When Is an Immersive Digital Experience Appropriate?

November 21, 2011

When creating a Web site or application whose primary intent is to house content, or a platform, the primary goal should be getting a user to his destination. Therefore, in creating platforms, you should prioritize usability over providing an immersive experience. However, when designing a program—any Web site, application, or interactive element whose main purpose is to communicate a message—the primary goal should be to communicate the message at every step of a user’s journey toward his destination. That means programs can sacrifice usability, in certain circumstances, in favor of providing an immersive experience.

I started thinking about the conditions under which an immersive digital experience is appropriate when a Creative Director made this comment to me: “Sure, it’s fine to make things usable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create fun, experiential campaigns.”

I agree with that statement. Fun campaigns that are also usable can be very successful and achieve many types of business objectives. That said, there are a couple of things everyone should understand about creating immersive digital experiences.

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What Are You Building, a Platform or a Program?

It’s important to know the difference between a platform and a program.

  • We build platforms to manage content.
  • We build programs to communicate a message.

You can see examples of both a platform and a program on the IKEA Web site. The site itself is a platform because it manages a catalog of products and services, as shown in red in Figure 1. The area shown in blue in Figure 1 is a program because it communicates a selection of products that are part of a current sale event.

Figure 1—IKEA Web site
IKEA Web site

So, when developing a Web site or application, one of the first steps on a project is determining whether you’re building a platform or a program.

Building a Platform for Destination-Focused Users

Any Web site or application could be a platform. Determining whether a site or application is a platform really depends on whether you’re creating a system to support content or you’re creating the content itself. Although you could be creating both a system to support content and the content at the same time, content creation generally requires a different process from creating a system to support content. Let’s assume that content strategy and content discovery are already complete, so we can begin to focus on the system requirements that are necessary to support the content.

The three primary objectives a platform needs to accomplish are as follows and are depicted in Figure 2:

  1. scaling to support long-term objectives
  2. organizing content
  3. ensuring users can find relevant content
Figure 2—Three essential goals for a platform
Three essential goals for a platform

A Framework for Platform Planning

Now, let’s look at these three aspects of platform planning in depth, as parts of the Platform Planning Framework shown in Figure 3. Table 1 describes each key objective of platform planning in detail.

Figure 3—Platform Planning Framework
Platform Planning Framework

Download the Platform Planning Framework as an editable PDF.

Table 1—Platform planning objectives
Objective Description Supporting Documentation


One of the keys to a good platform is not only accommodating content that currently exists, but creating affordances for content and functionality that would be desirable in the future. Think about for how long you’d like a platform to last before doing a substantial redesign. It may not be possible to foresee the need for certain features or content, but understanding what kinds of future features and content might be desirable helps in determining a site’s overall user interface and interaction design.

Strategic road maps

Content calendars

Content strategy

Business requirements

Measurement plans


Information architecture is an important part of every platform. Without an information architecture that groups content in logical categories and utilizes a logical tagging structure, a platform would be unusable. Organization goes beyond categorization and touches on taxonomy, system architecture, and navigation design.


Card sort or tree-testing results

Content inventory

Site map

User flows


Ensuring that users always know where they are, what to do next, and what to expect when they take an action are all parts of findability. Creating a platform that ensures users can find what they’re looking for is not only part of establishing a proper tagging and folder structure, but also factors into interaction design, visual design, copywriting, and information architecture. Understanding what user flows are most important allows an information architect to eliminate less important user flows, if necessary, to keep users focused on the more important flows. When wireframing, an experience architect can express prioritized user flows, according to the saliency and hierarchy of different pieces of content.

Mental models

Navigation design


Usability testing results


Site search design

An easy way to determine whether you’re building a platform is to ask yourself: Are users focused more on the destination or the journey? If users’ focus is on the destination, you’re probably building a platform; if their focus is on the journey, you’re probably building a program.

Although platforms should focus on getting users to their destination as quickly as possible, once users have made it to their destination, creating a more immersive experience is valuable. For example, once users get to a product detail page on the IKEA Web site, they’ve essentially reached their destination. So, these platform-level pages can be more immersive than category, department, or collection pages.

Building a Program for Journey-Focused Users

All programs have one thing in common: they focus on the journey. Every program should have defined KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that translate business objectives into measurable actions. KPIs represent conversion factors, so businesses often consider them the destinations of user journeys. As Figure 4 shows, there are three key factors in program planning: mood, journey, and message.

Figure 4—Three key factors in program planning
Three key factors in program planning

A Framework for Program Planning

The most effective tool I’ve used in planning a program is the Program Planning Framework shown in Figure 5, which takes the form of a swim-lane diagram. Instead of focusing on usability and feature sets, as in the Platform Planning Framework, this framework focuses on users’ reactions to different messages and milestones in a user journey.

Figure 5—Program Planning Framework
Program Planning Framework

Download the Program Planning Framework as an editable PDF.

The key factors in program planning are as follows:

  • mood boards / mood maps—This swim lane can take the form of icons, graphics, storyboards, or words. The intention of this swim lane is to map out the emotional state of users throughout a user journey. Although getting users to the destination should be your goal, progressive conversion can be an effective way of gathering user information throughout an entire user journey.
  • user journeys—A user flow diagram that maps back to the other swim lanes best illustrates this swim lane. When you need greater fidelity, you can use thumbnails of each decision point instead of simple page names or labels. For deeply immersive experiences, I like to use the user journey swim lane as a storyboard list. I can blow up each decision point into an illustration that I can import into my wireframes and provide a point of reference within the user interface. I design the user interface itself using a standard wireframing tool like OmniGraffle or Axure.
  • messages—This swim lane focuses on how many messages a program communicates and in what part of the user journey to deliver them. This type of message mapping can help an experience architect to clearly understand what each page, feature, and process needs to communicate.

Programs generally comprise several different components. Although each component might communicate a different message, all of them should work together to tell a cohesive story. For example, email messages and banners might deliver teaser messages that ask users to visit a microsite. The microsite might be an interactive film that walks users though a personalized story that ends by asking users to share their story with their Facebook and Twitter friends. Both Facebook and Twitter serve as amplification and awareness-building channels that carry both messages of brand advocacy, as well as messages that ask people to visit the microsite. This example shows how a simple program ecosystem of five channels can tell a cohesive story by communicating a number of different messages. However, some program ecosystems can be much more complex and utilize dynamic messages that send users down dozens of unique user flows.

In Summary

So, when is an immersive digital experience appropriate? Although platforms should focus on getting users to their destination, the content users find there can be immersive. Programs should be immersive, but balance experiential design with usable design.

Immersive experiences are notoriously difficult to document, from a UX perspective. The frameworks I’ve outlined are helpful in defining immersive experiences to a sufficient level of fidelity for a client to feel comfortable with the direction your solution is taking, but doesn’t inordinately influence the creative team.

To reiterate, I recommend the following process for defining an immersive program:

  1. Define program objectives.
  2. Define a content strategy.
  3. Define a channel strategy.
  4. Complete a Program Planning Framework.
  5. Storyboard key experience sequences.
  6. Define the user interface and interactions, ideally by creating a prototype.
  7. Animate storyboard sequences and integrate them with your prototype.

    (Axure 6 works well for this.)
  8. Create a design specification document.
  9. Hand off your design documentation to the creative team.

Of course, following this process isn’t the only way of defining an immersive experience, but it’s worked well for me on several deeply immersive programs. I encourage you to share the process you use in the comments. The next time I’m working on an immersive program, I might borrow some of your ideas. 

Founder & Experience Strategist at Hostile Sheep

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Jordan JulienHostile Sheep is making user research and experience design more accessible and easier to understand. Jordan and his team are on the frontier of redefining the UX industry, with a unique business model and two innovative products that condense research and design down to their most valuable states. His recent clients include VISA, RBC, P&G, GE, Telus, Toyota, Coke, Nike, Critical Mass, Proximity, and others.  Read More

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