Kevin Cheng  

Life Experience Design

May 7th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

We often talk about the User Experience when determining how people will use our products. The term has become so popular that the title of User Experience Engineer, or UX Engineer, has become somewhat commonplace.

Some design agencies now speak of extending the experience beyond just the product. The product is not enough, instead, one needs to extend design into what is called Life Experience design.

The premise of the philosophy is thus: you can design for the product experience and that is the experience you have when you interact with the product; you can design for the user experience which taken in its traditional sense really means the same thing as product experience - the user’s experience while they interact with a product; or you can design for life experience which is the experience the user gets with the context of a product in their lives.

How is Life Experience different from typical User Experience? Let’s take a look at some examples of how people actually do Life Experience Design and see if we can spot the differences.

The Solution Approach

So many consultancies these days sell solutions but very few define what problems they’re offering solutions to. The Apple retail store, who’s design philosophy was recently linked on OK/Cancel’s quick links, has an approach to life experience design. Instead of just looking at how people use iPhoto or an iSight webcam, they look at the context - the complete package. In the store, you will find laptops with iPhoto and iMovie connected to digital cameras and camcorders illustrating how these devices work together. In other words, even though Apple does not sell digital cameras or camcorders (yet), they design with the context in mind. How are people going to use Apple products in conjunction with other products and aspects of their life? Apple’s marketing screams Life Experience Design.

The Ethnographic Approach

Take a PDA like a PocketPC or Palm Pilot. What does the user typically do with this? They make appointments, keep address book information, check their calendar, and perhaps take a few notes. Today most of these devices will also permit you to take photographs, listen to music and play games.

From a product experience perspective, you may conduct some focus groups on the product, and run some tests on prototypes with some set tasks. The team working on the Palm Zire 71 camera presented at CHI 2004 and their design methods, with a lack of budget and time, were mostly in-house testing and iterating.

The issue these methodologies have is a lack of context. Paper and post-it notes are still the preferred method of taking down appointments and phone numbers. I own a Palm Pilot and I still prefer to give and receive business cards and never think to “beam” my information. Why is this? How does a usability test discover this?

The problem is that it’s very difficult to design for how a product fits into someone’s life. Sure, in work applications we can perform things like contextual inquiries but for consumer devices, you can’t very well follow them for a few days.

Enter techniques like diary studies. With diary studies, you find out what the participants plan to do, and have them record what they actually did. However, just comparing the two isn’t sufficient. The study demands an experienced eye to observe the nuances between tasks and every little discrepancy and then determine why. Why an action is taken is important. For example, why did I give out the business card rather than beam it? Why did I not go to my scheduled appointment? Why did this person interrupt me and why did I permit them to? In these nuances, one discovers how products fit in with life not just how people perceive their lives to be but how it actually is.

That’s Life

Life Experience design means designing to consider every possible nook and cranny of a person’s life. It’s important to note that anything can have influence on your design even when it initially seems unrelated. Unfortunately, this approach to design means a heavy invasion into the lives of participants. Although costly in terms of overall time, such a design methodology need not require too much of the facilitator’s time.

Is product experience sufficient or is there really a need for life experience design? How far is too far when we design a product to fit into the existing mold that is the consumer’s life? Were it not for the Hawthorne Effect, would we end up with Big Brother style usability labs where we watch our participants live their lives while we inject various prototype products? Or is this just another buzzword that will fade away faster than the next pop hit song?

11 Responses to “Life Experience Design”
Ron Zeno wrote:

What’s next, “world experience design” or maybe “universe experience design”?

Some design agencies now speak of extending the experience beyond just the product. The product is not enough, instead, one needs to extend design into what is called Life Experience design.

They originally wanted to call it “Snake Oil” but that phrase was already taken. ;)

ario wrote:

I do UX design and usability testing for a certain gaming service and the thing that I find most interesting is not what we learn about the prototypes, but the stuff that doesn’t come off my testing script… when the user says some random thing about how they actually use the product in their daily life.

One lady says she uses our service to write her PhD dissertation… another talks about how it lets her meditate, another says it helps her bond with her teenager.

As designers, we constantlly have to keep in mind the big picture of how this thing we’re creating works in the lives of our users. More practically, when doing contextual inquires, usability tests, surveys, and the like… we have to try and get this “life” usage information from the user, instead of just honing in on the specifics of the mock-up in front of them.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

I have to admit, I’m curious what gaming service has such broad appeal and application. I’ll venture a guess that it’s online parlour games (cards, puzzles).

I agree that honing in on mock-ups is not the way to extract life information but contextual inquiries, by definition, would involve watching the “life usage” you speak of wouldn’t it? The only problem is that contextual inquiries aren’t always possible. How do you contextualize game playing between a mother and her teenager? I doubt you could sit in their bedroom and watch.

Dave wrote:

Kevin, urban anthropologists do field research in non-structured places all the time. It requires you to just go out and meet people, ask if they use a product and ask if you can visit them. I used to do this as an anthro student all the time. The recruiting methods are different, but the reality behind contextual inquiry is the same.

I think a better way to make a rhetorical differentiation between user and life experience design philosophies:
UX: how does a user experience a product
LX: How is a product experienced in the context of their life.

BTW, there is an entire organization dedicated to what you are calling Life Experience Design, but just by calling it “Experience Design”. It is a community inside the a href=”http://www.aiga.com/content.cfm/ExperienceDesign”>AIGA.

Also, I think just calling this “Contextual Design” is really great. In the end we are not designing the experience, we are designing the products.

Ron Zeno wrote:

Why I think it’s snake oil:

Who says that UX is NOT about how a product is “experienced in the context of their life” but rather how a user experiences a product? Mostly people selling the “life experience” concept. Who buys this distinction? Those who don’t know what either means, don’t care, or hope to benefit from a new name for the same old thing.

Jonathan Grudin was writing about “life experience” in much of his work during the late 80s and early 90s. The concept is much older (I’d bet Grudin learned it a decade or so prior.) Too bad most aren’t so well educated.

Dave wrote:

Just b/c someone said it, doesn’t make it enough of a meme that it connected with the larger community. Right now, the bulk of UX practitioners are product focused. Yes, there is a push towards experience design more generally, especially with the advent of the AIGA-ED community, but just to say that an idea is old doesn’t mean that the idea has been captured by the disciplines that need the idea.
Maybe, if you have to be “educated” (i.e. read everything, and go to every conference) to get an idea, then maybe the idea isn’t really well formed and accepted.

Life Experience Design to me seems to me an attempt to clarify Experience Design as something separate from User Experience Design. Personally, I like the distinction on paper, but Experience Design feels better when I talk about it to others.

The real point is context. Our products and services need to be designed not only to fit inside the context (the lives) of people, but they need to be designed out of that context.

Ron Zeno wrote:

“Just b/c someone said it, doesn’t make it enough”

Exactly. But I apply that to the idea that UX practitioners are “product focused”. My point isn’t that Grudin said it but that Grudin was someone who wrote about that was a common perspective at the time.

From my own perspective, the whole discussion/focus/direction of “life experience” appears too much like a scam or just bad marketing spin (people taking an old idea and presenting it as something new, and/or people that are rather incompetent at what they do suddenly discovering what they should have been doing all along).

And watch out for that education stuff, Dave. It’s nothing but trouble ;)

Kevin Cheng wrote:

From my own perspective, the whole discussion/focus/direction of “life experience” appears too much like a scam or just bad marketing spin (people taking an old idea and presenting it as something new, and/or people that are rather incompetent at what they do suddenly discovering what they should have been doing all along).

I definitely think marketing spin is always going to be a part of a consultancy’s repertoire. Yes, to many, UX is exactly the same thing - it encompasses not just how users use the product but how that product fits into the users’ lives.

Regardless of how silly “Life Experience” sounds, that concept isn’t obvious to everyone. Many people design with a fairly narrow focus, or test in a sterile vacuum of an environment. They are still designing around the user, just not every aspect of the user.

I liken your point to HCI in general, actually. To me, you can call HCI/UX/Usability what you want, it’s all down to what you actually do that is different. I use Life Experience because it’s been used by others and we need a vocabulary to discuss around.

Ron Zeno wrote:

I definitely think marketing spin is always going to be a part of a consultancy’s repertoire.

Does someone think otherwise? So is it anything other than marketing spin built upon ignorance of the past? Does just talking about “life experience” mean anything new or different? It certainly allows people to fool others into thinking so, but is there anything of substance behind it?

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Sorry Ron, maybe I’m not understanding the question. Call it what you will, designing beyond the product experience is not new, but not a given. So some agencies emphasize that they do this and give it a name.

My understanding is that your issue is with the fact that people are labelling it “Life Experience” when it’s really doing what’s obvious to you and what you’ve always done - but named differently. Valid point. We’re all mixed up with our labels these days.

Imagine though, if you ran a company and every other company says they do “user experience” design but don’t do it the way you do. i.e., to you, Ron Zeno, it’s obvious UX involves the whole life context but these other companies are SAYING they’re doing UX when in reality you know that their version is pretty narrow-minded.

What do you do? Well for some companies, I guess the solution is to lable yours something different to point out that yours is more comprehensive. Maybe instead of blaming the marketing engine, we need to look at all the people who are only read the labels.

Ron Zeno wrote:

Imagine though, if you ran a company and every other company says they do “user experience” design but don’t do it the way you do.

Actually, that’s exactly what I was doing at one time. Not only were the other companies not doing what my company was, they weren’t (and still aren’t) doing what anyone else was. The label of “user experience” design is almost meaningless (at least in the context of defining a profession and professionals).

Regardless if you agree or not, my point is that at this time I don’t know what, if anything of substance, is behind the label “life experience”. Certainly it’s being used as marketing spin. I also suggest that it’s being used to form a granfalloon. I’d like to see it be used to encourage design professionals to be more effective (and more valued).

Maybe instead of blaming the marketing engine, we need to look at all the people who are only read the labels.

Agreed.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?