Experience + Context

When we talk about the user experience design or architecture, the term “experience” often becomes a source of contention. Some hold that it represents the innermost emotional response to stimuli, some claim it to be simply a means to filter that stimuli. In fact there are many flavors of experience, and many levels of nested meaning. For example, experience can refer to a body of gained knowledge and wisdom, and to the individual events that contributed to it. It is the ambiguous nature of term “experience” that drives much of the debate about “user experience”.

I believe that the narrow-term version of “experience” is most appropriate for use in “user experience design”. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the act or process of directly perceiving events or reality”, as well as, “the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation”.

In both flavors of the Merriam-Webster definition we see perception and an event. In the case of user experience design the software is the object of perception, and its use is the event. What is not captured int his discrete definition of experience are all of the elements that surround and situate the experience. In other words – the context.

Sticking with Merriam-Webster, context is defined as “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs”. All experiences occur within a context. They cannot be limited to just one part of the whole contextual setting.

Context is not a static concept. Conditions and setting change over time. Mobile computing increases the chance that the products we create will be used in a wide variety of spaces, and under all manner of conditions. This creates a challenge for us, but it is not one we cannot overcome.

More on that another time. There is still one level of complexity to add to the mix…

Experience also has a broad connotation. Back to Merriam-Webster – experience is also, “the conscious events that make up an individual life”. Each of those events has a set of nested pairings of experiences and contexts. I would argue that we each have a set of broad experience + context pairs that contain small pairs.

In each of our lives we have belonged to a number of cultural contexts. Each one has had a unique set of norms, its own language, and its own rules. We have work, school, family, hobby, and religious contexts each with its own set of conditions and settings. Each represents a different experience that provides “the conscious events that make up an individual life”. Each one of them is composed individual experiences and the contexts in which they occurred.

The as these experience + context pairs are rolled up into broader categories of life experience, the more difficult it become to purposefully craft them. The notion of designing the user experience gives way to an attempt to understand these broad experiences and create frameworks of designed elements to achieve an outcome. In other words, user experience design gives way to user experience architecture.


One Comment

  1. This is probably the most cogent contribution to the “can experience be designed” debate so far.