Introduction

Every day, people like you and me experience the world. We wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and try to avoid stepping on the cat. Our day has just begun. Thousands of experiences await us, ranging from the trivial to the time-consuming: we peek at our phones and note our busy schedules, or we close our eyes and imagine a long, relaxing vacation under the sun. Some experiences are good. Some are bad. Most are somewhere in between. Yet, despite the many experiences we have, we are often unprepared to design new ones.

This is a book about designing experiences, a practice that goes as far back in time as human beings do. From ancient cave paintings to online wedding registries, people have designed experiences for millennia. Each time we find ourselves in a similar circumstance; wishing to create meaning from what we observe in the world and translate it for others. This is true whether we paint the wall of a cave or add a button to a website. We choose what. We select where. We determine how. If we do our job well, other people will understand the meaning we create: we will design their experiences.

People of all ages design experiences. Young children host elaborate tea parties and build magnificent forts. Adolescents weave elaborate tales of love and struggle via text messages. Later in life, our experiences transform us into who we are — the thrills, the traumas, the grueling boredoms, the sweet seconds, and humbled hours. We become a collection of experiences.

We become a collection of experiences.

Every culture designs its own experiences. Whereas a Japanese person may use both hands to present a business card during a formal exchange, presenting an item with your left hand is considered an insult in many Muslim countries. Deep within the forests of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, the Torajan people bury their deceased children inside the hollows of living trees, imparting a child’s spirit into the leaves and branches above. American senators ascend their chamber’s aisles to raid candy stockpiled within a designated mahogany desk. Our culture shapes our experiences, and our experiences shape our culture.

Within every occupation, people design experiences. Millions of architects, engineers, playwrights, painters, bricklayers and teachers fill our world with designed experiences. Onlookers gasp in wonder at the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, which soars 2,722 feet tall over the city of Dubai, while pearl divers on its nearby coast descend more than one hundred feet on a single breath. State-sponsored commenters wade through millions of Internet posts website-by-website, negating criticisms of the Chinese government, much in the same way in that, each year, Girl Scouts sell millions of cookies door-to-door, negating Americans’ diet plans. Like an endless assembly line, the working world creates, packages and ships countless experiences each day.

Regardless of age, culture or occupation, much of what a person experiences is designed — be it a make-believe fort, an Indonesian funeral, or a box of Girl Scout cookies.

Increasingly, the experiences we design are digital. From apps to websites, from emails to video games, often the sole evidence of an experience appears on an illuminated screen. We create tiny worlds that thrive or perish at the whim of a device’s on/off button. We make choices when we design, and based on these choices, our work shines in the daylight or declines into the recesses. The practice of user experience (UX) helps illuminate this uncertain terrain.

User experience fascinates me, but I do not assume you feel the same way. UX books tend to be written by and for UX designers. Few are written to include other roles: project managers, copy editors, graphic designers, and the like. This book is for everyone who works on digital projects. I wrote it with these people in mind. Perhaps this is you. This book seeks to inform and entertain, showing how UX has influenced history as well as our daily lives.

This book is for everyone who works on digital projects.

Rather than demonstrate concepts through a barrage of facts and figures, we will learn through stories. Poisonous blowfish, Russian playwrights, tiny angels, Texas sharpshooters, and wilderness wildfires all make an appearance. From Chinese rail workers to UFOs, we will cover a lot of territory, because the experiences that surround us are as broad and varied as every age, culture, and occupation.

What can a massive, WWII-era tank teach us about design? What does a small, blue flower tell us about audiences? What do drunk, French marathoners show us about software?

We will start by covering the principles of UX. Next, we will move on to being human. Afterward, we will delve into a detailed discussion of persuasion. Finally, we will wade into the murky waters of process. We will talk about how you can navigate through all sorts of projects, what often works and what often does not, and why no philosophy is correct 100% of the time – including that which is found in this book.

By the time you reach the book’s last pages, I hope you will find yourself somewhat changed, discovering new meaning and enjoyment in the experiences you create. This goal is simultaneously selfish and charitable. After all, we sometimes serve as the creators of an experience, but we are far more often the users of one. Experiences have always been this way. They always will be. Therefore, we can celebrate that UX not only enhances the world we now share, but also shapes the future yet to come.