The Experience Pledge

Back in October I devoted a post to understanding the concept of experience but in light of the “fundamental mistake” I was accused of last week I think it’s worth re-examining the subject.

Here’s my central thesis: Not everything that happens to us is an experience. In fact, most things aren’t.

Our lives are mainly composed of encounters, not experiences. The difference between an encounter and an experience is the difference between a gathering and a party. It’s the difference between eating and having a meal. It’s the difference between stepping and dancing; and between speaking and singing. From a sensory point of view it’s the difference between hearing and listening; between touching and feeling; between looking and seeing; or between tasting and savoring.

The distinction between a user experience and an experience is precisely the same.

To have an experience you first need to recognize it. If you’re not aware that you’re having an experience then you probably aren’t. A memorable event is well-defined, with a clearly discernable beginning, middle and end; it doesn’t just happen. An experience is something that you might describe as an experience: “that was quite an experience;” “that was an exhilarating experience;” “that was a phenomenal experience,” or “that was a life-changing experience.” No one talks that way about using their VCR.

User experience design is about designing the means to an end. Experience design on the other hand is about striving to design the end itself. It’s about designing interactions that people choose to consume for the sake of the intrinsic experience. How can we recognize the difference?

  • Does the encounter have a clearly articulated beginning, middle and end?
  • Is it compelling enough that people would pay admission simply to be a part of the interaction?
  • Does one need to be there directly in order to benefit?

If all three conditions are true then you’re designing an experience. If not then you’re designing an encounter with a product or service.

User Experience Design held early promise in this realm but when I think of UX Design today I tend to think of software and digital interactions exclusively. That’s a perception from which I don’t believe UX Design can recover.

Don’t get me wrong — I love UX Design. I want the products and services in my life to be enjoyable and easy to use. They’re important and they’re worth doing well, but they’re not experiences. Most UX Designers are only designing encounters, and the few UX Designers who are designing experiences aren’t UX Designers at all — they’re Experience Designers.

Service Design has somehow avoided the “experience” trap. You’ll find references to service encounters, moments of truth and critical incidents throughout the literature, but you’ll rarely find the term experience. So here’s my pledge. From now on I won’t use the term “experience” on this blog or anywhere else in its phenomenological sense unless I’m talking about experiences as memorable events. As true experiences.

I invite the reformed UX designers out there to join me.

  1. Totally semantic hogwash. Especially the distinction between UX vs. ED. But I agree with your take-away to not use the word, “experience”.

    However, there’s one place this is really difficult: if you are evaluating the holistic service, what is that called?

  2. Jeff

    Hi Austin, I take it you’re a recalcitrant UX designer? 🙂

    My distinctions are based on the writings of John Dewey in “Having an Experience” from Art as Experience and Pine and Gilmore from The Experience Economy. I know this is a hard sell for UX designers, but I invite you to look into these two books if you’re interested in following it up.

    To answer your question: if you’re evaluating the holistic service, it’s called service design. That’s what this blog is mainly about. I occasionally also write about experience design since experiences are built on services.

  1. 1 Designing Better Libraries » Encounters And Experiences

    […] his post “The Experience Pledge” Jeff Howard’s point is that not everything – in fact most things – is not an […]

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