What is experience design?
How can you put people at the heart of your design decisions to elicit an emotional response about your products, services, brand, or workplace? Our guide to experience design will help you understand how an outside-in approach can help you get the perspectives you need to design the experiences people want next.
What is experience design?
Experience design is an approach to creating experiences for people that:
- Solve a problem
- Elicit a positive emotional response
- Drive usage and behavior
It’s an approach that can be applied to designing any experience, from designing innovative new products, to developing marketing messages, or even workplace policies that create better experiences for employees.
At its heart is the user — how does the experience you’re designing fit into their lives? How will they use it? How can the experience prompt a certain emotional response or trigger a specific behavior?
It’s worth noting that experience design is not a ‘one and done’ activity — it usually involves a lot of testing and iterating, and ongoing feedback from end-users to perfect an experience.
Whatever stage you’re using it, experience design begins with the end-user in mind.
It starts with an intimate knowledge of the person or people you’re designing an experience for and uses that as a ‘ground zero’ for every decision made, going through a process of ideation, testing, and iteration to improve the experience.
By developing empathy for the end-user, experience designers are able to explore new ways of addressing the problems those people face.
It’s an outside-in approach to designing products and services that’s been used successfully by some of the world’s most successful brands to re-think the experiences they deliver and sits at the heart of some of the most successful stories of disruption from the last decade.
Uber: experience design in action
One of the best examples of successful design thinking comes from the launch of Uber in 2010.
It stemmed from its founders’ frustration at not being able to find a taxi in Paris one rainy night. One way to approach the problem would be simply to start a taxi company and put out more taxis in Paris to meet the demand. Problem solved.
But Uber’s founders took a different approach — they stood in the shoes of the customer and approached it from the customer's pain points.
Waiting in line for a taxi, having to have enough cash on you to pay a driver, knowing how much the fare would cost… there were plenty of them!
And that was the starting point for Uber — rather than replicate the way taxis had always been done, they went outside-in and re-imagined the experience by applying creative thinking to the customer’s problems.
It’s an approach that has continued to work for the company too — in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic brought travel to a grinding halt, Uber tapped once more into its customer insights to identify problems it could solve. The result? The growth of UberEats as the company expanded the service beyond food to deliver household essentials, prescriptions, and more, addressing an unmet need that would see the ‘get’ side of its business catch up with its traditional ‘go’ business.
Why is experience design important?
Creating a culture of design thinking in your organization can impact all facets of the company.
While it’s typically associated most with product development and user experience (UX) teams, there’s not a team in the organization that can’t apply experience design by taking deep insights into the end-user, and applying creative thinking to address their needs.
For example, your HR team can identify trends in workplace dynamics, and design new policies that improve the experience for your people such as new benefits packages that help drive retention and attract new talent.
Your customer experience team can identify actions to take that would reduce friction in the buying process and help to reduce customer effort and increase revenue.
Your marketing team can identify emerging trends and identify new ways to engage with and communicate to customers to help drive loyalty.
And of course, your product development team can identify unmet needs, and apply creative new ways to address consumer problems resulting in innovative new products and services.
The experience design process
According to the model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (aka d.school), there are 5 key stages to designing an experience
Empathize – understand your users, their worldview, and the beliefs, sentiments and emotions that drive their decisions
Define – understand your target audience’s needs, and their problems that you’re intending to solve
Ideate – challenging pre-existing ideas on how to solve the problem and apply creative thinking to propose innovative solutions. At this stage, they don’t have to work - you just have to think they might work
Prototype – start to implement the solutions that you’ve ideated in the previous phase with a series of concepts (these are often inexpensive, or ‘rough’ versions compared to a final product of feature)
Test – see how they fly in the wild. Gather feedback from your prototypes to identify what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to be improved.
It’s important to note too, that these steps aren’t necessarily sequential. You might for example be testing concepts and ideas with a panel of respondents before prototyping and producing a physical product, and most likely after each test or round of feedback, you’ll probably go back to ideating as you think about how to solve for any feedback that comes up.
Tools for experience design research
Technology has a big role to play in experience design, from helping you to gather insights at scale from your target audience, to making sense of mountains of data to identify the actions you need to take to design the perfect experience.
Your experience design tools need to enable you to:
Gather feedback from the right people - this often includes those outside of your existing customer base. Ongoing research here is essential to be able to identify patterns, trends, and shifts in your target market’s behavior or to spot emerging needs. Having access to online research panels will help you to quickly reach out to new audiences to help you understand more about them as you begin to identify the problem and ideate on the solution.
Identify the right actions — with data coming in from multiple sources, you need to be able to apply powerful analytics to large datasets to identify the right opportunities. This is essential at every stage, from identifying emerging needs to using feedback in the testing phase as you iterate on and perfect the experience.
Share insights effortlessly across teams — no experience is created in a silo. Take a new product for example; your product development team may design and concept the product, but your marketing team will need to communicate it to your target customers, your production team will need to build it at the right cost to make it profitable, and your fulfillment team will need to be able to get it into the hands of your customers. At every stage of the journey, different teams will need to make critical decisions that should start with the user, so opening up your insights to everyone will help to ensure they’re part of every stage.
Make insights instantly available — the market research technology available today enables you to get real-time insights from your audience. As people’s needs change quickly, it’s a huge competitive advantage to be able to identify emerging needs or issues quickly so you can get ahead of your competitors to react quickly. More traditional market research techniques that take months from fielding a survey to reporting on the insights could leave you behind more agile competitors.
Common techniques in experience design
Once you’ve understood your audience, identified the problem, and come up with ideas for how to close the experience gap, there are a number of common techniques experience designers use as they look to perfect it.
Concept testing — these studies take your concepts and present them to your target audience for feedback. It’s a great starting point for identifying your strongest ideas and making a judgement on which ones are most likely to land well.
Learn more about concept testing
Max Diff and conjoint — these studies build on concept testing by replicating real-world decisions your target audience makes, such as comparing two products on a web page. By forcing them to make trade-offs between different configurations, you can identify the most successful combination of features as well as test things like pricing.
Learn more about conjoint analysis
Naming studies – come launch, your name says a lot about a product or service. Naming studies help you to identify how your target audience reacts to different names, including the values and attributes they associate with different names, and which ones are likely to be more successful on launch.
Learn more about naming studies
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