The extensive challenge designers and vendors of interactive products face is that “Experience or User Experience” is not about good industrial design, multi-touch, or fancy interfaces. It is about transcending the material. It is about creating an experience through a device”,  states Marc Hassenzahl in his book on “User Experience and Experience Design” in the Interaction Design Foundation’s (IDF) encyclopedia.

Apple Computer Inc. has a quite extreme focus on User Experience. Every aspect of every Apple product is built with User Experience in mind: For example, the details of their actual products (buttons, speakers, physical controls), the packacking of their products, the buying process (whether online or in an Apple store), their software,  their corporate website, etc. etc. (Top image: courtesy of Matt Buchanan and Daniel Zanetti. Copyrighted through the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.)

In this book “User Experience and Experience Design” Marc concludes that: “We should definitely shift attention (and resources) from the development of new technologies to the conscious design of resulting experiences, from technology-driven innovations to human-driven innovations.” Marc is an acknowledged Professor at the Folkwang University in Essen and he has a background in Psychology and as Usability Engineer at Siemens AG. He is interested in the positive affective and motivational aspects of interactive technologies – in short: User Experience.

This blog post is a condensed version of some of Marc’s points in “User Experience and Experience Design” – focusing on his simple conceptual model of WhyWhat and How as a starting point for the Experience Designer.


Video: Marc’s introduction to User Experience and Experience Design.

Why focus on Experience?

We all know that design of technology is undergoing a significant transformation these years and designers and vendors are struggling to understand, implement and develop User Experience and Experience Design. As the grand old man of technology design, Don Norman, a renowned professor, practitioner and world leader in the field of cognitive science, design and usability engineering, is capable of shedding light on this transformation in a few precise words. In his commentary to “User Experience and Experience Design” he explains that:

“Technologies migrate as they mature. In early childhood, their very existence is a marvel, even as people wonder what can be made of it. In early adolescence, they become more and more able to perform useful functions for us, and for a while, they are judged primarily on their ability to do more and more, better and better. Finally, in maturity, it is the quality of the experience provided by these technologies that matter. Adolescents thrust their technological underpinnings into our consciousness, even as we resisted. But once the technology becomes mature, it recedes into the background, supportive of the total experience it provides.

Design, it has been said (Krippendorff, 1989) is the creation of meaning, and as Hassenzahl points out, the essence of meaning to us people is our experiences. “

Assuming that the essence of meaning is our experiences, the very challenge of designing interactive products is to bring the resulting experience to the fore – to design the experience before the product. Principal researcher at Microsoft, Bill Buxton (2007, p. 127) puts it this way: “Despite the technocratic and materialistic bias of our [US-American] culture, it is ultimately experiences we are designing, not things.” But how can you design an experience?


Designing an experience: Why, What and How

Marc summarizes his thoughts in a simple conceptual model. He distinguishes three different levels, when designing an experience through the interaction with an object: The WhyWhat and How level.

“The What addresses the things people can do through an interactive product, such as “making a telephone call,” “buying a book,” or “listening to a song.” Reflected by a products’ functionality, the What is often intimately tied to the technology itself or a certain product genre. The How in turn addresses acting through an object on an operational, sensory-motor level: Buttons pressed, knobs turned, menus navigated, touch screens stroked, or remotes waggled. The How is even more tied to the actual object to be designed and its context of use.

The How is the typical realm of the interaction designer: to make given functionality accessible in an aesthetically pleasing way. To give an example: “Making a telephone call” (a What) requires an action to select a conversional partner, as well as to initiate and to end the call. How this is done with – let’s say – a mobile phone is specified by the interaction designer. [An] example of the different orange squeezers,  Bill Buxton (2007) provided, addresses possible differences in the quality of the interaction design, the How. Even given the same functionality (i.e., squeezing oranges), performing the action “feels” better with some products. Nowadays, the bundle of What and How is typically considered the product, and an especially sensual, aesthetic, novel, or stimulating arrangement of interaction makes this product “experiential.”

This view ignores peoples’ actual motivation to use a product. For [a] couple being separated, the SMS [is] not primarily an SMS, it was a love message, a way to fulfill their need for relatedness. This is the Why of product use. Telephone calls are not only – technologically speaking – telephone calls. In reality, they are the glorious beginning or the sad end of a close relationship, a surrogate good-night kiss, an act of support, a way to kill time, or a pizza order. People engage in these activities out of a need to be related, to help, to be stimulated, or to ease their appetites. The telephone just happens to be instrumental, but it does not necessarily reflect upon the underlying needs, emotions, and associated practices.

Experience Design is a remedy to this. It starts from the Why, tries to clarify the needs and emotions involved in an activity, the meaning, the experience. Only then, it determines functionality that is able to provide the experience (the What) and an appropriate way of putting the functionality to action (the How). Experience Design wants the WhyWhat and How to chime together, but with the Why, the needs and emotions, setting the tone (see Figure 3.7). This leads to products which are sensitive to the particularities of human experience. It leads to products able to tell enjoyable stories through their use or consumption.



Figure: From the Why to the What and the How: Three levels to consider when designing technology-mediated experiences.


Conclusion and future directions

The notion of (User) Experience as stories told through products has a potential to change the way we think and design. At the moment, the majority of commercially available interactive devices is either too practical or too open-ended. The practical view results in very obvious and uninspiring stories: how exciting is keeping a calendar on a mobile phone? The open-ended view on the other hand just provides functionality, such as texting, and leaves it to the user to come up with meaningful and inspiring usage scenarios, such as sending “love messages.” In this case, the creation of meaningful experiences through appropriating a technology remains the responsibility of the “user”. In contrast, Experience Design stands for technology, which suggests meaningful, engaging, valuable, and aesthetically pleasing experiences in itself. Thinking “communication experiences” rather than “mobile devices” opens up a huge design space for possible devices – even slippers (Chen et al 2006) or pillows (Laschke et al 2010).

Don’t get me wrong, we still need all the wonderful technologies, dreamt up by engineers and computer scientists all over the world. But they are only materials – canvas, colours, and brushes – for the Experience Designer. From a business perspective, shifting attention from technological to experiential advancement makes sense, as long as the invention of new technologies and their marketing becomes increasingly difficult.”


More information

You can read to the book and find the full reference list on User Experience and Experience Design by Marc Hassenzahl with commentaries by Don Norman, Eric L. Reiss, Mark Blythe, Whitney Hess and Paul Hekkert. It is free in the online version. Included in the book you will also find four video interviews with Marc.




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