Experience Horizons

Digital technology will enable the creation of ultra-complex machines, processes and imagery. But that amazing technology will be framed in an elegant and simple form that makes it user-friendly. The more complex the machinery, the simpler the interface will be.

John Maeda –  Scientist & Artist

Artifacts are purposeful designs of atoms, bits and rules. They are created to affect our experience of the world. In this sense, any artifact is an ‘experience generator’ and all that implies. In designing an artifact, a designer is, in essence, designing an experience that is the sum total of how that artifact interacts with the external world. One of the issues of design is that the total experience of even the simplest artifact is often unanticipated and indeed unknowable before the artifact is introduced. Even the best designers, those who explicitly focus on the experience, cannot ever comprehend all of the future emergent experiences of their creations.

Despite this inherent and unavoidable situation, it is useful to try and anticipate, comprehend and design as much of an artifact’s experience as possible. For this purpose, the concept of an experience horizon is introduced. The experience horizon can be thought of, and visualized, as all of the experiences that emanate from an artifact as it influences the world it exists in. It includes both the intended, and the unintended, experiences. It includes the direct, indirect, tertiary and trace experiences that ripple through the ecosystems the artifact influences by its presence.

The experience horizon is the region where the internal complexity and external experience of an artifact meet. It is the artifact boundary (analogous to the event horizon surrounding a black hole) that encompasses not just the physical and informational manifestation of the artifact, but all of its rules – the behaviors, modes of interaction, interfaces and idiosyncrasies. It is the way the artifact is experienced as it is used.

An experience horizon expands our understanding of an artifact as an experience generator that creates, not only immediate and direct effects upon the adopter of the artifact, but also extended and indirect effects upon the ecosystems into which it is introduced. An artifact creates an experience horizon that consists of all of its intended and unintended influences. Figure 1 illustrates the concept.

D-D Experience Horizon

Figure 1 – An Experience Horizon Emanating from an Artifact

The experience horizon is where the internal and external meet. It is defined by how the internal complexity has been structured and managed, how the parts work together, how they react to each other and to outside influences. It is also determined by how external complexity impinges on the artifact – how human senses influence and are influenced by the artifact, how the physical and informational world is sensed and affected by the artifact. The experience horizon is the exposed manifestation of an artifact (created within the design space) impinging on a community within the demand space. As John Maeda has observed, this can be elegant and simple or, all too often, awkward and complex.

This experience horizon can be imagined as a ‘surface’ of interaction between the internal world of the artifact and the external world of the human community. It is meant to invoke the image of the event horizon that surrounds a black hole. It is a multidimensional ‘surface’ that defines the how an artifact influences in every aspect imaginable (and, as we shall discuss in aspects that are not a priori imaginable to the designer or perhaps anyone).  The surface of this experience horizon can be elegant or obtuse, intuitive or obscure, natural or artificial. In other words, it can be either well designed or not. Innovations (i.e. artifacts that are adopted) tend to have experience horizon surfaces that are elegant, intuitive and natural. Failures tend to have the opposite. Disruptive innovations tend to have experience horizon surfaces that are novel, and unexpected. Sustaining innovations tend to have experience horizons that are familiar and comfortable.

The experience horizon emanates from the artifact and is the focus of design. Design, in its most advanced manifestation, is the means by which an innovation is envisioned and configured. It encompasses the arranging of components, subsystems and mechanisms internal to an artifact, as well as the way the artifact interacts with people and the external world. In this sense, design is the process of creating an experience horizon.

To get an idea of what an experience horizon is, consider two very different artifacts, the Kindle and Roundup ready corn. The Kindle presents an interesting case of an on-going transformation in a fundamental experience that virtually every human has, the experience of reading. The transition to a new form of reading, on a device that has a screen that is digitally controlled, is transforming the experience of reading. There are the obvious experience differences – the contrast of the screen, the speed of ‘turning a page’, the layout of the buttons and controls. These are the features that are the most visible and, unfortunately, the ones that are the most focused on by both the designers and reviewers and users of the Kindle artifact. Digging deeper, there are more nuanced experience differences. How one acquires a book or magazine, how the book or magazine is presented, how you navigate the ‘book’, how you search for information and highlight passages etc. Digging still deeper, one discovers a whole realm of experiences that are close to the essence of how and why we read, acquire and share knowledge and information. These experiences have to do with where and when do you read, how many ‘books’ do you carry around, where do you carry them, how do you switch what your are reading and when, how do you share readings, how do you take notes etc. These are all of the ‘tacit’ dimensions of reading that individuals struggle with during transition to a new type of experience. They are all part of the experience horizon of the Kindle.

In the case of Roundup ReadyÒ Corn, the experience horizon, like the Kindle, consists of both the obvious and the less so. On the obvious side are the specific attributes of the artifact itself, the application of herbicides is now easier. This directly changes farmer’s behaviors in planting, growing and harvesting. On the less obvious side is the restriction on farmers keeping seed corn for planting the following season. This restriction is part of the design, and part of the experience horizon, for the corn. The farmer’s interaction with this complexity of design has resulted in different behaviors and adoption dynamics. Still more indirect is the experience dimension of genetically modified organisms (GMO). This experience attribute is based, fair or not, on perceptions of safety, health, control, etc. This part of the experience horizon extends far beyond the farmer’s own experience into the broader society itself and their perceptions and interactions with the growers. These perceptions are a consequence of the ‘design’ and, nonetheless, are part of the experience horizon of this artifact.

No matter what the artifact, to the extent that the experience horizon is anticipated and ‘designed’ it has a chance of becoming powerful attractors, or drivers of adoption, of the new artifact. To the extent that these dimensions and aspects of the experience horizon remain hidden or ignored, they can be powerful barriers to adoption. It is the task of any innovation process to identify these dimensions and aspects of the experience horizon and make them available and visible for design thinking and the design process.

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