Experience Thinking

Anatomy of Experience, by Howard Rose

A number of years ago I worked on a project with the US Department of Defense, exploring the use of virtual reality to deliver PTSD therapy for battlefield vets, called IraqWorld. IraqWorld takes the patient on a humvee drive through a virtual Iraqi city, while the therapist is able to control the frequency and intensity of stress inducing events like IEDs and attacks. The virtual cityscape includes a mosque and we included a recording of the call to prayer as the soldier’s humvee drives by.

The design team learned from our soldier participants that the call to prayer, while everyone gathered in the mosque, was a peaceful rest-bit from the fear of attack. Interestingly, 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 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.

Creating immersive virtual reality worlds has been a great teacher to understand Experience Thinking. 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 you get to make or break all the rules, what do you do? What is good design when there are so few constraints?

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 stonger 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 human experience.

© 2021 Howard Rose, all rights reserved