Leading studios and designers discuss what experience design is and how it can let you provide more for your clients.

Nailing down precisely what experience design is and how it relates to design as a whole isn’t simple.

“The terminology is still very new and its definition is in flux,” explains Deloitte Digital's experience designer Jani Modig, who considers the field “the bridge between business and design, combining organisational strategies and different design disciplines from UX to service design”.

David Eveleigh-Evans, chief creative officer at international experience design firm Method, has a similar take, calling it “an approach to design that enables you to think about the connection between business and its customers by defining the relationship they have”.

He stresses the importance of brand, the creation of relevant, engaging, differentiated experiences, and gearing design to what the customer wants: “You identify needs and deliver them in the context of what the business can create. It’s holistic, in the sense of combining insight, strategy, design and technology.”

So what is it?

If this all sounds very abstract - and experience design often is - it's useful to cite some concrete examples of this all-encompassing approach to it. One often-quoted of how broad experience design can be is of the bank whose new website's online services were designed to replace many branch services, and so what branches were for - and therefore their design and branding - had to change to reflect business services replacing tellers.

Another example that always comes up on conversations about experience design is Apple. Seen as being at the forefront of experience design, the company's brand and approach to customer experiences defines what products it develops and how they work through to the minuitest detail of even purely digital apps.

Rob Varney, Foolproof

For Rob Varney, experience design director at user experience design agency Foolproof, this boils down to “a design practice focussed on creating positive human outcomes”, addressing and considering the needs, feelings and desires of who will use the product. As with other design processes, “you still conceptualise, iterate and go through a process of review and reflection with the client, but the difference with experience design is customers are embedded in the process”.

He adds this needn’t always be via co-creation and direct involvement, but can sometimes happen through experience designers putting themselves in the minds of potential customers.

Is experience design just UX?

There are arguments, especially when experience design pertains to digital and interactive projects, that this is really just repainted user experience design. Clearleft founder Andy Budd argues experience design has typically been about physical, tangible experiences, but in digital it makes little sense to ‘remove’ the (term or actual) user.

He wonders if agencies are feeling ‘devaluation’ in the term ‘user experience design’, and are wanting to differentiate through something new.

(On asking Budd about wider connotations, on what you should call the design process for working across all kinds of media and touchpoints - from websites and social media to apps designing how retail stores and products work - to create a fully integrated, seamless experience, he wryly suggests: “How about design?”)

So is this just UX, the new UX, or something else entirely? Rob says this to some extent depends on your understanding and definition of that field; Foolproof appears to consider UX more ‘mechanical’ than Budd, and thus experience design is “the added ingredient of brand and added complexity of how we want people to feel when using something and moving through the process”.

By way of example, Jani says UX might focus on a single channel (hotel room booking via an app) but experience design orchestrates all channels and touchpoints (from seeing a hotel ad online to the checkout at reception).

Jani Modig (right) and friend

David provides another example: “It’s about different design skills coming together to solve an experience problem, rather than just a poster problem or a mobile app problem. It enables you to understand how the mobile app is related to the campaign and the business offering, the products and services, the touchpoints of the customer service, my attitude and the meaning that gets created by the brand.

"All those connections are relevant when you’re doing an instance of or degrees of the whole experience.” It’s about “seamless and consistent experiences during the entire customer journey,” adds Jani.

Customer satisfaction

A key reason, then, for taking an experience design approach is the increased interconnectedness of everything. “Customers don’t see differences between channels — mediums of interaction — and so jump from one to the other and expect the same seamless experience everywhere,” says Jani. “Experience design allows organisations to think where, when and how an organisation interacts with its customers.”

This can happen in the most mundane of places. Dan Harris, service design director at service design consultancy Fjord, says because people increasingly use social networks and web-connected services, their expectations of things like banks are now radically different, and so such institutions must change how they work internally and through interfaces (including websites and apps) to meet that challenge — “a huge area of design opportunity, because we can go out, understand what people value and see where their expectations truly lie, and help clients provide that experience and that service”.

David says this extends to countless products and services that have a disconnect with their brands: “They have a certain market image, but your expectation isn’t met when using the product. They have less quality and are poorly executed. Even Apple struggles with its huge ecosystem”.

For Method, a key experience design benefit for a business is to ‘fix’ this, and have everything driven from brand intention: “The promise of a brand and delivering that as a pure, clean way of creating the experience, through engagement and relationship to the customers — at every point of interaction.”

Know-all

Given the nature of experience design, it’s no surprise experts recommend you should be well-rounded to practice it. Jani echoes Eric Schmidt in calling experience designers “learning animals”, because “there’s a broad spectrum of skills to excel in”, and Rob talks about cross-training: “Our team has people with all kinds of skills, but the power comes when you bring them together. Everyone needs an understanding of what everyone else does, to collaborate effectively.”

At Fjord, Dan notes there’s an especially tight interplay between interaction design and visual design, to “create a system that helps people understand something, elegantly complete what they want to do, and have an experience they want to come back to and feast upon”.

He continues that there’s also a major “need to understand people, motivations and irrationalities,” which he reckons “takes a bit of a psychologist’s inquisitiveness.” Rob adds this involves “plugging into the thoughts and desires of the customer, observing their behaviour and the context within which they’re behaving, and thinking about how what you’re designing works with that and any commercial objectives”. You take all that and build solutions — he says you cannot be precious.

Dan agrees: “Think about craft. It’s about chipping away at things, trying things out, and being willing to throw it away and start again. Experience design is about having that sort of mindset.”

Embracing change

But given the ‘holistic’ nature of experience design, can it be practiced on a brand by a creative agency, or must it be part of a bigger company change? And if you only have access to part of the pie, is it still valid to utilise experience design methodology?

From an agency standpoint, Jani says it’s easier for those already heavily invested in digital, who can “combine data, customer research insights, branding and client strategy with innovative solutions”. For individual freelancers, who might be a smallish cog in a much larger project, David argues you can still apply experience design principles: “You don’t have to have an end-to-end experience to apply this thinking. If you’re a web designer, your job is to translate the brand strategy into ways of working, types of attitudes, expressions and behaviours.”

By way of example, convenience would for a budget supermarket be an absolute principle that drives everything regarding user flow. The experience would be about speed and frictionless payment, and even when “faced with the limitations of a platform you cannot change,” you can “take these fundamental principles of experience design, to give you direction”.

Dan Harris, Fjord

Buy-in from clients can also be key. Dan says Fjord asks clients whether they can “deliver what customers expect without rewiring their operation around such delivery”, and if they can “deliver that operation without a culture of user-centred thinking”.

Transforming a company into an experience design company is, he says, “part and parcel of becoming a digital-first company,” something many aren’t built around. “So it goes deep, and you must think about clients having the capabilities from an operational point of view to deliver the experiences users now expect. And while you can design experiences for brands as short-term campaigns, they won’t necessarily be transformative and effective.”

Experience the future

Thinking ahead, everyone agrees this line of thinking will underpin most successful design projects, regardless of where they’re targeted. “Experience design might be nascent, but for me as a designer, it’s natural to bridge all aspects of design and understand why they’re connected,” says David. “With digital, you now have that two-way thinking of having to transform for the customer and give them what they want, when they want it.“

Agencies and individuals might, as noted earlier, differ in approach, what they call experience design, and precisely where they think it sits within the web of ‘design’, but Rob says that doesn’t matter: “We can intellectualise about the differences between experience design, user experience design and so on, but our clients come to us because they want to make the thing that they’re creating better for them and their customers. What’s important is what you do leads to a better experience.”

Project focus: How Fjord designed coaching services for Fitbug fitness trackers

Dan Harris remarks the entire Fitbug project was about experience design. The wearables company produced a pedometer and app but wanted to expand its platform to provide ‘Kiqplans’ — 12-week training programmes for anyone to get involved with.

“What was exciting is this was a behaviour-change project,” says Dan. “We knew we needed to design an experience that would enable people to train in the best and most consistent way over 12 weeks.” Kiqplan is a virtual trainer, so Fjord designed an interface, but Dan says “that felt the least of the project”. What was more important was providing users with context surrounding their activities.

Dan elaborates: “We knew we needed a really great notification system for helping people when they’re not necessarily using the app, to understand what to do next. So we built a notification strategy, which is an experience design that just happens to be ‘interfaceless’ — something we’ll be designing more and more of as smartwatches become more prevalent and people start experiencing services through haptics”.

Fjord simultaneously worked on information architecture for Kiqplan and motivational content and systems to keep people engaged. “This was IA-led, but we applied a lot of data visualisation, graphic design and information design to ensure the experience was compelling.” He notes this was an area where experience design proved crucial: “Fitbug had been providing data for years, but we stepped back and asked: what did it actually mean? Our goal was to use data to facilitate something more valuable to users. It wasn’t just about visualisation of data, but a data-driven programme of things to do in the real world.”

Project focus: How Foolproof used experience design to rethink TSB's website

As TSB separated from Lloyds, Foolproof was picked to design the company’s website. Foolproof says TSB wanted to maximise the impact of its new brand identity and differentiate itself, and this was achieved through rethinking the customer experience. The redesign radically reduced the amount of content, much of which wasn’t adding to the user experience and yet was creating a large management overhead.

Through an evidence-based approach and collaboration with users, Foolproof moved through prototypes and into the fine-details of interaction across devices. Initially hearing customers argue all banks were “the same”, Foolproof used experience design principles to fashion a solution customers could connect to on a more emotional level. Visitor numbers and applications completed rose significantly after the new site went live.

Project focus: Method brings together app, product and interactive design for the Basis wearable

David Eveleigh-Evans says Method applied experience design principles to wearable Basis, which was a hit at CES 2013, and later bought by Intel: “We did the brand platform, look and feel, worked on the product UI, and worked with a product design firm that did the physical UI.”

Beyond these elements, Method worked on packaging and service infrastructure, ensuring the customer’s experience was covered “from first-use out of the box through to reuse, retention and loyalty”. Additional expertise from Method included “the service platform from an engagement point of view — data analytics, social components of community, gamified mechanics — all the pieces where UX would generally sit”.