Experience Thinking

Anatomy of Experience
Howard Rose

A number of years ago I worked on a project with the US Department of Defense, called Middle East World, exploring the use of virtual reality to deliver PTSD therapy for battlefield vets. Middle East World uses a therapeutic approach called “graded exposure. The therapist leads the patient on a drive in a Humvee through the streets of a virtual Iraqi city. As the therapist and the patient talk through the feelings and associations of the experience, the therapist can control stressful events to happen, like IEDs or a sudden attack from a passing car.

Find the Important Spaces

The virtual cityscape includes a mosque and we included a recording of the call to prayer as the soldier drives by. The design team learned from our Iraq veteran advisors that hearing the call to prayer from the minaret of the mosque was actually a sign that soldiers good take a breather and relax. But that relaxation was short lived, because it was the silence immediately after the call to prayer, as people left the mosques, that marked a time of extreme heightened stress from the increased potential for violent confrontations.

IraqWorld is a great illustration of the power of an immersive digital experience can change the dynamics of therapy and help people overcome their biggest challenges. VR is the epitome of an experience where every facet is constructed, and can be crafted to be hyper-real or wildly fantastic. So when a designer gets to make or break all the rules, what do you do? What is good design when there are so few constraints?

Make Experience Thinking Work For You

My approach to unlock the power digital experiences offer is what I call Experience Thinking. Experience Thinking is a design approach that covers the nuanced details as well as the sum total of the experience. It compels a designer to consider all the things that happen, the things that don’t happen, and the spaces in between.

In trying to explain Experience Thinking, I’m reminded of a pearl of advice from Miles Davis about playing jazz: “Don’t play what is there, play what is not there…” The emotion and meaning of the notes played only make sense in a context of the whole. Miles’ space in the music is like the silence after the call to prayer in IraqWorld. Developing an intuitive understanding of our audience and leveraging that to craft successive “meaningful moments – that’s Experience Thinking.

Since IraqWorld, I’ve been immersed in designing many other experiences in VR/AR for health, education, business. Every project helps me appreciate how countless nuances of design and execution sum up to the ultimate success for target users and my product. I now instinctively take a step back before diving into a new design project, to root my design in a holistic appreciation of who my user is, what they know and what they want. From there I’m on a much stronger footing to design for the full experience.

If you design anything, from a virtual world to a picnic, Experience Thinking is an idea worth considering. I look forward to exploring and sharing Experience Thinking, and dissecting the anatomy of what makes a great, memorable experience.

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