Lens: Type: Underlying Level

Power or influence relationships between aspects in a context.

Photo: joshhild
man viewing fireworks in a city from the roof

Some experience design aspects have more “weight” than others in different settings. People perceive that one aspect is a scene is more important than others. This weight creates hierarchy in a scene—where more noticeable aspects get more attention or override other aspects. For example, a beautiful sunrise can get so much attention that drivers can take their eyes off of morning traffic in front of them. A screaming child in a restaurant can override the quiet, romantic setting in a nice restaurant. A large banner image that spans a webpage can grab a user’s attention—causing them to read an advertisement for shaving cream. A global ad campaign can demand a significant amount of copywriting, design, and client management and in turn can dominate a design agency’s resources to produce and maintain, taking resources away from other client work. Aspects of an experience design scene have an order. Those aspects that get more attention and resources increase in hierarchy, and other aspects decrease.

Researching Hierarchy

Researching hierarchy helps designers discover what aspects are most “important” in a setting—dominate aspects that affect how people, resources, interconnections, and other aspects behave. In a setting like Texas in the summer where water is scarce, water conservation and efficient use can dominate people’s thinking. These conditions can cause people to behave differently (installing water use-reducing technologies) and can spawn new policies and laws (lawn watering restrictions). When designers implement products, services, and systems into settings, the hierarchy in a setting should inform how to design outcomes. Some outcomes are designed to work in harmony with an existing hierarchy because it cannot be changed. Other outcomes may even be designed to rearrange hierarchy—upending the existing scene. When researching hierarchy, designers explore relationships between aspects to understand arrangements better and how designed outcomes may be implemented to work within parameters.

Questions to Ask About Hierarchy

  • What is the arrangement of aspects in this setting?
  • What is most important that gets the most attention?
  • What is using the most resources in this setting?
  • What are the existing outcomes designed to “overcome” in the setting?
  • What are the least mentioned or noticed aspects in the setting?
  • Who or what is maintaining this hierarchy and why?

Look for These When Researching Hierarchy

  • The biggest or smallest concerns in the setting
  • The most imposing or least imposing natural or artificial elements
  • Organization charts that show hierarchy
  • What is getting most people’s attention in a setting


References and sources that support the inclusion of this Aspects of Experiences for Design component.


Bailey, R. G. (1987). Suggested hierarchy of criteria for multi-scale ecosystem mapping. Landscape and Urban Planning, 14, 313–319. https://doi.org/10.1016/0169-2046(87)90042-9

Huang, S.-L., Lai, H.-Y., & Lee, C.-L. (2001). Energy hierarchy and urban landscape system. Landscape and Urban Planning, 53(1), 145–161. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0169-2046(00)00150-X

Formal Science

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Physical Sciences

King, A. W. (1993). Considerations of scale and hierarchy. In S. Woodley & J. Kay (Eds.), Ecological Integrity and the Management of Ecosystems. CRC Press.

Wu, J. (2013). Hierarchy Theory: An Overview. In R. Rozzi, S. T. A. Pickett, C. Palmer, J. J. Armesto, & J. B. Callicott (Eds.), Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action (pp. 281–301). Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-7470-4_24