    The need for personal experiences is growing, and UX should support people as individuals – but even more, as dynamic individuals. I think the way you have visualized this is very clever.

    I can imagine this model being used to explain the goals of intelligent systems; flexible and adaptive systems that are designed to support users.


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