Experience design is a human-centered activity. It starts with a deep understanding of people’s needs and contexts of living or working, and the end result is a product or service that provides people with a quality experience or a culturally relevant solution.
With such a clear and deliberate focus on people, other issues such as technology, economics, belief systems, or the broader topic of ethics and sustainability take a secondary role. But should they?
The way we organize our lives and societies in social, economic, spiritual, and environmental terms is very much part of the human experience.
And since we are living in a time of rapid change, our task as professionals is not just to understand the current context or anticipate future possibilities, but to help create a future world that is socially, economically, spiritually, and environmentally sustainable.
From this vantage point, the end-result of our workthat quality experience or culturally relevant solutiontakes on a whole other meaning that goes beyond the relevance for an individual (the “user”) or a client.
Distributing Technology to Distribute Power
Four billion mobile devices are currently in use in a world population of 6.6 billion. Deduct infants, and you realize that a very large percentage of humankind has a mobile phone. The advantages of this technological tsunami for the so-called bottom of the pyramid have been widely publicized, but most of the important decisions in how our countries and economies are run are still in the hands of very few people.
Even in the best scenarios, this power concentration is based on the logic that we need to delegate decisions to accountable leaders, that we cannot involve ourselves in all decisions that matter to us, partly for practical reasons.
This is now changing. Distributing technology in the hands of the many opens previously unfeasible options for a growth in participatory decision-making. But how can this be implemented in the future? What kind of tools would designers need to create to support this? And how can the design itself be decentralized?
As Bruce Sterling recently said during the LIFT Asia ‘08 conference to an audience of startled Koreans:
“When you are working on cell phones, when you are working on the Web, when you are working on electronic money and payment systems, you need to think: What if my user is a North Korean? How would I do this differently if I knew my user was from Pyongyang, that his regime had collapsed, that his economy had collapsed, he was completely bewildered, and he had never seen a cell phone or a computer in his life, and I intended to make him a productive and happy fellow citizen in 10 years, what kind of technology would I give that person, what kind of trading system, economic system?”
We don’t have all the answers yet, but it is clear that pervasive mobile devicesthese always-connected mobile computersare going to have a transformational impact on our world.
Designers have a responsibility to enable this transformation, to bring the power to the people, and to provide them with the tools to better govern their lives and the communities and societies they live in.
The Physical/Digital Confluence
People are social animals; the extent to which online social tools online are affecting people’s social lives and behaviors in the physical world comes as no surprise.
The growing pervasiveness of smartphones combined with cheap data plans are changing this landscape even more: Not only will we be online wherever we are, but we will be online everywhere, all the time and in many different types of contexts, and these will all be known and processed by online services.
This not only opens up opportunities for a range of new tools and services, but will fundamentally change our basic human experience, as the virtual and the physical converge more and more, and eventually become indistinguishable.
The ever-growing presence of localized and contextualized mobile devices will mean that well-designed services will have to be immersive services. The Web will be about providing people with things that matter at a particular time, in a particular location, within a particular context.
And it doesn’t stop there. Digital devices are not just smart phones. The digitization of our physical space also includes RFID systems, sensors, alert systems, cameras, GPS, among others.
In such a mixed physical/digital space, designers need to be respectful of people’s identity and privacy, and not take all control away from them. But what does it really mean to design for a world of physical/ digital confluence?
Frankly we don’t know. Mike Kuniavsky wrote in this magazine about user experience principles for ubiquitous computing , and other thinkers such as Adam Greenfield, Genevieve Bell, and Jan Chipchase are approaching the subject as well, but there is no consensus yet. The debate is only starting.
Our behaviors change but the underlying human drives that guide those behaviors do not change so easily. Understanding this delicate balance and being respectful of what it means to be human are the two keys to unlock the physical/digital design challenge.
The High-Tech of the Local
People in local communities have always shared and exchanged things without the support of money. But this local practice sits at the margin of the dominant economic model and has a reputation for being naïve, precisely because it is local, relies on person-to-person trust, and is therefore slow.
But the anonymity that comes with global markets has created its own set of problems and this is currently affecting us all. Not just the current recession, but also the enormous environmental challenges of buying things from afar that could have been produced nearby.
Can the new digital world help recreate the trust of the local, and allow for other types of compensation, such as time, skills, services, a sense of belonging and community, visibility, reputation, public recognition, identity?
What could possibly replace money as it exists now? What could be sharable and what cannot? What impact could this have on people and communities? How could a post-money economy best be organized, especially given the failures of the current economic model? How do communities of sharing shape and maintain themselves? How do they build their values? Do they have explicit or implicit values? What are the differences between global/online and local/physical communities of sharing? To what extent can digital/mobile communication tools help people in both online and physical communities manage their sharing and exchanging practices? What would the rules, rituals, and habits of this future world be?
Since we are living in a time of rapid change, our task as professionals is not just to understand the current context or anticipate future possibilities, but to help create a future world that is socially, economically, spiritually, and environmentally sustainable. It is clear that pervasive mobile devices…are going to have a transformational impact on our world. Designers have a responsibility to enable this transformation, to bring the power to the people, and to provide them with the tools to better govern their lives and the communities and societies they live in.
I was recently involved in KashKlash (www.kashklash.net), a collaborative foresight experiment that asked these questions, and many more. People like Bruce Sterling, Regine Debatty, Nicolas Nova, and Josh Klein did the first groundwork on understanding the future of money, sociality, and alternative currencies. Later, many more thinkers and professionals joined in on creating shared future scenarios. At the time of this writing, the results of the project were not yet known, but should be available for you to view and reflect upon by the time you read this.
The Data Avalanche and Human Control
People are not computers. We forget. We cannot search our mental databases. Our thinking and memory are not disconnected from acting and sensing. The two are engrained and inseparable.
Yet computers are increasingly driving our day-to-day lives and pushing their paradigms into our human experience. We are rapidly moving to a world where everything is always storedin many different locationsand everything is always accessible.
Life would be easy for us if we just thought like computers. But we don’t. We feel bombarded with data, but we can’t find what we need, we can’t make sense of it.
So what are human-centered data? How should they be presented, stored, organized, visualized, so that they are relevant for us, and not (just) for a computer? What does that mean for such varied fields as car design, mobile device software, or digital signage?
We will need new metaphors that embody very human concepts such as preciousness, moods, attraction, surprise, and forgetting, and apply them to data sets, data algorithms and data visualizations.
The Human Experience of Sustainability
The world we currently live in is far from sustainable across all the core contexts of human experience: economy, society, environment, and spirituality.
Nathan Shedroff argues that user-centered design or experience design in itself leads to more sustainable product development, and he certainly has a point:
“More meaningful products as well as ones that better meet our needs don’t require us to buy more and more things (in order to fill those needs and desires). Fewer, more meaningful, effective, and sustainable products will be more fulfilling and more sustainable than more and more less fulfilling, effective, and meaningful ones. In addition, devices that adequately meet our needs, especially technological ones, often have the effect of not only dematerializing competing products but also products in other categories (like the iPods and iPhones are doing).” 
Although a nice discussion could be had about what interaction design for sustainability might actually entail, there is more to it than just making the products themselves more meaningful, effective, and sustainable.
The bigger issue is the context for which these products are conceived and where they will be consumed. Take for example the context of luxury, which is not often known to pay much regard to sustainability. What could design develop in terms of an ecological and sustainable approach to luxury?
This requires a new sustainable consumption model, which goes far beyond the boundaries of our profession and practice. But as designers we can inspire and guide toward such a model, and help people better manage a sustainable lifestyle.
The Evolution Theory of Interaction Design
The dominant model of technological innovation lies on a simple core tenetit must be market-proof. Investments and research are always directed to where the hopes for profit lie. Most designers are at the complete service of this dominant innovation model.
People-centered design is not based on an economic model. Instead, it emphasizes our human limitations (such as perceptual-motor constraints and the bounded rationality of our cognitive system), our behaviors (our cultural constraints and living contexts), and our aspirations to change (our desire to be emotionally involved in what we do and be main actors in our future).
But people-centered design is rarely a driving factor of innovation. It is only adopted when it adheres to the dominant innovation model: by promising immediate return on the investments made. In other words, people-centered design matters not because it is centered on people but because it makes money.
There are other paradigms. Some advocate applying the model of biological evolution to technological innovation.
The main principles of evolution could be used to explain how design ideas mutate, are selected, migrate, and drift, finding their natural way from the observation of people’s cognitive, behavioral, and emotional patterns to the design of concepts and prototypes, to their production cycle and back to people, in a sort of continuum.
It could even provide guidance and vision for the construction of practitioner toolkits of the future, which would create a much greater responsibility for the designer.
A World of Pervasive Learning
With pervasive technology, learning itself is becoming pervasive. Pervasive learning also means learning by children, the illiterate, the elderly, migrantsin short, by about every category and in every context currently not affected by institutional learning.
Learning therefore needs to become hands-on, experience-based, multi-disciplinary, physical, and enabled by immersive technologies.
This intuitive, direct learning is radically different from institutional learning. We all have some good examples of this, but the educational, pedagogical approach is lacking.
How to develop a new model for immersive learning? It is currently being explored all over the world. The Finnish government will soon merge the three top institutionsthe business, design and engineering universities, each with their 100-plus years of historyinto a new innovation university with an English-language program, which is all about human-centered, project-based, multidisciplinary learning.
But personally, I expect most innovation to come from unusual places: the slums of Lagos, the villages of India, the fishermen in Vietnam. We just have to understand it as learning.
And Something More…
There surely is going to be “something more.” As our world is changing, and time goes by, other topics will rise up. But for now I have my hands full trying to delve into what I just introduced. If you feel you can lend me a hand in this quest, please do let me know.
Mark Vanderbeeken is one of four partners of Experientia, an international experience design consultancy based in Italy, with particular responsibilities for strategic communications. He has worked in Belgium (his home country), the U.S., Denmark, and Italy for both profit and nonprofit organizations, and studied visual and cognitive psychology at Columbia University. Vanderbeeken is the author of Experientia’s successful experience design blog Putting People First; he also writes for other publications such as Core77.
©2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/0300 $5.00
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2009 ACM, Inc.