Agreeing on experience design

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Back in May, Adam Greenfield contributed a great article for Adobe’s Design Center Think Tank space called On the ground running: Lessons from experience design. He begins with an insightful – on hindsight obvious – observation that the distinctions between products and services is blurring. Adam introduces the roll of experience design as the agent helping blur these lines, highlighting three examples of XD gone awry: Nike+, Acela and Puma’s Trainaway. He ends with a resonating statement about conversations and not control, suggesting that while very often, tight experience design requires a greater level of control, but opening solutions up to user modification, the ultimate in end-user collaborative design.

While Adam’s examples illustrate his points well, there is another side of the conversation worth consideration. Obviously the three examples all result in some level of failure, which might lead to the conclusion that each was not worth doing. The thing about failure is that if the vision is grand enough, any action toward achieving that goal sets the stage for tomorrow’s experience. Nike+ (the iPod nano, Nike bio telemetric transponder shoes and the online data visualization) might not have been the hit people were hoping for – I actually did not know they lacked popularity – but the offering shows that someone over at Nike is thinking about how we reinvent the running shoe, a completely commoditized product with endless air pockets, gels and spring. Even if it fails, then notion that your shoes might have some electronics in them has come to pass in popular culture. It is no longer limited to the shock activated flashing LED. A recent post by Jonah Lehrer jokes about your iPod being made of biological flesh and yet continues on reviewing some research where scientists have shown circuits can be constructed out of biological material. It is all fantasy until someone tries to commercialize it and then the world gets to add it, flop or not, into the accepted realm of possibilities. This approach is probably not the best way to run a business, but its wonderful at winning the hearts and minds of people.

One of the areas Adam shines focus is the challenge in trying to control the end-to-end solution to deliver great experience design with a quote from Nokia’s Chris Heathcote. It might be the case that designing for one person is not practical; however, I also think we tend to try to make a single solution apply to too many. Narrowing the target audience may limit overall breadth of success, but it ensures at least one population is thrilled. For those early-adopters, runners and techi types, the Nike+ might have been a great geeky trip. Is this not just the long tail of XD?

Seth Godin posted on his obsession with improving alarm clocks, ending with the fact that products could be better if we tried to make them better. If the distinctions between products and services are blurring – a very sophisticated undertaking – then maybe the reason some have failed in the past has less to do with experience design and more to do with people agreeing its worth trying to make things better. As Adam explored, it only takes failure in any one of many things to challenge the overall experience.