I attended the Big (D)esign Conference last week, and as with UPA 2011, I was inspired and challenged by the opening keynote, Transformational Space: The Power of Place. Gwen Harmon, Director of Governmental and Community Affairs for the National Civil Rights Museum, (NCRM) talked about the museum and plans for renovation to create a greater impact on visitors. She talked about four elements of transformational design:
- Emotional design
- Profound effect
- Visceral connection
Although the initial discussion of transformation focused on the changes planned for the museum, she also discussed the desired transformation that visitors to the museum would experience. She noted that individual transformation was unique to each person and the result of not only the experience offered by the museum, but by each person’s frame of reference, personal interpretation of the information, and their culture and background.
This idea brought to mind recent conversation threads on whether we can design UX or can only design for UX. The first of these threads for me came from my colleague Sam Elliott, who asked me which I believed. The inspiration for the question was Dmitry Dragilev’s post “User Experience Cannot Be Designed.” After reading this post, I searched a bit more and found Helge Fredheim’s thoughtful article “Why User Experience Cannot Be Designed” that explores the psychology behind this assertion and the challenges of reaching diverse people who have unique perspectives and backgrounds and who exist in constantly changing contexts.
Recently, the question of designing the UX vs. designing for the UX was debated by UX professionals on Twitter. Those asserting that you could design a UX pointed out that the conscious act of design and seeing measurable outcomes as evidence designing the user experience. Those asserting that we can only design for the user experience noted many of the same points as Fredheim.
In the end, the differences are more subtle than substantial. (@jmspool added this important closing thought on the Twitter discussion: “The ‘can/can’t design experiences’ debate: Both sides DO the same thing. There’s no diff in the design practice or methods.”) Still, the thought that we have to design to meet the user somewhere short of the final end experience and trust they can still have a valuable and desirable experience is intriguing and inspires consideration of new ways of approaching design. My previous post about the need to broaden the perspective of UX noted our limited ability to design over time and for the rich contexts that Fredheim concludes make truly designing an experience impossible.
Hearing about designing a museum experience, on the surface very different from the software design context I’m most familiar with, opened a new aspect of this discussion for me. Fredheim’s arguments from psychology echo lessons from my training in communication. I recall from my mass communication class in college that we cannot control the conversation fully, or the listener, or the context because of external and internal noise in the channel. But successful communication depends on cutting through the noise and mitigating the distractions of context to find connections with a person receiving the message. When Ms. Harmon talked about redesigning the NCRM experience to better communicate and more deeply affect a visitor, I wondered how can we cut through the noise affecting our designs to deliver a transformational experience for our users, even if we are designing bank applications.
The comparison is not meant to trivialize the great work that Ms. Harmon and others at museums do to make us more aware of our culture and history to inform our future for the better. But we are often too quick to concede on emotional design and visceral connections when we think about designing task-oriented applications. That is a mistake. For all the tasks they need to accomplish, people who use our products are humans – emotional beings – and they deserve to have ah-ha moments, to be delighted, and to feel that a product resonates with them. Yes, even when they just need to check their bank balance.
We need to understand ways to reach out past the noise to be closer to the users on the receiver end of the spectrum. Considering Ms. Harmon’s four elements of transformational design, we need to understand what we can and should measure to achieve these goals in our designs. Once we decide what to measure, we need to integrate the findings into our designs. We also need to better allow for the uniqueness of each user’s experience in areas such as engagement, memory retention, and delight and to evaluate successful design along these lines, not to just stop at evaluating task completion or efficiency or number of errors – all useful measures of success but no longer enough to ensure success.
We need to design for a full range of experience. Don Norman writes about emotional design. Dana Chisnell tells us that “If you want customers to love your design, fall in love with your customers” and encourages us to deliver happy design. Carol Barnum and Laura Palmer share their experiences using product reaction cards to measure user satisfaction and the desirability of products. These are just a few examples of the kinds of thinking and tools needed to achieve broader goals for product success, but much more needs to be done to develop the tools that UX design needs to create, evaluate, and deliver transformational user experiences.
Ms. Harmon ended her presentation with an appeal to us as designers to participate in helping the museum communicate effectively to help change the world. In appreciation for the inspiration she gave me and the other attendees of the Big Design Conference, I extend her appeal to you. Even if you’re not a designer, you have your own unique contribution to make, so visit the National Civil Rights Museum website and consider whether you can volunteer, donate, teach or just visit to have your own transformational experience.