Your Experience is situated
At any given moment, you are in a situation. You can think of it as the "setting" for your experience. Take a moment to look at your hands; don't look down, bring them to eye level and appreciate them, first on the back and then on the inside. Please, do it. Now, look around the room or space where you are situated; appreciate the collection of objects surrounding you. No need to stand up. If you are indoors, appreciate the furniture, the things standing on the floor and on nearby surfaces. The more specific the better. If you have a window, appreciate the view. If you're outdoors, look at the scenery and the vegetation, appreciate the building closest to you and any other structures around you. Please, do take a moment to look around. This is your current situation.
What you just appreciated in your situation is a base layer composed of media. Every situation you may find yourself in has one. By media I mean any object, person, or structure that you can interact with to obtain a particular experience, even if just by looking at it. You can think of this “media layer” as the collection of objects that your situation is making available to you to interact with. Together, and assembled the way it is, this media layer constitutes your immediate environment, a “stage” of sorts where you are the performer in the story of your life.
At any moment, including now, the experiences you can have in this stage are entirely dependent on the interactions that happen between you and your environment. Please, look around you again. In every object you see there is a different experience to be had. In fact, because you can interact with them in different ways, most objects offer multiple possible experiences. If you mentally step back and consider all these possibilities at once, you'll see the space that I would like us to explore today.
The space of possible experience
For every situation, the space of possible experience can be explored methodically by taking a closer look at the types of interactions that are possible with the immediate environment. A problem with using the term interaction, however, is that it doesn't convey direction. That is, you interact with your environment both, when you act upon it, but also when the environment acts upon you. Because this distinction is important to our discussion, instead of interaction I use the term engagement. That way, we can distinguish between moments where you engage your environment and those where your environment is engaging you. The focus of our discussion here is the former, i.e., the experiences that arise when you engage your environment. I classify these in three sets, explained below.
A FIRST SET: CONTEMPLATION
The simplest experiences you can obtain in a situation come from contemplating your immediate environment [note: what I asked you to do in the opening paragraph]. Contemplation is achieved simply by paying attention to any part or aspect of your surroundings. In this context, attention is equivalent to "selection for contemplation". You may select, for example, the scene as a whole, an object, or a group of objects (e.g., appreciating a sunset, the kids playing in the park, or artwork in a museum). When you engage your environment by deploying your attention you are using what I call attentional engagement.
Note: You can read more on why attention constitutes engagement in Experience Delivery.
SECOND SET: DIRECT ENGAGEMENT
The next set of experiences offered by your immediate environment is accessed by deploying “higher” forms of engagement. Higher engagement consist of actions performed by you onto your surroundings. These actions are, for the most part, directed at objects (e.g., lifting a box, opening a window). For you to be able to direct your engagement at an object, you also need to deploy attention, i.e., higher engagement is built on top of attention. In this context, attention becomes "selection for action". The experiences obtained through higher engagement are richer, higher-energy experiences than mere contemplation.
THIRD SET: MEDIATED ENGAGEMENT
Your immediate environment offers a third set of experiences. Like the second set, these are also accessed through higher engagement; however, they come with a twist: Instead of simply engaging your environment directly (i.e., with your hands/body), you have to engage it using one of the objects around you (e.g., engaging a dartboard with a dart). This might seem like a small change, but this arrangement — mediating your engagement — is how we obtain many, if not most, of the experiences that we enjoy every day.
Experience = Action = Engagement
Before I continue our discussion on the space of possible experience, I would like to take a moment to remind readers that experience is a permanent phenomenon in our lives. In other words, experience is what you are having right now, and every single moment you can shape it using the three courses of action laid above: 1) Contemplating the media around you, 2) engaging the media around you directly, and 3) using the media around you to engage other media.
In Experiential Costs, I briefly argued that "to experience reality" is to have reality "feel like something" to you. If you think of our three courses of action in these terms, you'll find that each of them will produce a qualitatively different experience to you, because a course of action is a course of experience. In other words, action, or engagement, is experience. But it is not how it looks, it's how it feels. Engagement, to us, "feels like" experience. Experience is the embodied feeling of action/engagement.
Experience is the total feeling of engaging in course of action.
Media bounds and extends behavior spaces
You experience the world by engaging it, but you cannot engage it in any way you want. To appreciate this, imagine yourself situated in the middle of these two different places: 1) Central Park in New York City, and 2) a barren desert landscape. Which of these two places would you say offers you more things to do? Central Park is a media-rich environment that offers you natural sights with people and wildlife; it offers you grass lawns to lay down and trees to hide under, all of it adorned with a striking background of high-rise buildings. The desert is, well, the desert, a media-poor environment that offers a view that looks the same in every direction, some sand to sit on and play with, and not much else.
I wanted you to consider those two situations to make the following point: Media makes engagement possible, it extends your options of possible behavior as much as it bounds and restricts them. If you want to do something — anything — the media surrounding you has to afford you that possibility. You can't grasp anything that can’t be grasped, you can't climb something that can’t be climbed. In other words, your behavior is always fully complementary to the situation you are immersed in. That is why people look for media-rich environments, because media turns our surroundings into playgrounds of sorts.
Affordances define possible engagement
Media always affords engagement, but the specific ways in which you may engage a medium are not boundless. To understand the realm of possible engagement with any given object, we have to understand the concept of affordances. The way I like to think about them is in terms of action possibilities or "behavioral options" afforded by a medium. Consider the following situation:
Imagine yourself in a room on a winter afternoon. You see a pot of tea next to you, giving you the option to pour yourself some tea. You now notice a huge pillow in front of you, which gives you the option to put it behind you to support your back. You also have the option to pour tea over the pillow and make it wet, but chances are that won't improve your experience. Say you find a book under the pillow, now you have the option to read it while you enjoy your tea. You don't have a dog, but if there were a dog in the room, you'd have the option to pet him, or offer him some tea, or read him an excerpt from the book, or play with him using the pillow.
In other words, every object present in your situation brings at your disposal (or "affords") a number of behavioral options. The collection of these options and their possible combinations gives rise to the space of possible behavior for that situation, a space that coincides with the space of possible experience we started discussing earlier.
We can identify two types of affordances:
- Handling affordances: The behavioral options offered by an object to engage it directly (e.g., grasping a stick, pressing a button).
- Effecter affordances: The behavioral options that become available when using an object to engage the rest of the environment (e.g., using a stick to press a button).
It is essential to distinguish between them because effecter affordances capture the important notion of using media as tools. As discussed in Experience Delivery, the concept of affordances was introduced by J. J. Gibson and then popularized by Donald Norman. Although Gibson and Norman both recognized the value of using objects as tools, they both stopped short of distinguishing between handling and effecter affordances. Victor Kaptelinin (University of Oslo) and Bonnie Nardi (UC Berkeley) formalize the distinction in a 2012 paper:
Behavior spaces are factorial in nature
Using media to engage other media opens up a world of rich and diverse experiences because it expands behavior spaces in a non-linear way. Using a screwdriver as an example, theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman points out the permutational richness of behavior spaces in a 2011 feature for WBUR news:
"Try it with screwdrivers. Is there a finite list you can come up with for all possible uses of screwdrivers for untold purposes? You can screw in a screw. You can use the screwdriver to open a can of paint. You can use the screwdriver to wedge a door closed, or open, or scrape putty from a window, or stab an assailant, or a friend, commit suicide, or as an object of art, or tie it to a bamboo pole and spear fish, or rent the spear to others and collect 5 percent of the catch, or with a rock, chop (slowly) down a small tree, or carve a stick (...)"
The coupling of handling and effecter affordances enable what I call mediated engagement, the notion of engaging the world through media. Mediating our interactions with reality has become a crucial aspect of the modern human experience. Practically all progress in transportation, healthcare, communication, and entertainment can be explained as some form of mediated engagement. In this year 2020, we engage our roads with cars and our skies with planes; we engage our friends and family through social media and our colleagues through systems like Slack and Zoom; we engage our favorite celebrities through screens, our immune systems with vaccines, and our universe with rockets, robots, and telescopes. Kaptelinin & Nardi appreciate this on their 2012 book:
"Human beings seldom interact with the world directly. An enormous number of artifacts has been developed by humankind to mediate our relationship with the world. Using these artifacts is the hallmark of living the life of a human being. Tools or instruments—physical artifacts mediating external activities—are easy to recognize and their impact on the everyday life of every individual is obvious." (Activity Theory in HCI, p. 15)
Mediated Engagement is Technology
The most consequential forms of mediated engagement happen by forming chains of mediation. You can see chains of mediation at work in the systems that sustain life and order across the globe, be them political (e.g., representative forms of government), economical (e.g., division of labor, supply chains), or technological (e.g., machines, software, the Internet). We can think of every chain of mediation as a form of technology. As the art of doing things with things, technology is inseparable from media. In addition to chains of mediation, technology also manifests in the form of new media... the result of encapsulating a chain of mediation into a medium with novel affordances.
Chains of mediation bring the whole world within reach by connecting the media available to us with the media everywhere else. Media are "the extensions of man", as media theorist Marshall McLuhan used to say; media extends our senses, minds, and bodies by expanding our sphere of influence with its affordances.
The Experience, not the interaction
In the space of possible behavior, people look for experiences, not for interactions. That is, people look for the felt result of their engagement; the value of an interaction is fully in the experience it provides. People engage their surrounding media in the measure that it offers them a valuable experience, an experience they consider worthwhile. This element of subjectivity is what makes experiences irreducible to a set of interactions and activities.
Likewise, the value of a medium is not in the interactions it enables, but in the experiences delivered through those interactions. For instance, the value of a hammer is not in the hammer itself nor in affixing one thing to another, but in hanging a family photo that makes you smile on the wall or building a chair or house to have comfortable moments in.
To an external observer, however, this is not obvious. For better or worse, our mental life —the home of our experience— is not available to anyone but ourselves. This presents an insurmountable challenge for anyone tasked with designing media for the use of others: Designing experiences by designing interactions.
Although observed engagement doesn't tell the full story, it can be used as a proxy indicator of value. For example, as a nightclub operator, you can't really see if your patrons are having fun, but a good indicator of it would be if you see them dancing, chatting, and drinking. In fact, engagement is the only objective indicator available to an experience provider (e.g., a firm or individual) to judge whether the product, service, or environment they offer is delivering value at all. Sadly, this often blinds experience providers into optimizing their products and services for engagement in detriment of their users/customers, sometimes creating gaps that cannot be filled by competitors.
Engagement is Context-Specific
People engage their environments in context-specific ways, constantly making trade-offs to optimize their immediate and future experience. In every situation, people are just trying to get the best experience they can with whatever they have available. For instance, in the context of a small New York apartment, the fire-escape represents a convenient option for many smokers to enjoy a cigarette, effectively using them as mini-balconies.
Because engagement is context-specific, different people will engage their environments differently unless their assessments of value are in agreement. The only objective conclusion we can reach by observing a person engaging a medium is that they subjectively judged the experience offered by it to be worthwhile in their specific context and situation. Continued engagement only shows the same over time and nothing else.
Engagement being context-specific also means that we can expect people to adopt new products if these credibly and conveniently offer a better experience. This behavior gives rise to a dynamic market characterized by constant cycles of transition to ever newer media. Continuous adoption of new media causes our contexts to be forever in flux, making of no solution to a problem a final solution. The subjective nature of people's assessments of value results in forever new opportunities to improve people's experience. In a world hungry and obsessed with objectivity, however, serious discussions about subjective experience are usually met with disregard.
Form, Function, and Feeling
We started this discussion by pointing out that situations have some type of "base layer" composed of media. I then explained that this media layer affords certain engagement, giving rise to a realm of possible behavior or interactions that happen on top of the base layer. Lastly, we touched on experiences, which capture how our engagement of the media layer is felt and is a domain irreducible to the first two layers. Another way to think about these layers is in terms of form, function, and feeling:
Despite it being where value resides, the experiential layer is left out of most conversations, usually buried under more practical considerations. Ryan Singer (product strategy, Basecamp) points this out while sharing his account of the design process of a new layout for a barn. From his podcast "Synthetic a Priori":
"If you're standing [in the barn] and you're just talking [about designing a new layout], then it's easy for the conversation to wander off into questions about cost and material and all kinds of completely valid and reasonable logistical issues. And you can talk through all those logistics and all those real problems, and you can make a drawing that satisfies all of those problems and —in so far as it satisfies those problems— it's a really good design solution. And it might even have the bulk of the functional things figured out. But there is one aspect of the requirement set that isn't present in any discussion, and that is, 'when I stand here, how do I feel?' There is just nothing to say about that because it is, indeed, just a feeling." [my own transcription]
Experience is deemed too chaotic to be worthy of analysis because it is different for everyone. Our individual experience depends on a thousand different things, from our childhoods, to the place we live, the stuff we do for work, and many many others. Furthermore, our state of full immersion in our own experience makes it hard for us to think about it as such. This, together with the fact that individual experience is invisible to everyone else, makes the topic hard to discuss. Yet, it is the most real thing we have. And it may be just a feeling, but it's the feeling that we are all here for, as much as we may resist to acknowledge it.
⏭️ Continue Reading
💜 Tip Jar
Your grace is much appreciated.