Defining Experience: Clarity Amidst the Jargon


A space for seeing the world in a different way

A column by Dirk Knemeyer
April 12, 2008

The word experience has gained significant traction over the past 15 years. Beginning with the mainstreaming of the term user experience in the software industry and, later, extended to the work of marketing professionals who began thinking about marketing as being experiential, the idea of experience as a focused professional area of endeavor is alive, well, and growing rapidly. However, the more our space grows, the more confused and chaotic is our collective understanding of the meaning of these terms. To try to help clarify this murkiness, I want to share my definitional model for the fields of experience and provide guidelines for the use of various terms.

Who am I to be providing these definitions? I believe my background uniquely suits me to presenting a holistic solution. During my career, I’ve spent at least a few years in each of the following professions: advertising executive, management consultant, product designer, and entrepreneur. I’ve thought in depth about the concept of experience and been professionally engaged in creating experiences from the product, marketing, and business viewpoints. I’ve worked on and written about things impacting experience as diverse as the restructuring of companies, the design of complex 3D environments, and the development of various forms of creation—ranging from software to marketing collateral. More, I’ve been actively involved in the thought leadership of these fields. My various board appointments include serving as President of the User Experience Network (UXnet) and as a Director of the AIGA Center for Brand Experience. To be honest, since I’ve understood these terms and their relationships for a long time, all of the professional confusion and conflict out there has been a source of perpetual frustration to me—ultimately providing the impetus for me to write this article. With that in mind, let me share the three core experience terms I advocate and show how they interact.

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Brand Experience

Brand experience refers to all of the touchpoints a company has with people, including—but not limited to—advertising, marketing, and public relations; packaging, point-of-purchase, and retail display; software and online and Internet-related services; and the physical spaces where people work. By strict definition, a brand experience is quantifiable and can be temporally fixed. For example, a company like Proctor & Gamble has, at least, thousands of touchpoints around the world, all of which collectively make up their brand experience. In practice, the intentional planning of the brand experience for a company like P&G specifically accounts for these touchpoints at a relatively high level—such as a category encompassing all physical buildings, with a further segmentation of all of the different types of physical buildings within their purview. However, the actual design of those buildings occurs at a level below brand experience. It is up to the brand experience organization to identify all of the different touchpoints or categories of touchpoints and set brand guidelines, design strategy, and business requirements for them. The execution of those tactics and the design of explicit artifacts occurs at the next level, which we collectively refer to as experience design.

Experience Design

Experience design refers to the planning, creation, and management of articulated touchpoints within the brand experience. As such, it is fluid and can include the design of anything, ranging from a trade-show booth to a sales brochure to an intranet. Historically, we have associated different terms and areas of specialty with designing particular things—in those specific examples, exhibit design, marketing, and software user interface design. In most cases, it is best to continue using these more specific and well-established terms, as they are well understood and provide good clarity around definition and intent. However, when looking across those terms collectively, they all represent different examples of experience design—actually planning, creating, and managing specific, explicit components of the brand experience.

User Experience

User experience refers to the quality of experience a person has while interacting with a specific design. Unlike brand experience and experience design, which refer to explicit and concrete things, user experience is contextual and malleable. For example, I might ask about a television ad, “Does that ad provide a good user experience?” But, considering a person watching the very same ad and also evaluating the larger physical context in which he is watching the ad, it would be equally valid to ask, “Does this environment provide a good user experience?” While the former case considers just one limited and specific artifact and the latter considers a much wider and multidimensional context of use, both are correct uses of the term user experience. It is an evaluative qualifier that speaks to the success or failure of an experience from the perspective of a user.

Relationally, experience design is a child of user experience. After all, user experience focuses on the experience itself, in the broadest possible way, so is of interest to stakeholders from almost every corner of a business or organization. Marketing, research, engineering, product management, and others are deeply vested in the experiences their organizations produce. On the other hand, experience design, by its very constitution, centers on the design of what is being created. While all of the stakeholders I alluded to earlier might remain interested in the actual design of an experience, ultimately a label relating to design cannot be as inclusive or complete. Thus, the notion of experience design falls within the ecosystem of user experience and encapsulates issues and considerations relating to their specific planning, creation, and management. This is a critical difference and is important to understanding and using these terms properly.

Clumsy or Incorrect Usage of Terms

User experience is sometimes followed by words like designer or researcher, referring to an individual practitioner. Likewise, some people alter the term experience design to become experience designer. Neither of these uses is correct. In the case of user experience designer, one cannot ultimately design the quality of an experience. However, a designer can actually design an experience and attempt to make that experience as good as possible. While that would then seemingly make experience designer a reasonable label for someone who designs experiences, it is simply too nebulous and non-specific. An experience can be anything. Thus, to say someone is an experience designer just doesn’t shed any light on what she actually does. Consider this example:

Sam: Hi Sally, what do you do?

Sally: I’m an experience designer!

Sam: ‹pause› What do you do?

Sally: Well, I design lots of stuff such as…

Saying experience designer simply does not clarify to people what you are talking about, making the label and its use frustrating for everyone. While one technically correct use of the term could occur in a conversation like the following, its application is ultimately completely redundant:

Jane: “Who produced this brochure?”

Joe: “I think it was Acme, and Julie was the experience designer.”

Why not just say Julie was the designer? What does the prefix experience add to the explanation?

Instead, it’s better to clearly indicate what part of an experience someone is designing—as in common titles such as interaction designer, graphic designer, or industrial designer. Some people claim that, because they are using multiple skills or design disciplines in their work, this justifies titles that incorporate user experience or experience. But, if there is no highest common denominator among these disciplines—such as using interface designer for someone whose work combines information, interaction, and graphic design in a software setting—using the term designer works just as well. Trying to make the various permutations of experience work does not provide any helpful clarity or specificity beyond just saying design and, in the process, raises a host of literally unanswerable questions as to what is meant by experience designer. What do we gain by bringing all of this clutter into our communication?

Another common misnomer adds the word team or group after user experience, referring to a department or other group of individuals. The software industry, where I have spent my last few professional years, has embraced the term user experience, and many companies have structured departments and provided job titles using that rubric. While substituting experience design for user experience in these cases would be an improvement—as that term is more specific and constrained to roughly what people are using phrases like user experience team to refer to today—simpler, more traditional titles like product development team, product design team, or something of that nature would be even better. The introduction of experience terminology in these cases obfuscates rather than illuminates. Sure, experience is sexy. But let’s get over ourselves here: Most important of all in a business or work setting is communicating with clarity and efficiency. If you want to shake things up or try a new initiative, don’t try to relabel the whole organizational structure to create some sizzle. Instead, attack things at a functional level and get to the essence of creating change.

Lifespan for the Use of Experience Terminology

Brand experience, experience design, and user experience are terms that have a logical, explicit, and well-articulated space in our foreseeable future—if they can survive the trends for relabeling that rear their heads every decade or two. Companies will always have a need to think about identifying and orchestrating the myriad touchpoints they have with their customers, employees, stakeholders, and the marketplace. We might as well call this brand experience, as that is a fairly descriptive term that puts the emphasis of those touchpoints on the experience—an implicit reminder that interactions with people ultimately define our organizations. Then, we need to explicitly plan, create, and manage those identifying experiences. Why wouldn’t it make sense to continue calling that experience design?

Likewise, user experience is a term that addresses a specific and vital long-term need. We should consider everything a company produces through the lens of the quality of a user’s experience. This is an essential consideration in the success of an artifact or environment and, ultimately, to the overall success of a business as well. The term user experience provides a very literal and descriptive means of identifying this concept—one that is already in widespread use. Many people—myself included—have decried the word user and pressed for a better alternative to user experience. Yet, the more time that passes, the more wrong-minded I think that crusade is. We already have a term that many people understand and use. Even though, culturally, we have some recent history around the very specific, negative connotation of drug user, the fact is, if you research the etymology of the word user, you will discover it has a far more neutral and balanced evolution. It even has a specific history in economics, making it perfect for the term’s business context. User experience just makes sense.

The Future of Experience

For those of us who are professionally involved in thinking about or creating experiences, the future is very bright. Each day, it is becoming more and more difficult for companies to differentiate themselves from one another and increase the volume or loyalty of their customers. For the foreseeable future, the ultimate differentiator will be one of experience. And the more this trend accelerates, the greater the need will be for companies to invest in and truly pay attention to their customers’ experiences. This not only means greater opportunities and possibilities for us as professionals, it also portends a world and a marketplace teeming with superior experiences. At the farthest extreme—assuming there are no unexpected natural, terrorist, or economic disasters—such a world should lead to increased happiness and well-being for us all. These are very good things.

One of the best things we can do to help ourselves professionally is to establish a shared vision of who and what we really are—and what everyday terminology we should use to talk about our disciplines. Given the newness of experience terminology, we are at a point where we can quite possibly reach some agreement as a community and all tell the same story from a relatively shared perspective. To the best of my knowledge, there are no turf wars of any kind around these professional spaces, and it would certainly be to our collective benefit to be talking about these things in the same way.

Brand experience refers to all of the touchpoints a company has with people. We need to plan, create, and manage those touchpoints—this is the process of experience design. Finally, every product, service, communication, and environment relating to a business should have a good user experience and let users successfully accomplish their goals. Some of the many things we can try to accomplish with the things we create are to surprise, fulfill, facilitate, enlighten, and delight.

The pieces of this terminology puzzle I’ve defined make sense, and they fit together into a cohesive whole quite nicely. Let’s have the discipline and good sense to speak and think about these things in a consistent and coherent way, so we can move our collective areas of professional practice forward successfully. 

Managing Director, SciStories LLC

Co-owner of Genius Games LLC

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Dirk KnemeyerAs a social futurist, Dirk envisions solutions to system-level problems at the intersection of humanity, technology, and society. He is currently the managing director of SciStories LLC, a design agency working with biotech startups and research scientists. In addition to leading SciStories, Dirk is a co-owner of Genius Games LLC, a publisher of science and history games. He also cohosts and produces Creative Next, a podcast and research project exploring the future of creative work. Dirk has been a design entrepreneur for over 15 years, has raised institutional venture funding, and has enjoyed two successful exits. He earned a Master of Arts from the prestigious Popular Culture program at Bowling Green.  Read More

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