Experimental Experience

Recently, in lecture, in another class, one of my professors (a very cool and intelligent one IMHO) was venting a little steam about how people commonly over- and mis-use the term “experiment” to describe what he refers to as “experiences”.

Experiments, as he described them, take place in a completely controlled environment, in which there are two, and only two, changing variables: a “control” variable that can be manipulated and an “experimental” variable that is then watched for changes resulting from those made to the control. What’s so powerful about this model is the trustworthiness of the cause-effect relationships that can inferred from experiments. Done well, experiments offer quantifiable, qualitative and reproducible proof. Experiences, on the other hand, are less-structured “What If” endeavors, in which one or more things are set into motion together and then observed. Perhaps something will happen, perhaps it won’t. Perhaps anticipated, perhaps emergent. Who knows? And as this professor saw it, in the world of inquiry, it is a regrettable and all too common an occurrence to see something presented as an experiment, while it is in reality, merely a staged experience.

For me, this distinction between experiments and experiences was a valuable thing to hear articulated. Not just for purposes of differentiation, but also in that it got me to thinking about the relative merits of each. Part of my background includes about a decade spent studying and researching in microbial genetics. Part of my background also includes about a decade creating and researching in new media design. I did a lot of what could be classified as experiments in the former and a lot of what would be more aptly described as experiences, in the course of the latter. And while I found experiments to be very useful in “proving” things in the lab, I found staged experiences equally useful in “revealing” things to me in the study of new media. Experiments are a great tool for proving what we already know (or at least suspect), whereas experiences are an equally great tool for showing us things that we haven’t imagined yet.

In CHI, there is a great example of the scientific use of staged experience in the so-called “Wizard of Oz Experiment“. It’s an experience, but a very rationally conceived one, that can be used to produce real and useful knowledge about a system being designed. Experience is a great teacher, not just in life, but in the world of inquiry as well.

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