I have always been astounded by creation—how designers know what to make and how it should be designed to achieve a purpose. The process can feel like magic (Kolko, 2011). So many variables come together when people make things that are used. Even more variables are involved when we make things that should evoke an experience in people.
When we research in the field, what do we look for to inform our design when there’s so much happening in a context? How do we know what to make, how it should function, and what it should look and feel like? What do we need to know about the people who will use the things we create?
Can we, with any degree of certainty, create something that will support a rich experience that people will value?
These questions sparked my research to discover essential aspects that comprise scenes where people use products, services, and systems. Not only did I want to know what designers said about these experiences, but I also wanted to know what psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, artists, physicists, and poets said about them. I wanted to know what they say an experience actually is.
I wanted to learn the full vocabulary of details that make up the experiences people have when they use design.
All this, so I could begin to understand how to create, research, and teach experience design—an approach to designing that considers a person’s complete experience as the impetus for design. For example…
How we design services like Zion National Park’s shuttle service that reduces environmental impact and improves visitors’ engagement with the canyon because auto traffic is eliminated.
How designers can create materials that tell the story of an inclusive world of people like this mailer by Justice that includes girls with Down syndrome.
How thoughtful touches and messages of care and concern belong in design. When Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher died in 2019, Southwest employees personally responded to every condolence post on the airline’s Facebook page.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou
I wanted to know how designers of all kinds can research and create outcomes that make people feel.
The Experience Design Mindset
Designers take on a mindset when they research for design and create outcomes. A traditional design mindset emphasizes the designed product as a driver for design. Designers with this mindset sometimes consider how usable their product will be, but are often most concerned about making a desirable “thing.” A user experience mindset shifts the focus to use. Designers who hold this mindset measure success by how effectively the intended person or people group could use the outcome. Both the traditional and user experience mindsets stop short of considering the entire scene—the complete tangible and intangible experience—when people use design.
An experience design mindset embraces the complexity of design scenes that involve contexts, people, and objects (any designed outcome). When a designer with an experience design mindset researches people, they want to know a person’s physical and emotional states as well as their cultural background. These designers examine scenes at different levels, using different lenses that reveal unarticulated needs and opportunities for design to meet these needs to facilitate meaningful experiences. When experience designers create, they select materials, processes, and seek to trigger senses to facilitate an emotional response while still helping a person achieve their goal.
Assembling a Lexicon: AoE4D
As it turns out, experts in business, design, social, natural, and formal sciences, philosophy, and art had a lot to say about experiences. Some talked specifically about design’s role in creating experiences. Others explored what it means to experience. After two years of work, a lexicon coalesced—AoE4D: Aspects of Experience for Design—48 aspects that represent matters that affect people’s experiences when they use design. These aspects highlight observable and unobservable qualities and behavior.
Eleven aspects focus on matters of context.
The physical spaces, ideas, and prevailing attitudes of a place and time affect experience design scenes.
Physical spaces, ideas, and prevailing attitudes that surround people’s experiences.
Twenty-six address aspects of people, both as individuals and as relational beings.
Anyone who uses design to complete an activity.
People, in all their glorious and diverse detail, who use products, services, and systems.
And eleven aspects detail matters regarding how products, services, and systems are made, how they work, and what they mean.
Anything designed—a product, service, or system.
Any designed outcome.
Pages on this website share each aspect in detail.
AoE4D was created to be used. Yes, it’s fun to taxonomize things and map things for greater understanding—I’m a big fan. But AoE4D is designed, which means it’s a tool that should be used to complete activities and accomplish goals.
AoE4D for Research
Experience designers often conduct field research to discover peoples’ needs, values, and preferences for design. This work involves operating methods like observations, interviews, and surveys to gain insights. AoE4D helps guide research into contexts, people, and objects—helping researchers use a wide range of lenses when they study experience design scenes.
The culture aspect reminds researchers to consider peoples’ cultural backgrounds as an important component of their identities.
AoE4D for Designing
Experience Design is media-agnostic. Designers do not assume from the start that an app or a service will be designed. Instead, they identify what feelings and experiences should be facilitated, then designers select what types of design outcomes would best achieve these goals. AoE4D helps designers consider a wide range of peoples’ real and perceived sensations and how outcomes can be designed to make them happen.
The bank of words and gestures a person knows and uses.
The language aspect guides designers to apply dialects, slang, and other language usages that carry unique meanings in the outcomes they create.
AoE4D for Teaching
Traditional design privileges the artifact—a poster, a typeface, an app—as the impetus of the design process. Emphasizing artifacts often means that peoples’ uniqueness and contextual factors can be neglected. Experience design expands the concerns for design beyond the artifact and usability. AoE4D helps educators and learners consider a broad spectrum of aspects that shape people’s experiences and design in experience design scenes.
How a person conceives the overall “tone” of the world.
The worldview aspect highlights that people perceive the world differently based on their prior experiences. When this is understood, outcomes can be created so they align with or even challenge peoples’ worldviews.