Sunday, June 19, 2005


experience and happenings

Many people want to label nearly everything users encounter as an "experience." We talk about the user's experience filling out a form, or the user's experience browsing a website. We talk about the customer's experience standing in a queue waiting to buy movie tickets.

But if you ask people what their experience was, they will often reply "I dunno, ah, normal I guess." There are at least two possible reactions to such answers. One is that asking such a question is not the right way to get at the user experience. One needs to probe the experience through other means, such as observation, to understand what the user is experiencing. Another reaction is to conclude the issue itself just isn't very interesting. The experience clearly didn't register with the user, so if they aren't worked up about it, then it must not be that important.

I think both reactions can be true, depending on circumstances. Users aren't always able to articulate things they feel viscerally, though these things do matter to them -- they do feel affected by them. But other times, I think user researchers project their concerns on the user. They think long and hard about a mundane issue, and see that something is unnecessarily complicated, long, or dull. But it doesn't follow that the user feels that way. They might not even be conscious of the inadequacy of what is presented to them.

Truth is, not everything a user does is an experience. People are often on autopilot, and don't reflect on what they have been doing. In the absence of self-conscious awareness (the event is too mundane or trivial to think about), users just do it, not think it. Saul Alinsky noted this phenomenon back in the 1960s, when he distinguished experiences from happenings. As he wrote in his classic, Rules for Radicals:

Most people go through life undergoing a series of happenings, which pass through their systems undigested. Happenings become experiences when they are digested, when they are reflected on, related to general patterns, and synthesized.

Unless people have cause to reflect on what they have been doing, their "experience" may be just a happening.

Michael - I am sure I'm not going to post anything here that you don't know, but one may take away the wrong impression from your posting and I thought I ought to try and add some clarification.

In many cases when you interview people, you're going to get a [shrug] response. But information in a contextual interview doesn't come in the form of question - answer - next question - next answer - next question - next answer.

It's a crazy twisting path, with followup questions, and inferences from the manner in which answers are given, and reflections 30 minutes later in the same interview, etc. You're often dealing with something that isn't easily expressed. That doesn't mean that it isn't there, it just means that you are making them do all the work if you ask them and expect to get it right then and there.

"I dunno ah, normal I guess" is a wonderful verbatim quote from the first 10 minutes of most interviews with most people about most topics - until you break past that (and it takes time) then many things will seem just like that.
Steve - You are absolutely correct that the immediate reply to a question during contextual interviewing is often not the answer that emerges later.

What I am exploring here is the possibility, even a risk, that researchers read more into the user's experience than the user him- or herself is concerned by. The point I am trying to make is subtle, but at its core I believe there is enough variability in people that not everyone gets exercised by the same things. To give you a generic example: as east coast American with some type-A tendencies I can get worked up over things that a (hypothetical) laid-back Kiwi would be unphased by. I might even suggest an alternative way things could be done that the agreeable Kiwi would also say would be better. But unlike me, the happy Kiwi would feel no emotional urgency to changing what currently exists.

Design research often promotes a universal path to improving things. I believe there can be alternative realities, and that one needs to check that one's own personal agenda doesn't intrude on how others see things.
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