Understanding the Design of Experience, a Conversation with Thomas Wendt (1/2)

Thomas Wendt is the author of Design for Dasein, Understanding the Design of Experience. His take of phenomenology and design theoretics is outstanding.

We had a chance of interviewing him on everything design. This is the transcript of the first part of our conversation.

In Your Book You Talk about Dasein and How Context Mediates the Experience. Can You Tell Me How Context Affects Experience and Why Phenomenology Is Especially Important for Designers?

The idea for the book essentially came from me, and a lot of other experienced designers that were trying to define what an experience actually is. And it has become sort of a joke. Now it’s almost a cliche, like we have to define what we’re actually doing. In that search, in trying to put bounds and parameters around what experience design actually is.

I started thinking about phenomenology as essentially just the study of human experience.

Phenomenology is a big scary word. It comes from philosophers who think about big, huge questions like, “What does it mean to exist?” and all of that stuff.

I think that once you get its core, phenomenology is the study of experience.

I always thought it was interesting that we have one group of designers trying to figure out what experience design needs, and then we have hundreds, if not thousands of years of philosophers thinking about what it means to experience.

So there’s a lot of overlap there, of course, that I saw.

I have been particularly drawn to phenomenology since college. I always had a very hard time with the enlightenment rationality. Like Descartes ideas of “I think therefore I am”, and that mind/body are split.

I had a hard time reconciling the idea of that we have a mind and a body, and they’re completely separate, and they do separate things, and they never talk to each other.

I was attracted to phenomenology because at its heart it is a reaction against that. In early phenomenology, Martin Heidegger rejects that notion of the self and the world as separate entities.

I tend to think that’s quite important for design. It’s really hard as a designer to step back from the things that you’re actually designing, and realize that they all actually exist within the same system.
We tend to think about the thing we’re designing, whether it’s an interface, or a surface, or whatever, and the people using it, and the world at large. It is easy to think of those as three different things. But I think they’re all so interconnected. Good interaction design work is realizing that interconnection. That’s where the power is.

I think in a lot of senses when we talk about experience and context I’m always tempted to say that the context is the experience. But I think that’s a little bit reductive. An experience never happens outside of contextual information. We can never sit in the world passively receiving information. We do something with that information.

Humans are these naturally design-oriented creatures. We’re always modifying, we’re always adapting. We can take really simple examples like reading a book. I can read a book at my office, I can read a book at home on my couch, I can read it on the subway, I can read it on a beach. But that main experience is radically different in all of those different situations.

The context actually helps to shape the experience.

Based On Your Take of Ontological Design. Do You Think that “That Which We Design”, Can Design Us in Return?

It’s easy to think of objects, especially inanimate objects, as just these things that exist in the world and we act upon them. It goes back to this Cartesian narcissism. Like humans are the key agents in the world, that we act upon objects.

I think what a lot of ontological design is trying to argue is that we act upon objects. We use objects in the world to accomplish goals. But those objects aren’t just balls of physical matter, they have ethics embedded into them, decisions embedded into them. That actually act back on us. And shape our world.

In a certain sense, designers shape the world, and then the world shapes the designer. We can’t help being affected by our contextual situation. There’s no moment in time when we can ignore everything outside of us.

We Design Software Products, Which Are Intangible, What Does It Mean Then to Experience a Software Product?

It’s an interesting question in that the question itself implies that experiencing a software product is different from experiencing anything else. I’m not sure if I have a solid opinion about it.

My gut reaction is that how we experience software products is probably not radically different from anything else that we experience in the world. There’s not a lot of this in the book, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot more lately. This big question revolves around what is the nature of experience.

The answer to that question sort of revolves around adaptation and self-designing. Whenever we encounter an object or encounter a product it’s very rarely used the way it was originally intended, without some kind of modification. I think that modification is key. When I use a pen, I can use a pen to write with but I often always chew on it, as well.

That’s just a very slight, mundane modification. I think the same is true with software. We use software in all kinds of ways that is a modification or adaptation. This is what this whole phenomenon of hacking is, it’s modifying software to meet different needs. I’m not sure that the experience of software is very different from the experience of anything else.

Other than, of course the fact that it’s very obviously being heeded by a screen and pixels and things like that. I think it’s probably more complex to really wrap our heads around, because software is so intangible.

About Thomas

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Thomas Wendt is an independent design strategy and research consultant with his own brand, Surrounding Signifiers, based in NYC. He has written several papers on phenomenology, the theoretical side of design and semiotics.

His first book is called Design for Dasein: Understanding the Design of Experiences.

Part Two

Head down to part two for more talk on the real intention behind design and the role of designers.

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Contact Misael Leon at [email protected].

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