Unexplored trajectories in experience design

Experiences provoke responses as you move through them. They’re interactive and the level and type of interaction fluctuates. Designing experiences asks us to think about this ebb and flow, consider the categories of interaction and engineer an experience that will channel and shape the user response. We afford experiences. But users create them.

Forrest Gump told us that life is like a box of chocolates. He didn’t provide too much more detail, probably assuming that at some point in the future I was going to write this post, to explain his thinking. Forrest thought of life as being made up of experiences. And just like chocolates, he noticed that experiences don’t last forever. Some might be chewey and take a bit of effort, but all experiences have an important time element. Time is very much the x-axis of the “Forest Gump life model”.

All experiences are different

So with time flowing from left to right giving the experiences we design a temporal element to their shape, what are the other dimensional elements that we should be paying attention to? It depends. Experiences ask for different types of response and interaction. Some are naturally attractive; others require motivation (which may fluctuate during the experience). Some experiences initiate curiosity, others excitement. Some experiences are scary, inspiring, disgusting… and many of these responses will intersect.

You’ll feel and think various things as you move through an experience, so the ‘shape’ of the experience will warp and flex. Design is about initiating the response you want and sustaining it – molding stimulus to shape a response. We need to be aware of where and why the shape of the experience changes. I think, for example, for online learning we could consider how attention and motivation – and probably some other things too – shift during the experience. We also need to know how to ensure this ‘shape shifting’ is optimal?

An experience
An experience

We need to understand the shape of the experience as our users experience it. I’ve written about flow before, and I think it’s important to think about these kinesthetic-type words that describe the type of experience you’re hoping to create. Doctors learn over 40 words to describe pain – sharp, dull, flickering, piercing, pulsing, searing… Each of these words help in the diagnosis of the underlying condition. I think experience designers would do well to construct their own vocabulary of terms – or at least be careful about the words that they use. These kinds of words can help to reveal how an experience should feel. They hint at the shape of the thing you want to create.

Consider comic books and poems. Scott McCloud has written (and drawn) brilliantly about the mechanics of telling a story through comics. And though I think a comic book story can certainly flow, a feature of the form is breaking up moments into cells. There is clear demarcation. Poetry has an underlying logic, and is much more likely to flow together. [These are massive generalisations – I hope I get away with it]

Worst generalisation ever
Worst generalisation ever

I think there is a web that is naturally comic-booky. It’s a series of documents that link together. As a whole it can lack the narrative structure and coherence of a comic. But the experience of it is naturally sequential and episodic. It’s a series of hyper-jumps (which definitely sounds like the kind of thing that belongs in a comic).

When working on new formats that will live on the web, I feel compelled to think about the natural shape of the new format. I feel as though the web has slowly been on a move from an archive platform, through a publishing platform towards an interaction platform. Documents don’t just sit on the web waiting to be retrieved – the web is now full of the ingredients of experiences, all waiting to be animated through the interactions of users.

For me, if we’re hoping to pull experiences together through narrative (something the BBC does and wants to do well) we need to create interactive layers that feel less like jumps and more like you’re flowing down channels, interacting with the environment as you go. Steve Benford has created a model of experiences where a ‘canonical trajectory’ could be seen as this channel. The ‘canonical trajectory’ is the designed experience. Happily and luckily I may get the chance to work with Steve in the near future. Because what interests me is the points of intersection between designed experiences. What happens to the unexplored trajectories that naturally exist within narrative? How can hyperlinks feel more like intersecting trajectories? How can learning journeys (or even all user journeys) feel like narrative journeys – could time on the internet feel like the best story you’ve ever been told?

I don’t want to get all ‘Sliding Doors’

All experiences provide stimulus which requires translation and interpretation. These activities involve choices. I don’t want to get all Sliding Doors about this, but choices matter. Choices are the way we exercise autonomy during experiences and construct meaning relevant to ourselves. We choose the meaning we get, consciously or unconsciously. Of course, there are different kinds of choices. But whether conscious or unconscious, the user is involved in creative and interpretative activities as they work to understand the experience and (co)create the meaning. I call the points of meaning generation – a type of choice that I think is required for all learning as the user synthesises the new knowledge – ‘major choices’.

Minor choices are inconsequential, they personalise an experience but don’t generate too much meaning. In contrast, major choices are the moments in an experience when the ‘meaning’ is incomplete without the (activity of the) user. These moments are where a greater degree of interpretation is required.

In this context I think there are two broad categories of meaning-generating major choice – positive and negative (points where the user doesn’t have a choice). Positive choices are when the experience affords the user a creative role in the process of interpretation and creation of meaning. Think of a narrative journey, or back to the comic book where we can choose what happens in the bits between the cells.

Scott McCloud in the gutter

I also think there are points in an experience when a user doesn’t have a choice, because we’ve removed them all. These points of ‘no major choice’ can be a design decision. There are points when we might want our user to become a passenger, rather than a participant, and lose some control. We may want to funnel a user to a certain point, so we remove choice from the equation. This is the sort of design that typifies magic tricks. As a magician you know the method of the magic, but you present an ‘effect’, a disingenuous canonical trajectory that has been designed to remove choice from the user and force them to conclude that they’ve seen the impossible.

So ‘no choice’ moments can be a feature of design, they’re how we control the user. But there can also be points when a no-choice point exists not thanks to our design, but because the designed trajectory has broken down. If we’re talking about a learning journey this might be because the user simply doesn’t understand what is going on (If you’re feeling like this post is in danger of becoming an example of this [sorry], I promise I’m trying my hardest). The important thing is, if a user doesn’t understand the content, they can’t continue. This is a negative choice – when a choice doesn’t exist and the user has to abandon our content.

I asked earlier in this post how we can ensure that shifting attention and attitude in learning experiences can be optimised. I think we can optimise experiences by realising that shifts in attention (any really any user response) occur during the moments of choice that exist within the experience.

What next…

I think we need to design experiences with a sound understanding of the moments of choice, both positive and negative. We need to design canonical trajectories that offer intersecting journeys at points where users may want to leave the channel we’ve designed and follow an alternative path (major positive choices). I think we need to create content to afford these positive choices (A – below). A user can then continue on either trajectory. The experience will be relatively seamless. Even if they change trajectory, they’re doing so by continuing in the same direction.

Where we don’t have (substantial) content, but we’re aware that we have negative choice points, we need to provide something so that the canonical trajectory remains navigable. In this instance I’m recommending (concept) cul-de-sacs (B – below). These are dead ends – but the good sort. They contain just enough content to make sense of the next stage of the canonical journey

Untitled drawing-3

It’s early days for this thinking. But I’m hoping that this is a model that we can develop and apply to the way we support cross-linking at the BBC. I’m particularly interested in how we relate ‘pagey’ type content to more immersive content formats. I’m also interested in how we visualise this to describe the journeys that we have in mind. I’m hoping that techniques from experience mapping will come in handy here. And hopefully it will have something to do with squiggly purple lines.

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