Post IA Summit Thoughts on Experience and Context

After some deep conversations with Matthew Milan, Matt Nish-Lapidus, Andrew Hinton, Andrea Resmini, Karl Fast, and Joe Sokohl (as well as seeing presentations by Peter Moreville, and Peter Merholz), I have a new take on the experience/context dynamic.

First, the simple version …

The basic notion is that an actor (user, customer, consumer, etc.) operates within a context, and interacts with it either directly or mediated through code (since the device and the code are nigh inseparable, I have decided to just stick with code for now).

The interactions, and the effects they have, form the experience. The experience, in turn, affects the context. This system is truly dynamic with each part acting and reacting to all of the other parts.

Now let’s look at the larger version …

The actor is immersed within the context. He or she is constantly observing, orienting, deciding, and then acting (I will post about the OODA loop soon … I promise). Cultural elements (in the anthropological sense) move in and out of the actor’s context. Very few of the actor’s interactions are purely direct or purely mediated by code. In fact cultural elements, code, and the actor share a dance of sorts within the context.

A good example of that dance is found in the nature of place and space as explained in Andrea Resmini’s IAS12 presentation. In brief (and in Andrea’s words) place is where we pause, and space is where we move. Imagine a trip from your home to your favorite restaurant. During your journey you will pass many cues that tell you that you are on course – street signs, landmarks, etc. On another occasion one of those landmarks may be a place where you pause, but on this journey it is just a navigation marker.

The experience of the journey to your favorite restaurant is a series of interactions that move your context from home, to the car, to the journey, to the restaurant, to dinner with friends. All along the way we experience a constant flow of touch point interactions and changes in context.

So why call out code? As I have previously posted, code is becoming ubiquitous. It pervades all of the contexts that we flow through. And finally (and this is the key point) it is the material with which we IAs, IxDs, and UXers build our contribution to the experience and the context.

Later I will write more about the practical implications of this model, but for now I want to stay on the theoretical side in order to refine this a bit more.


  1. Not a response, but more like additional ammo. Ryan Singer has a great post where he essentially defines context in relation to an interface:

    And a crap response, but just to scribble the thought down: feels like your diagram conflates two different pieces of a larger diagram.

  2. That piece by Ryan Singer is quite good. It is not unlike interpretive anthropology which has at its core the notion that meaning is replicated and communicated by a commonly held set of symbols. Cultures do not formalize them or codify them. They exist like Singer’s patterns.

    The cycles of act and react are contextualized experiences. Actors in a given context derive understanding, build relationships, and act out behaviors based on a set of symbols (or patterns).

    Thanks for pointing me to that article.

  3. One quick thought while I put together larger thoughts.. I think that the one way act/react isn’t quite right. Culture and systems can also act, prompting the “actor” to react. In most systems each piece can be the actor at different times, prompting reactions from other pieces.

    • Good call. I like that.

    • this moves us through to the term “interact” (and interaction, etc.), right? since we get beyond a binary or polar act/react model and see a synthesis in which objects and actors interact with each other dynamically.

      • I see sythesis and interaction as a series of John Boyd’s OODA loops. When people go through the process of observe, orient, decide, and act, they may learn something that changes the next loop. I like to think of act/react as the atomic element and interaction and systhesis as larger compositions.

        But you do raise a good point that may alter my opinion. I have the book Flow on my reading list. I have a feeling that might address it as well.

  4. David – I’m way behind commenting on this. I like the thoughts you’ve put together here, but actually I will still have to let a response stew a while, because I’m so crazy-deep in my own headspace on the topic, it’s hard to get out of that enough to give you a more helpful reply.
    For the sake of having some content to my reply here, though, in a nutshell, where I’m personally heading is seeing Context as an aggregate of several elements: Subject (the thing being understood), Situation (the circumstances informing an understanding of the subject), Agent (the entity trying to make sense of the subject/situation) and Understanding (the condition being worked toward by the Agent). This gets weird quickly because the Agent can be the Subject; the Subject can be the Situation; the Agent and/or Subject can be part of the Situation for another Subject/Agent … on and on. But at least it gives us terms for analyzing a given scenario or system, by looking at each element from that element’s point of view and seeing how it all shakes out.
    So anyway — context isn’t a stable thing. And this brings the conversation much closer to a model like that of a Sign in semiotics. I’m unpacking this for the book right now … and trying to be practical at the same time. Ha!
    At any rate, this is great stuff that I’ll circle back to as soon as I can. But let’s talk more the next chance we get ok?

    • Context is definitely unstable, which makes it fun and challenging to model. And it provides good job security. :)

      I need to dig into semiotics some more but it sounds closely aligned with symbolic and interpretive anthropology.

      It also has a close relation to second-order cybernetics and conversation theory. Talking with Matt Milan and Matt Nish-Lapidus turned me on to those two academic disciplines.

      You’re framework sounds like a good synthesis of all of those with a solid UX twist. Can’t wait to read that book.

      More soon – I need to give your comment more thought and consideration.