This report will provide a critical review of my experiences over the last six months during the Digital Experience Design course at Hyper Island. It will reflect on how the design thinking process has been used in response to a variety of client briefs and will analyse the tools, techniques and methodologies used along the way. The paper will go into critical detail about the human-centred design approach and how this has been adapted for use from an Experience Design point of view. Finally, the report will discuss the ethical issues that present themselves when designing for humans.
Understanding Experience Design
Experience design is closer in spirit to theatre, poetry or even philosophy than it is to the older assembly line. What on earth isn’t “experience”? And what is not, in some sense, “interactive”? Experience designers are a tiny group of people with a radically universalised prospectus.”
— Bruce Sterling (2009)
Experience design has become increasingly popular in modern times, with consumers often choosing products and services based on the quality of the experiences they have with them. (Adaptive Path, n.d.) Consumers are also buying more into the omnichannel touchpoints of a company, rather than a single product or service. (Zimmerman, 2016). It is, therefore, no surprise that the practice of experience design is on the rise, with more companies looking to create a holistic experience, beginning with the moment a consumer comes into contact with the brand and continuing right through to the point where they no longer have any interaction with them. Experience design can be described as “a design practice focused on human outcomes, in particular, the level of engagement and satisfaction that the user derives from a product or service and the relevance of the experience to their needs and context.” (Wood, 2016)
Experience design goes hand-in-hand with human-centred design because of the requirement to understand the needs of those the experience is aimed at. User needs can be gathered through a variety of research methods, such as observations, in-depth interviews, quantitative research, user journeys or rapid prototyping. Additionally, taking a design thinking approach means experience design projects move in iterative loops from discovery to delivery. By doing so, designers can expose the user to the progress of the product at each stage to gain feedback which helps to refine and adapt the design to their needs. Getting users involved can be beneficial, both to the success of the system and user satisfaction. (Kujala, 2003) It is essential to understand the user as much as possible because the experience is not restricted to a moment in time but rather concerns a continuous flow and a continuous amount of things taken in by a consumer. (Zimmerman, 2016).
Today’s design industry spans many sectors and subject areas, so it is easy to be confused by the plethora of designer job titles and acronyms. Experience design (XD), user experience (UX), service design (SD), information architecture (IA) and interaction design (IxD) all sound like they are different design roles, but the lines of where one role ends and another begins are beginning to blur. Nowadays, when designers are asked what their job is, it is not uncommon for the designer to explain what they do, rather than what they are. Below are some examples of how experience design differs from other roles:
Experience design and user experience design are perhaps the most commonly confused job roles. The difference here is that a UX designer focuses on digital whereas an experience designer cross-pollinates between the physical world and the digital world. (Bell, 2017)
Service design views all interactions across the people involved (not just the customer), including the processes, the systems, the spaces and the devices (Keller, 2011), whereas the role of an experience designer is to focus on the experience of just one group of people.
Interaction design fits typically within Experience design, and Interaction designers sometimes think about the big picture, and sometimes they just focus on the online interaction. (Axbom, 2011) including looking at the actions and reactions of users.
Finally, information architecture is the practice of organising website content that makes it easy for users to navigate through. Information Architecture concerns structure, while user experience concerns emotion. (Northcott, 2012) IA has its foundations in UX, as to make a system easy to use requires knowledge of user emotions during its usage.
Despite the difference in job titles and a variation on the tasks involved, they all strive to achieve a common goal: Discover and define a problem, then empathetically design the solution. (Sackett, 2017) The Digital Experience Design programme at Hyper Island showed how experience design takes a step back and looks at the bigger picture of a solution, rather than just focusing on the end product.
During the Business Transformation assignment, a holistic approach was conceptualised to improve the LEGO experience in the form of “a smart device application that allows users to take a digital collection of their LEGO bricks on the go with them, allowing them to continue their playtime when out and about.” (Huxtable-Lee, 2018) The app aimed to allow consumers to continue their physical LEGO experience when they could not take the bricks with them by moving the experience to a digital platform.
The Design Process
Having a full understanding of the processes that lead to creative designs over routine designs is of great interest to both individuals and organisations (Howard, Culley, and Dekoninck, 2008, p. 160) Design processes ensure that teams are aligned with their project goals and provide guidance along the way. Human-centred design (HCD) is “a chance to design with communities, to deeply understand the people they are looking to serve, to dream up scores of ideas, and to create innovative new solutions rooted in people’s actual needs.” (IDEO, 2015) Similar to experience design, human-centred design has a high degree of usability and user experience. (Burmester, 2016). The approach achieves this by gaining empathy for the end user which can be built through the practice of interviews, observations and personas. Learning to understand user mindsets can become a mindset in itself for designers. By learning these mindsets, designers make it almost an unconscious habit of digging deep into the needs and desires of their target user.
Design thinking is a process that allows for the development of innovative and creative solutions for complex issues. (Burmester, 2016) To become an excellent modern-day designer takes more than a knowledge of design. It requires an understanding of psychology, anthropology, society, empathy, technology, the environment, science as well as being morally and ethically guided and I have learned this through the DXD course. It is about changing your whole mindset to the task at hand; you have to eat, live and breath the topic you are designing for. It needs to become your world not just the world of the people you are designing for. In 1928, Wasily Kandinsky recognised the need for a philosophical foundation that would allow [for synthesising] various bodies of knowledge and skills. (Cross, 2008, p. 103) It could be argued that this need is perhaps more significant today than it was 90 years ago, what with the advancement of technology and almost everything is readily available in the palm of one’s hand. People today have knowledge of a higher amount of subjects and topics and the need to understand the target user means designers need to know even more than those users.
The design process can take shape in various models, including IDEO’s human-centred design model, the Stanford d.school process, Google design sprints, the design squiggle and many more. Research as far back as 1826 shows just how many creative design processes have been developed over time, as shown in the table below. (see Fig. 5) However, perhaps the most striking thing is how similar they all appear to be. In their paper, Howard, Culley and Dekoninck (2008) suggest that a creative design process should be a ‘linear style’. However, on the Digital Experience Design programme, students were taught by the Design Council’s Jonathan Ball (2018) — one of the founders of the Double Diamond process — that a design process should have iterative loops. Throughout the programme, teams have learned to use and adapt to the non-linear Double Diamond process and discovered the benefits of iterative loops through its constant use. It is essential to have iterative loops, prototypes and testing with users throughout the whole process which helps to discover which ideas work best. By iterating on these ideas, it ensures that any ideas that don’t work so well are taken out of the ideation process.
Once the methodology has been memorised, it became something of a mindset that can be taken into the rest of a designer’s career. Because it is more of a mindset than a tool or a process, there aren’t any hard and fast rules on how to use it correctly and is reliant on the rest of the team understanding it and wanting to use it. The four stages of the Double Diamond are: discover, define, develop and deliver. Practical design methods — like user diaries, journey mapping and character profiles — move a project through the four phases of the Double Diamond. (Design Council, n.d.)
The first stage of the double diamond is all about discovering everything you can about the topic, field and users you will be designing for. It is a chance to look at the world in a fresh way, notice new things and gather insights (Design Council, n.d). This can be done in a variety of ways including primary and secondary research with a mix of qualitative and quantitative approaches. Teams can also consider conducting analogous research too, where the goal is to understand the brief from an entirely unexpected angle and uncover insights that can be tailored to suit the brief.
In this second stage of the double diamond we begin to define and synthesise everything we have discovered. From this, the aim is to develop a clear brief for the design challenge. By synthesising data from the research, teams can begin to look for patterns and emerging themes and turn them into opportunity areas. It is usually at this stage that teams then turn those opportunity areas into a ‘How might we?’ question to help guide the rest of the project.
The third stage is all about the development and ideation of solutions and concepts. This phase is a crucial part and gaining feedback from your target users through iterative, and rapid prototyping will ensure your idea is targeting the right people in the right ways.
The fourth and final stage of the double diamond, the delivery of the solution is about polishing and finessing the solution to a point where it can be finalised and launched. During the Hyper Island experience, delivery was always the day in which the crew pitched their ideas to the clients and sought feedback and questions on how the solution worked.
To have learned the design process at Hyper Island from concept through to delivery has been a whole new experience. Learning a design process on a traditional bachelor’s course was a completely different experience as the course did not teach students that it should be a holistic process. Students were taught to individually research on what other designers had done before them for inspiration and then come up with up ideas without being taught the reasoning behind it. This meant that any opportunities to be innovative were severely quashed. Having gone through the design process at a master’s level, the advantages of following the design process thoroughly quickly became evident, and each project on the course has provided sparks of innovation. Understanding the design process better has even provided the innovation required to develop a brand new model that the programme leader agreed was “the clearest model she’d ever seen to show how a company can grow.” (Willcocks, 2018)
Tools and Techniques
One of the most important aspects of experience design is primary research. There are many ways to conduct primary research, such as in-depth interviews, contextual interviews, interviews with experts, analogous research or observations. ‘Interviewing is a popular and versatile data collection method used in qualitative inquiry. Qualitative research interviews … involve complex interactions that employ a range of communication and interpretation skills.’ (Banner, 2010) Regardless of the method used, it is important to not fixate on expected learning, “but rather cultivate your own general, non-specific curiosity.” (Portigal, 2013, p. 27) Interviewing people is vital because users can tell what it is they need and desire, both explicitly and implicitly. When using human-centred design methods, the designer is aiming to come up with a solution that their target user will use.
Extreme users can be inspiring because you never really know what you are going to discover. You always hope for those hidden gems that will genuinely shape your ideas later on. “What makes an extreme so valuable is their characteristics and motives.” (Duverger, 2012, p. 539) Firstly, extreme users are generally one step ahead and can forecast market trends. Secondly, they stand to gain from the solutions they create significantly. Finally, extremes are willing to share their ideas. (ibid.) Extreme users are likely to possess more relevant solution knowledge and thus be centrally involved in contributing knowledge. (Jeppesen and Laursen, 2009, p. 1582)
During the Understanding People module, where the team was looking into binge-watching, the team had the opportunity to talk with an extreme binge-watcher. The insights gained, allowed the team to generate many ideas that were taken forward and pitched to the BBC. If it had not been for the extreme user interview, the team’s ideas might have been drastically different.
In the same project, the team interviewed a psychotherapist who was an expert in eating behaviours and habits as analogous research. Analogous [inspiration] can help you isolate elements of an experience, interaction, or product, and then apply them to whatever design challenge you are working on. (Design Kit, n.d.)
Meeting with the psychotherapist, the team discovered that there were many similarities between the two subject areas and he was able to give us expert insights on how bingeing, in general, can turn into a habit which stems from people’s behavioural needs. Experts provide a unique source for ‘inside’ information about (Dorrusen, Lenz, Blavoukos, 2005) their specialised subject matter. Therefore, this interview turned out to be more insightful to us than had ever been expected, because it had an impact on the decisions that were made in choosing the right ideas to carry forward from an empathetic and ethical level.
Although primary research is essential to human-centred design, secondary research can be a swift way to get a sense of what the product or company is about, or even as a way of finding out about emerging trends or technology forecasts. Secondary — or desk — research can be conducted by looking online, reading books or magazines and can be used when the team requires facts around numbers or data rather than user opinions.
Download your Learnings / Synthesis
The process of ‘downloading’ after each interview involves team members individually sharing with the rest of the team what they found to be of importance from the interviewee’s answers. Synthesis reveals a cohesion and sense of continuity; synthesis indicates a push towards organisation, reduction, and clarity. (Kolko, 2007) Being able to download interviews and synthesise the findings is essential as designers attempt “to organise, manipulate, prune, and filter gathered data into a cohesive structure for information building.” (ibid.) The themes and patterns that emerge can then lead to opportunity areas. Any ideas that form from this exercise are then added to the ‘parking lot’, an area where ideas are placed to be addressed at a later time.
Journey and Experience Mapping
When designing the experience of a product or service, experience maps provide a visual representation of what users see, do, think and feel over time, from the point they start needing a service to when they stop using it. (GOV UK, 2017) An experience map is a strategic tool for capturing and presenting key insights into the complex customer interactions that occur across experiences with a product, service, or ecosystem. (Adaptive Path, n.d.) These visualisations help to build a picture in the designer’s mind about the steps a user takes throughout their journey and enables them to build empathy. Experience maps can also be shown to the client to demonstrate where value can be added to the product or service.
During the Experience Design module, the team looked at how an upcoming emotional wellness app could be built upon. The client — Fika — already had a minimum viable product (MVP) in development and they wanted an experience building around it. The team decided to make an experience map to discover the pain points around the current core app. There was an absence of marketing, onboarding and touchpoints, a very basic sign up process, limited offboarding and limited retention in place. This meant the team could identify many key areas to turn their focus towards and came up with an onboarding and offboarding experience based on three opportunity areas: onboarding, adoption and retention. By focusing on these three areas, the team were able to consider a holistic experience based on the company, rather than the usage of the core app.
A prototype is a draft version of a product that allows you to explore your ideas and show the intention behind a feature or the overall design concept to users before investing time and money into development. (Usability.org, n.d.) Prototyping allows designers to gain instant feedback from users while the solution is still in its development stage. There are various levels of fidelity of prototypes, each with their benefits and drawbacks, but the value of prototyping, in general, should not be underestimated.
Low-fidelity prototypes are usually paper-based sketches and allow users to provide valuable feedback on a proposed design. They are quick and cheap to produce but do not offer users an idea for the interactions of the design. Renzo Piano, the architect renowned for designing the Shard in London, famously sketched his vision for the building on a restaurant napkin. Piano’s sketch helped illustrate his vision and provided him with some immediate feedback. Even in such basic form [the client] will have been able to picture Piano’s vision. (Meachin, C, n.d.)
Paper prototypes can also be an effective way of communicating the idea to the design team you are collaborating with. By sharing the idea on paper, it provides the creative space for the team to add their ideas to yours which can provide sparks of innovation.
Low-fidelity prototypes can be great for using as sacrificial concepts. Sacrificial concepts or conversation starters help people to build on an idea and permits them to say ‘yes and…’. It helps to spark some creativity for the target user and makes the user feel like they are a part of the design process. The thinking behind sacrificial concepts is that the designer knows the idea does not resemble what the finished product might look like. It is merely an exercise to get people talking about the idea to see how it can be built upon.
During the Understanding People project for the BBC, the team used sacrificial concepts in the form of idea napkins. They were used as part of the interviews with users and also at a meeting with the BBC early on in the project. Some of the ideas were so popular the team took them forward and were able to ideate around an idea they knew people liked.
Building on from paper-based sketches, mid-fidelity prototypes are often digitally produced ideas that begin to show a user how the design might work. Designers can begin to observe the user flow and how users interact with it, to discover if there are any oversights or flaws in the product. These prototypes do not use design aesthetics as the goal is to see what works and what does not regarding usability. Apps such as InVision or Figma offer a great service and can be excellent tools for digital prototyping.
High-fidelity prototypes begin to resemble what the final product might look like, but this stage is by far the most labour intensive. These prototypes are assumed to be much more effective in collecting true human performance data (e.g., time to complete a task) (Usability.org, n.d.) It is at this point that clients can begin to see how a solution would function and look when it has been released into the wild.
During the Experience Design module, the team designed a prototype using Sketch and InVision to give the client a feel for how the prototype was intended to work. The client was able to understand the idea fully and was able to provide constructive feedback for how the idea could be scaled up in the future.
There is still some debate about what level of fidelity prototype is the most effective. Walker et al. (2002) argue ‘that low- and high-fidelity prototypes are equally good at uncovering usability issues’ and ‘designers should choose whichever medium and level of fidelity suit their practical needs and design goals’. (ibid.)
Testing prototypes with Hyper Island crew members was highly valuable to the team because they were able to gauge whether people liked the idea or not quickly. This helped to alleviate any concerns that the team had about the idea, and crew members could provide suggestions on how the design could be improved. It was also considerably useful to have access to forty available user testers who could provide rapid feedback that could be implemented and iterated on in real-time.
Ethical Issues Relating to Solving Design Challenges
Being ethical as a designer was something the Hyper Island crew was taught in the first week of the programme. Designing using a human-centred approach has affirmed to me that I should design for my users and not against them. Ethics in design can be described “as the moment when the line of making seemingly-motiveless decisions that serve the interests of the system over those of the user, is crossed.” (Yonatan, 2017) The interviews conducted and the research that has been undertaken during the programme has shown that design should be morally and ethically guided by what people need and not necessarily for what they think they want.
“Ethics is not an option; it is the imperative that has made society possible, and we cannot lose the framework that keeps this ship a sail.”
— Acaroglu, 2016
During the Design Thinking module, the crew had to design for people with a lived experience of homelessness to help them back get back into work. Because of the sensitivity of the topic, ethics had to be at the forefront of our designs and having this project as the first step into human-centred design was an essential introduction to the kind of thinking that goes into every design solution. Tash Willcocks, the Head of Hyper Island UK, recently said in a Forbes article, “The ability to make ethical considerations should be trained like a muscle.” (Olson, 2018). The more ethics have been considered when designing, the stronger the ‘ethical muscle’ has become and the easier it is to see the wider implications of what the designs mean, not just for the user, but for those in society and the environment as well.
However, ethics does not just cover design. With each interview the team conducted, the interviewers had to express their intentions for what the interviews were used for, how much data would be taken forward to the pitch and who would see that data. It was also essential to gain express permission from the interviewee to take photos or digitally record the interview.
During the Understanding People module, the team took a number of photos of the interviewee in his home and used them in the pitch afterwards. While the team were granted permission to take these photos, it was only verbally given, and nothing was put into writing. A consideration for the future would be to ensure that permission is given in writing for ease of mind of the interviewee.
As the old saying goes, there are two sides to every story, and ethical design is no exception. While many designers and organisations are ethically guided, there are some who are not. Design practices such as Dark UX are techniques that deliberately misguide the user. Hidden unsubscribe links in emails, additional, unwanted charges when providing card details or making it difficult for customers to cancel a service are such techniques. By knowing how users will navigate a service, organisations can make it intentionally difficult for users to remove themselves from that service. The projects at Hyper Island did not lend themselves to the traps of Dark UX; if they had, I believe I would have found working on those projects particularly uncomfortable as Dark UX goes against everything we have learned on the Digital Experience Design programme.
This paper has documented the experiences and lessons learned throughout the Digital Experience Design programme at Hyper Island. The tools and methodologies learned throughout the process have been critically reviewed and their use in response to various client briefs has been evaluated. Human-centred design, the design process and ethics have all played a massive part in my growth as a designer and have been reviewed from an Experience Design perspective.
Although this paper has covered many design aspects, there are still many more to be discovered and mastered. I believe the components I have assessed in this paper are a foundation from which to build on in my pursuit of becoming a designer in today’s fast-moving world. The path I have taken through the programme will help shape how I can design engaging, interactive and provocative solutions and stories, which ultimately have an impact on how people see, think and live their lives. (Huxtable-Lee, 2018)