Incidental Experience

If everything is experience, then nothing is experience.

That’s from a presentation [PDF 1.9MB] by Anna Snel at PicNic 2007. The quote pretty much sums up my feelings about the term “experience.” Technically, I suppose every moment of human consciousness is experienced in some way. From that point of view you could make the case that everything is an experience, even if only incidentally.

But from a design perspective, an experience is more focused than that. It’s something memorable. Something special. Those moments in the day-to-day flow of sensation that stand out. Moments that are emotionally resonate. Moments that matter.

The quote reminds me of an old joke from graphic design about the client who wants to make everything more prominent.

You have to be selective about doling out emphasis or the effect is lost. There’s value in addressing the day-to-day flow of incidental experiences as long as they don’t blind us to the power of designing for explicit experience.


  1. i would definitely check out dewey’s art as experience, in particular chapter two where he might be the first person to give a clear definition of what “having an experience” exactly means.

  2. Jeff

    Hi Elliott, Thanks for chiming in. I agree that Dewey’s work is critical. Of course, I spent two years at CMU with Dick Buchanan as a thesis advisor so Dewey would have been tough to avoid.

    Philosophy texts from the 1930s don’t tend to carry much weight outside of the CMU design program, but I’ve written about Dewey’s perspective a few times here at Design for Service. For example, a couple years ago I explored the intersection of his views with those of Pine and Gilmore.

    Understanding Experience – October 2007

  3. Yes, I follow your blog and forgot you went to CMU. Dick as thesis advisor? I’m jealous. I graduated from the HCI program, but was lucky enough to take seminar 1 and Design Management and Organizational Change, and those were some of the most influential classes of my academic career.




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