What is an experience?

While reading “Basic Issues in Aesthetics” by critical Muelder Eaton — a comprehensive and pleasant overview of key concepts of aesthetics, I would say — I came across this concept that has been quite influential in how I think about (delightful) design: Dewey’s notion of experience. Considering that UX design has consolidated as a design field, with many young designers who didn’t live the transition from “no computer at home” to “digital services and products available through mobile devices,” I wonder what a UX designer would answer if I ask her: what do you mean by user experience? Certainly, Dewey’s notion of experience is not the only concept defining UX. However, when one reads the simple way Muelder Eaton explains this concept, one may note how theory (from other fields, including art philosophy) has ontologically shaped UX design.

Here are some fragments of the text by Muelder Eaton and my quick reactions to these:

John Dewey proposed another kind of expression theory of art, one that takes account of the crucial role of the crafted object as well as the contribution made by an artist’s feelings and conceptions (p.29).

The word experience entails an aesthetic dimension. Though UX design certainly emphasizes functionality and usability, Dewey’s notion of experience reminds us that the product as a whole — not only through its functionality — and how it embodies the designer’s intent, stance, experiential knowledge, and affective aims play a major role in interaction time.

Dewey based his theory of art on a theory of experience. Having an experience is to be distinguished, he urged, from just being alive (p. 29).

Talking about user experiences becomes a big thing when this simple idea is considered. To me, it makes me think of or ask about the value of digital products and services. With these being so pervasive and easy to disregard because one may take them for granted — except when they don’t work well — I would like to ask if these contribute to the generation of experiences in the sense of Dewey. If they make us live or feel something more than just being alive. Hence one of my claims is that delightful design needs to support living a happy and flourishing life — not just be there to be consumed.

That is, an experience is a coherent unit that relates features present in the complex interactions between a human organism and the chaotic welter of things that act on him or her (p. 29).

It sounds simple, but it is a powerful definition. More than once, I’ve had students who have asked me how to define an interaction flow, expecting that there is a formula for any feature/product case. I think that starting with a broad but well-scoped definition like this one helps us think of what-not-exists-yet in a more careful way, with more joy and imagination. From this definition, we see the connection with the design field. I would rephrase: a user experience is a coherent unit that relates features present in the complex interactions between a user and the elements and things from the context of use that act on the user at a certain moment.

Walking on the beach becomes a walk on the beach when parts are organized — when there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, for instance — when some structure draws the various events and reactions together. Artists provide us with experiences by producing structured objects or events that bring together various aspects of disjoint perceptions and organize them into coherent wholes (p. 29).

In this case, I would like to say that: designers provide users with experiences by producing structured, interactive objects or events — multimodal gestalts that build on computational technology — that combine various aspects of disjoint perceptions and organize them into coherent wholes that often relate to needs fulfillment, tasks completion, or goals achievement.

Experiences, according to Dewey, always begin with “impulsions” — needs or desires. They continue as intentions are formed, and obstacles are encountered and surmounted. Expressions are reflective experiences. They are not just actions in which one gives way to impulse — for example, you suddenly kick a piece of driftwood because you are angry with your lover. An expression involves values that go beyond the mere moment at which one acts, and it involves a “development” of what is felt, a “working out to completion.” According to Dewey’s account, an expression is not a spewing out, but an organization, so the artist must be aware of the meaning of what is being done. This entails purposefulness — a consciousness of action as a means to a particular end. And this in turn necessitates awareness of the medium. The emotion, in a sense, is put into or transformed into an object. Thus in art, the object is as important as the artist’s feelings and ideas. The artist must consciously use sounds or sights to convey meaning (p. 30).

Again, one may see these ideas as pretty powerful to explain user experience design, considering that they were published in 1934! Their translation to user experience design may seem obvious now. However, these ideas remind us that intent and expression are key elements in designing for experiences and how these two concepts quickly connect with the designer’s abductive ability and her available repertoire — the collection of images, ideas, examples, and actions that she draws upon, including past projects and the knowledge gained from them. A designed digital product or service is an expression — a multimodal gestalt, as I just defined above — that involves purposefulness and embodies both the designer’s emotions — in her role of creator — and the affective aims towards the user. Designing for experiences is an experience itself. Moreover, these ideas help us note that the term user in user experience is essential. Designing for a certain kind of experience is the goal of the designer. However, designing for an experience is only one side of the coin. The elements or factors in the current context of use — including the user’s cognitive, physical, and emotional state — will always affect the expression, the outcome of utilizing the designed product or service in order to deal with current impulsions.

The urge to write these quick reactions to Muelder Eaton’s writing has to do with acknowledging where the field comes from and the paradigmatic shift within design, human-computer interaction, and business that helped user experience become what it is now. With so much discourse and a plethora of resources and information about user experience design, I consider it crucial to be attentive to the foundations and the genealogy of the field so that it does not end up seeming formulaic, shallow, or a commodity.

So, what does user experience mean to you?

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Omar Sosa-Tzec

Assistant Professor of Design Foundations at San Francisco State University