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Experience Design


In my last blog post, I wrote about Making Things and Drawing Boundaries, a great collection of essays written by practitioners of digital humanities. When I first encountered the book’s table of contents, there was one essay that pushed me to purchase the book and read it as soon as I got it. The essay is called “Experience Design for the Humanities: Activating Multiple Interpretations” and was written by Stan Ruecker and Jennifer Roberts-Smith.

The reason this essay called to me is that I’ve been thinking about a new major, a new discipline even, called “experience design.” I started to think about this area after a meeting with George Epstein of the Echo Group in September 2016. With all the other things going on, I haven’t followed up with George but I have done some research to see what other institutions are offering that might be related to this field but as I said in 2016, there are few (none?) undergraduate programs focused on what I think could be a really valuable knowledge and skill set.

Let me clarify what I mean by experience design. (An aside: there is a lot of material available about “user experience design” but that tends to be more narrowly focused on technology interface design than what I’m imagining.) Let me use the Churchill War Rooms in London to explain. The museum is housed in an underground bunker that British leaders used during World War II as a safe(ish) place from which they plotted their war plans. I have no interest in learning about the life of Winston Churchill and very little interest in learning more than I already know about the British experience of World War II. I first went to the War Rooms with a colleague who was planning a travel trip and thought we would spend an hour or two there. We ended up staying for four hours and only left because the museum was closing. The designers of the museum have created a multi-media experience that provides multiple levels of engagement with the facts of Churchill’s life and involvement with the British war effort. There are artifacts from Churchill’s life (diaries, letters, documentary footage, possessions) with didactic materials to explain the importance of each. But that’s the stuff of a standard historical museum. This museum also uses technology in really interesting ways to present material at varying levels of detail. For example, there is a large flat table whose surface is a touchscreen. On the screen is a timeline of Churchill’s life with a “folder” for each year. When you look at the overall timeline, you get a broad view of Churchill’s life. But if you touch a particular year, you get details about what he was doing in each month of that year. If you then touch a particular month, you see digital reproductions of artifacts related to that month with a nearly daily account of his life. As I said, I’m not particularly interested in Winston Churchill. But I found this presentation of his life was fascinating, giving me as much or as little detail as I wanted. Other parts of the museum have motion-activated sound presentations. For example, if you walk through a particular portion, you might hear authentic recordings of bombing raids. If you stop in that area, you might then see video footage of those same raids along with text explaining what you’re hearing and seeing.

I am describing this museum because it is a very well-designed experience. How does someone learn to do that? But I’m not thinking just of museum experience in this experience design major. Another example that I think about is Plymouth State University’s on-boarding experience for new students. Once a student decides to come to PSU, they will need to choose either a major or to come in as undecided. They will need to choose a dorm, a meal plan, their classes, a roommate (or not). How do we engage students in these processes? The experience begins even before the student sets foot on campus for orientation. For example, last year, we created a Moodle site with video explanations of how to search for classes, what First Year Seminar (FYS) is, how to pick a schedule, and so on. Based on conversations in my sections of FYS this fall, I don’t think this experience was particularly effective. (To me, an effective experience is one that meets the goals of the designer–there’s lots to talk about there!) So I’ve been thinking about how to get current students involved in the design of our orientation experience (starting before new students are on campus) so that we might figure out how to be more effective.

I see a huge potential demand for graduates who understand how to design effective experiences. As I said, I’ve been researching other experience design programs and the field doesn’t even really exist yet. The closest I’ve found are museum studies programs and a few human-centered product design programs. So I was really excited to see the essay in this collection. And it helped me to think more clearly about the program I have in mind.

Because the essay focuses on experience design in the humanities, the authors are especially concerned with opportunities for interpretation. The idea is that audience members attend a cultural event and are given the opportunity to view the event through a variety of interpretive lenses. For them, experience design is about designing “interpretive environments (p. 261)” that enrich the cultural experience for the audience member. One way to do this is to invite “audiences to ‘customize’ an augmented reality exhibition by enabling them to select the kinds of content they prefer …, reorganize content in ways predefined by the app’s designers …, and endorse or ‘share’ content … (p. 260).” The authors go on to say that “technological enhancements to audience experience have numerous features. First, they overlay or operate in parallel to embodied, material experiences. … Second, they communicate expert interpretations of artifacts or events. … Third, at least in some cases, technological enhancements allow audiences to customize and endorse exhibits through their own comments. Fourth, they ask audiences to facilitate the process of engaging a broader public (p. 260-1).” I think teaching students how to incorporate these features into their designs would make for a compelling curriculum.

An additional insight from the authors that I found helpful was: “Experience design gives particular attention to the temporal movement of a participant through an event (p. 262).” The authors suggest using a framework called “the 5Es” to think about how the participant move through the event. The person must be enticed to come to the event. They then enter, experience, and exit the event. Finally, the experience should be extended through things like souvenirs, social media activities, or recordings. If we think about this framework in relation to the PSU orientation experience, we can see that it is useful. For example, if we’re trying to get a student to register for a FYS that they are interested in, we have to entice them to engage with whatever explanatory materials we have created. We have think about what they see first as they engage with those materials, what the actual experience of the materials looks and feels like, and then how they leave those materials. Finally, we need to think about extending their experience with those materials so that they remember which FYS they signed up for and why. Or maybe they extend their experience by signing up for an on-campus orientation session which is designed once again using the 5Es.

Although the essay is geared toward designing the experience of cultural events so that they become interpretive experiences, I think most of the material can be adapted to all types of experiences. This essay makes me feel even more strongly that this emerging discipline warrants our attention as we look for interdisciplinary major that require many existing disciplines to work together.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. actualham

    I love this and we have so many IDS majors who are interested in “design” from various perspectives and they have a lot of trouble creating coherent programs with our current offerings, but I definitely see the demand and also the way the idea cuts across so many domains, which makes the potential for interdisciplinary creativity, institutional efficiencies, and true structural innovation so great… Mostly, I am curious about how new ideas like this, which emerge in tandem with the permissions we are given in the cluster initiative to think about curricular delivery in new ways, will get folded into current definitions of “majors,” or whether we will think about the process of building programs differently. In other words, should this be a new major, or should it be something we use to rethink how majors are formed, how they get completed and credentialed, and how they are stewarded by our committees and faculty? As more cool ideas emerge, do we need new ideas for what “majors” should be and how they should live inside the university? Either way, I think students would love it if PSU developed something like what you are talking about here…

  2. Cathie LeBlanc

    I just started reading Cathy Davidson’s new book ( where she recommends students look for majors in the field they want to pursue but also to look for majors with the fewest requirements so they can explore other interests and fields. Experience Design seems like it would be of interest to anyone who is planning to work in pretty much any area. That’s something to think about. Not sure what those new structures will look like but I find the prospect exciting!

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