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Understanding Experience Design: a theory of practice.

Davis Levine, Service Designer at BC Provincial Government completed his Master's in Digital Experience Design last year. This article was originally part of a paper he wrote during his MA and can also be found in its original version on his Medium page. We have provided the links below.

The new human being does not wish to do or to have but to experience. He wishes to experience, to know and, above all, to enjoy. — Vilém Flusser

This essay* is about Experience Design. A discipline of design that can be confusing to describe and even harder to succinctly define. While I hold the position that we can’t design experiences per se, I do believe there is legitimacy to the discipline in the way it posits the designer beyond a maker of “things”.

*This essay was originally written as a paper during my masters course at Hyper Island in the MA Digital Experience Design program.

When we say experience

It is not about products anymore, it is about the experiences they deliver. — Marc Hassenzahl

If design is no longer about products, as Hassenzahl claims in the above quote, and instead the focus is on the delivery of experiences, then what is the role of a designer in this experience driven world? Before I address this question, I think it’s important to first understand what we mean when we say “experience” in the context of the design. Experience design feels like a non-disciplined discipline, with the word “experience” being thrown around haphazardly and inserted into titles to capitalize on the “X” factor of abbreviation. Designers often talk about experiences as if they are solidified thing, an object with formal qualities.

We can’t really design experiences as a formal entity. However, we can design the conditions of an intended experience. A more elegant way of articulating this concept comes from Gill Wildman in her belief that “experience design is about creating opportunities”. This description resonates with me because it strips away notions of process, methods, or tools and instead focuses on the paradigmatic shift of what design might mean in an experience economy. We are left with a grander notion of what design can enable, beyond an interface or physical product, and into a space of possibility that lets human behaviour flourish. We create opportunities to connect, to imagine, to communicate, to learn, to delight. The focus of experience design then is not about the things we make (design as artifice) it’s about the mediation of these things and how they shape our experiences (Hassenzahl, 2010).

“Experience design is about creating opportunities”

While debates in design are often exercises in semantics, I believe learning to design is also about learning the language of design, without which we can’t critically discuss and debate the field. If we as designers can’t make sense of and articulate the things we do, then how can we survive in business to sell the value we bring? Rather than attempt to formulate a coherent definition of “Experience Design”, we can look at understanding the meaning of “experience” to shed light on what it means to be an experience designer.

Phenomenology & Experience

Phenomenology is a discipline that “studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view” (Smith, 2013). A phenomenological approach is valuable in the context of experience design because it provides a way of looking at design that “explores our physical and social environments, including the things and instruments in such environments [that] matter for experience…” (Gallagher, 2016). Instead of trying to look at experiences themselves, phenomenology helps us look at the conditions that create the experience. Thomas Wendt’s book “Design for Dasein” begins to tie the discipline of phenomenology to experience design by claiming that “at its core, phenomenology is concerned with how we make sense of the world… [and] we use design to interpret the world” (Wendt, 2015). And while design has historically focused it’s attention on the object, with designer as maker, experience design looks at the interpretation of the object. These interpretations of the world, mediated through the objects of design, are created from the opportunities set forth by the designer. As Wendt concludes, “the work of experience design shapes the world only after the ‘thing’ is created.” Experience design can therefore be thought of as a discipline of opportunities that addresses reflection, memory, and internalization.

The Way We Experience

When we talk about experience, there seems to be an implicit understanding of meaning, but when asked to describe what an experience is, the question gets a bit tricky. There are different types of experiences we live through in our lives and Ian Coxon (2015) uses the more nuanced German words for experience as used by the original German philosophers of phenomenology to differentiate these types of experiences. Understanding these differentiations can help a designer to distinguish what might be the most appropriate design opportunity to enable, fit within, or disrupt a particular experience.

The first type of experience is Erfahrung, which are the mundane, unremarkable, and daily experiences we are typically less conscious about. Our daily activities that we fail to recall like brushing our teeth or getting dressed fall under this category. What would a design in this context look like? Should the design remain invisible or does it make sense to create an intervention that pulls a person outside of their mode of unreflective behaviour?

Erfahrung is contrasted with Erlebnis, or the type of experiences that we are conscious of, feel deeply, and initiates reflective thinking. These experiences usually cause us a greater degree of reflection, and these are often the experiences we hope or intend to design. Services like the Disney MagicBand create an experience that feels seamless and “magical”, but it’s after the experience is over that the power of design becomes apparent through our memory and reflection.

Lastly there is Erlebnisse, which represents the cumulative set of experiences that contribute to our overall life experience. These are the experiences that shape our world view and sets the expectations of the world around us. This concept of experience is well matched in thinking about engagement with a product or service over time. A company might ask “how does our service grow and adapt with our customers?” With an understanding of these different types of experiences, we can better understand what kind of design opportunities might be most appropriate for a particular product or service in a particular context. As a designer, do we look to intervene in someone’s daily routine or seamlessly blend within it to go unnoticed? Do we hope to design a reflective experience that customers gush over at any opportunity? Or are we attempting to build an ongoing relationship with a service over time?

Units of Experience

There’s a popular aphorism that design requires constraints, and this is no less true in experience design. An experience should not be thought of a single entity, but in order to design opportunities for a particular experience there must be a boundary. Without constraints the scope and scale of what we attempt to design for becomes impossible. Ian Coxon argues that experiences must be defined by a particular unity, which possess beginning and end points. However, people don’t experience the world in clearly defined units. Rather, life is made up of a complex array of interactions with services, products, spaces, and people. Regardless, in order to ever be able to design for an experience we must be able to identify what this unity is in order to create constraints on the scope of our work.

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Visualization of experience defined by units

As an example, we can say that we’d like to research the experience of going to the cinema. A unit can be defined by the moment the customer enters the cinema and when they leave, but we can’t begin to study the travel to and fro the cinema and their house. However, digital technology no longer constrains this unity by time and space. A customer might purchase their tickets online at home, or look up the show times printed in the newspaper. After the movie they might write a review of the movie itself. While this isn’t connected with the immediate experience at the cinema, it can be thought of as a sub-unit of the larger unity or experience.

Embodiment & Design

The last point I want to address about experience design with a connection to phenomenology is the role of embodiment. This is important in our discussion because embodiment is emphasized in phenomenology by it’s affect on our understanding of the world (Gallagher, 2016). Husserl, one of the main philosophers of phenomenology, claimed that “the lived body is a lived center of experience” (Behnke, n.d.). So it is through our bodies that we experience the world, and it is through embodied situations that designers can gain the most insight into a problem space.

In order to design for a particular experience, we must know what that experience is like. This is where primary, qualitative research comes into practice as a foundation for experience design. As a surface level example, designers will use a particular product or website when they need to redesign it in order to understand what that experience is like. A more wholesome example would be the redesign of a hospital visit. To design a patient experience, we must visit and spend time in the hospital. We need to have an embodied experience in this particular context to understand what this experience is like in order to discuss it on a level that is akin to a real patient. It’s easy to know the context of a hospital from assumed or past knowledge, but it’s imperative to know the materiality and dimensions of the experience in a particular context. Embodiment as a designer helps to answer questions like: How does time play out? What are the sights, sounds, smells of the place? What is it like to interact with the different touch points of the current experience? What’s the relationship to other people in this context? These are all questions that must be felt and experienced to be understood. Not only will you gain the knowledge to understand the materials and dimensions of the experience, but you can also generate empathy with the people that actually live this experience.

However, as designers we must recognize that there are limits to embodiment. We can only go so deep into what we can know. We can attempt to recreate the same journey a patient might go through, but we can never truly understand the same experiences. This is one of the reasons a designer is never truly an end user. If we’ve never had to undergo dialysis we can’t really understand the effect of having this treatment for four hours a day, three times a week. It’s important to remember that these are not just touchpoints to be designed, but a lived reality that deeply impacts a person’s life. This is why embodiment as understanding, whilst important, is not enough. Designing with and not just for the people of these experiences is crucial to the experience design process. Without getting into the details of co-design and co-creation, these methodologies and ways of working should therefore be placed at the centre in our ways of working.

What of the designer?

At the beginning of this essay I asked the question “what is role of the designer in this experience driven world?”, and it is my last two points on the shortcomings of designer embodiment and the need for a co-design process that necessitates the shifting role of the designer, from designer as maker to “designer as facilitator” (Yin, 2013). Designers become facilitators “to help the users materialise…the end-product through the user-evolving collaborative design process” (Park, 2012). The designer as facilitator must therefore possess new skills that enable and support users to reach their potential as experts of their own experience. With these experts of experience embedded in the design process, the role of the designer is then to translate these ideas and identify areas of opportunities to enable the intended experience.

Davis Levine is a Service Designer currently at the BC Provincial Government. You can read his insights into Experience Design via his Medium blog or by getting in touch via Twitter.


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