Can you design an experience?

Companies can only control their products. The really consumer-centric companies also have gained knowledge about and empathy for their users (their personality, dispositions, moods, needs, and and so on). It is only when you develop products and services based on such knowledge and when you constantly track consumer feedback and adjust accordingly, can you HOPE to affect the consumer experience positively.

Alex Genov

Just the other day, I learnt about Charles Sanders Pierce and his Theory of Signs. When I was reading this TED debate, I got a “connect the dots” moment.


A little background

Pierce’s Theory was a valuable contribution to the understanding of meaning because it considers the role of the interpretor in the relationship, unlike the other models which only explains meaning in a two-part model: the signifier and the signified.


E.g. the word “apple”, and the juicy red apple on my kitchen table

Here is Pierce’s model:


His model is so much truer to life because when I say “apple” and think of that juicy red apple on my kitchen table, you could be thinking a) Apple the producer of iPhones, b) someone called “Apple” (I really know someone’s sister who is Apple), or c) whatever apple is in your mind. There are variables in your context and imagination that are not the same as mine and that I cannot fully control.


Theory of Signs as applied in UX

When we think about user experiences that can be “created”, we think in terms of the two-part model where we create the product, that brings the experience. But there are factors in the user’s environment and context that we can’t even begin to predict, let alone control.

Therefore, it is more accurate to think in terms of, and strive towards the goal in Pierce’s three-part model that, in UX, might look like:


Since our creation of “experience” happens in the user, he has to be our utmost consideration (user-centred design and all). His whimsicality in this equation is troublesome but also the very reason UX is a compelling blend of behaviourism, affordances and experimentation.

So yes, I think you can design an experience, insofar as your user assimilates it. You do everything you can to persuade a recommended experience but the end experience could surprise you. Like art.


I owe Josh and Prof Ingrid this mini epiphany. Josh, my very clever friend who knows almost everything and makes digression such a very exciting occurrence, randomly told me about the tragic Charles Sanders Pierce over dinner the other day and Prof Ingrid Hoofd taught me what I remember about Saussure and semiotics.

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