I observed last week that brand focus limits the effectiveness and to some extent denigrates the potential power of experience design. Experience design isn’t just about making things work better or more memorable, for the purpose of making sales. The design of “user experience” and “customer experience” may be the Next Big Things in marketing, but like the design of milk cartons or tennis shoes, they’re more about engineering than experience. I like the definitions of “experience” offered on Dictionary.com:
1. The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind: a child's first experience of snow.
2a. Active participation in events or activities, leading to the accumulation of knowledge or skill: a lesson taught by experience; a carpenter with experience in roof repair.
2b. The knowledge or skill so derived.
3a. An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
3b. The totality of such events in the past of an individual or group.
Further, to be “experienced” is
1. To participate in personally; undergo: experience a great adventure; experienced loneliness.
Jim Hendrix had it right. We aren’t users or buyers of experience (though we can impose a price for the opportunity to have an experience, the exchange of cash being its own petty experience). We are, as Dictionary.com puts it, “experiencers.” We personally participate in creating experience. To be human we must experience the world within collective and personal frameworks: our cultural traditions and our individual intellects, emotions, and spiritual selves.
Canons are rules that define a profession's ethics and by extension, the practice of the profession itself. I propose two canons for experience designers, motivations more profound than moving goods, selling politicians, or hyping destination resorts: experience design must edify and it must commutate.
These canons are not just “person-centric”; they are design-process-centric. Edification and commutation are outcomes of the experience design process. The experience designer, through self-experimentation and a conversation with the audience feedback, is affected and changed as much as the audience. In this light, embarking on an experience-design project is risky. You never know where you, the designer, might come out – or who you will be when you do.
Edification is simply defined (again, from Dictionary.com) as:
1. Intellectual, moral, or spiritual improvement; enlightenment.
2. Uplifting enlightenment.
Bruce Mau, Bob Rogers, Ralph Applebaum, and Paul Prejza and Deborah Sussman (among others) have offered eloquent descriptions of the edification canon, not as a formal rule, but as a desired outcome of their best work. The tacit outcome that accompanies this purpose, exemplified by Mau and Rogers, is that the designer is edified – improved upon, if you will – as much as the audience by the process and products of an experience design. Maybe their clients measure their success by some brand metric, but that’s not the ultimate reward for the design of experience, at least among the best of designers.
Commutation is a little more difficult. The common definitions relate to the reduction of criminal sentences or in the engineering world, the transmission of energy within an electric motor. (There’s no easy way to reduce the ardors of experience designing, but there’s no denying that it’s a process that energizes everyone involved – and not just individually; but also collectively, mutually.) These contemporary definitions obscure the original power of the concept: that an exchange between designer and audience occurs as a successful experience design emerges.
The term has a Latin root, in keeping with its initial use within the Catholic Church: commutation is the purifying process that occurs when a priest takes confession from a parishioner. Both emerge from the experience edified. Commutation also occurs when a religionist accepted the sacrament of bread and wine during Mass. This act of taking for the faithful transforms the food literally into the body of Christ.
Not to be too holy about it, but there are few experience designers who don’t experience a boost, maybe even edification, on seeing audiences really get into their creations. In fact, as Disneyland has long demonstrated, the audience creates the experience as much as the designer.
Experience design is a transactive process. Commutation leads to edification, and edification makes possible commutation.
How interesting and different our emerging discipline will become if instead of professing loyalty to brands, we as experience designers profess loyalty to the audiences with whom they create experiences, with whom they transact meanings and emotions: for whom and with whom they pursue edification and commutation. These are fit canons for a truly innovative design profession. -- Bob Jacobson