Are designed experiences “real”? (and other initial thoughts on Dewey and experience design)

I502 started with the question of how can we (as interaction designers) design compelling experiences, such as those we experience when watching compelling films. Reading dewey caused me to step back and reflect on the very experiences we design and intend to design. When I see the term “experience design” used, it often seems to imply that designer attempts complete control over the experience of the user, i.e. the particular details of the experience are (ideally) designed prior to and in anticipation of use. In the Language of New Media, Manovich suggests that interactive new media actually exerts more control over the user than traditional media, by imposing the mental structures of the designer on the user, and i think in certain circumstances he may be right, e.g. following links on the blogs can prevent undergoing. Interactive environments such as grocery stores and amusement parks are often discussed in terms of Experience Design, where every aspect is attempted to be controlled in order to lead to increased repeat visits and increased consumption. This notion of “experience” and “experience design” is often used as pejorative. Two common critiques I see leveled against designed “experiences” are that they are (i) vicarious or simulated (divorced from reality) and hence not real or authentic, and (ii) passively consumed. I’d like to discuss some of these criticisms of the potential negative effects of vicarious, simulated, and passively consumed experience and then offer some relevant questions I’ve been thinking about.

First, by abstracting us from reality, it is suggested that designed experiences can threaten our very existence. One of the more compelling arguments of this kind is that by focusing on simulated, vicarious experiences, that we become neglectful of our environment and the natural resources being consumed in supporting these experiences. Recently, I read a provocative article by Geoffrey Miller where he suggests that the reason we haven’t found extraterrestial life is because they probably retreated into virtual-reality narcissism, and either stopped reproducing or lost interest in communicating with other life forms. “Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games.” Perhaps an extreme position, but it rings with at least some truth. However, I do not believe that technologically enabled, simulated experiences, which may separate us from some reality, is a bad thing per se.

Another argument for why passive,vicarious, simulated experience is undesirable is that it causes us to retreat in narcissism, in turn causing us to ignore social issues. Yes, i think that the a focus on individual needs and desires over those of others will lead to this kind of behavior (where for example, we ignore issues of social justice and equity), although this is not necessarily an intrinsic property of designed experiences. It probably is, however, a consequence of the particular things we currently design, especially those that are labeled as exemplars of experience design.

Passive, simulated experience is also criticized for being relatively poor in terms of quality of experience compared to “real” experience. I feel that this type of criticism has quite a bit of truth to it, for several reasons. First, assuming it is possible to completely design an experience, the very knowledge that the experience is designed can emasculate the experience. For example, solving a sequence of textbook problem in a classroom is less rewarding than solving an original research problem, even though the two experience might otherwise be very similar. This is the reversal of Dewey’s art example where a piece of artwork once thought to created by a person is found to be a natural construct, and hence this new knowledge may lessen the value of the object. however, currently we are probably a long way from the complete engineering of complex experiences. The most engineered experiences to date, such as amusement parks and video games often seem too efficient and mechanical to achieve the quality of an experience Dewey talks about. If we reinterpet Dewey’s experience/ an experience distinction as a continuum rather than opposition, I would say that the “vicarious”, “simulated”, “passive” experiences that are designed today often end up being more towards the experience end of the spectrum. They tend to lead to recognition rather than perception, likely a result of the fact that the designs are either too general or too particular (and hence unable to be tailored to the individual). Thus, it makes more sense to talk about how to design FOR an experience (i.e. the conditions which tend to facilitate an experience of some sort) rather than how to design AN experience.

So what kind of an experince should we design for? I think deweys notion of perception is extremely important concept when in terms of understanding what types of experiences are the most positive and hence we should be designing. To me, it suggests a distinction between engagement vs. an experience. We can be engaged when wandering aimlessly -or- by mechanically following a procedure. However, in either case we are unlikely to gain some new insight and integrate that insight into our lives, our past and future experiences. An experience implies engagement, but the converse to does not hold, in general. I also wonder to what extent engineered experience is desirable and possible. Can an objectively mechanical experience be experienced as an experience in Dewey’s terms. Can it lead to Perception? Even if it can, what are the moral implications of this type of control over experience?

To me, Perception offers one of the most compelling conceptualizations for thinking about meaningful, optimal life experience. But also, experiences leading to Perception would also ideally have outcomes that are of value to others besides the individual experiencing them. For example, what if we could combine the engaging experience of video games with design of solutions to pressing societal problems?

How do we design for Perception? And how can we also design for (an) experiences that has multiple and cumulative value, both to the individual and to others? I don’t know. That’s a pretty tough challenge. But the Reflexivity/Transparency discussion, which Bodker touches on in her Third Wave HCI paper is certainly relevant.

Finally, I have a question which is much more scientific in nature, although relevent to designers. There has been evidence that design hasn’t made our lives easier (e.g. doesn’t save us time). In a similar way, I wonder if design has made our lives more difficult in a positive ways. To what extent has design, to date, improved the ability of people to Perceive? To be creative? I’m not sure how to go about answering this question (or better defining it), but it is certainly interesting to think about… I’ll save my very rough thoughts on this to try and develop for another time.

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