Eric L. Reiss


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Eric Reiss has been meddling with multimedia and web projects for longer than he cares to remember. Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1954, Eric Reiss has held a wide range of eclectic jobs including ragtime piano player (in a St. Louis house of ill-repute), senior copywriter (in an ad-house of ill-repute).

In November, 2000, his book, Practical Information Architecture was published by Addison-Wesley/Pearson Education. In 2002, it became available in both Japanese and Korean. Eric is also the creator of Web Dogma '06 and is one of the instigators of the IA Slam. He is a former two-term president of the Information Architecture Institute, is Chair of the EuroIA Summit, sits on the Advisory Board of the Copenhagen Business School and is Professor of Usability and Design at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. Eric is CEO of the FatDUX Group, headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, with offices and representatives throughout Europe and North America.

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Reiss, Eric L.

3.7 Commentary by Eric L. Reiss

For years, I have struggled to understand the difference between "user experience" and "experience". I couldn't help but smile as Marc struggled with this same problem. In fact, by the penultimate paragraph, Marc had decided to place the word "user" in parenthesis. This supports the viewpoint that both Marc and I seem to share, that both of these terms mean essentially the same thing, despite the semantic bickering in the professional community. Listen to the first few minutes of Marc's first video for some very succinct remarks on this matter.

Of course, if one really feels a need to differentiate between "user experience" and "experience", Marc has some interesting comments and observations. In the introduction, he suggests that "It is about creating an experience through a device." "It" is the elusive beast in the current debate.

Later on, Marc states, "Experience or User Experience is not about technology, industrial design, or interfaces. It is about creating a meaningful experience through a device." I agree 100% with the first statement, but I question the second part; I don't think that experience is necessarily related to a device. Certainly, Charlie's experience with the chocolate factory didn't involve "experience through a device" unless you pedantically define the golden ticket as a "device". (The presence of a device or lack thereof often lies at the heart of the "user experience vs. experience" debate.)

But let's take things a step further. If I go out to greet the sunrise - not courtesy of Philips, but standing in my garden on a glorious spring day - my experience does not depend on technology, industrial design, or interfaces. Since I like sunrises, my limbic system is busy distributing dopamine - a reward chemical that affects my mood. And my body is soaking up Vitamin D, which improves my health. There are no devices involved in this interaction between me and the sun (accompanied by soft dew on the grass between my toes, birds chirping, and that undefinable smell released by vegetation as it, too, awakes and greets the sun).

As a designer, I see user experience (UX) as the perception left in someone's mind following a series of interactions between people, devices, and events - or any combination thereof. "Series" is the operative word.

Some interactions are active - clicking a button on a website, giving a waiter your order at a restaurant, getting out of the rain at a picnic.

Some interactions are passive - viewing a beautiful sunrise will trigger the release of reward chemicals in our brain. This applies to any and all of our five senses.

Some interactions are secondary to the ultimate experience - the food tastes good because the chef chose quality ingredients and prepared them well. The ingredients are good quality because the farmer tended his fields. The crop interacted well with the rain that year.

Of course, all interactions are open to subjective interpretation - some people don't like celery or sunrises. Remember, a perception is always true in the mind of the perceiver; if you think sunrises are depressing, there's little I can say or do to convince you otherwise. However, this is why designers often fall back on "best practice" - most people react favorably to sunrises.

For these reasons, I think that designing a "user experience," represents the conscious act of:

  • coordinating interactions that are controllable (choosing food ingredients, training waiters, designing and programming buttons)
  • acknowledging interactions that are beyond our control (uncomfortable seats in a 100-year-old theater, lack of fresh produce in winter, low-hanging clouds that hide the sky)
  • reducing negative interactions (providing tents as emergency shelters at outdoor events in case of rain; making sure restaurant seating next to the noisy kitchen door is the last to be filled, putting in an extra intermission so folks can stretch their legs)

A good user-experience designer needs to be able to see both the forest and the trees. That means user experience has implications that go far beyond usability, visual design, and physical affordances. As UX designers, we orchestrate a complex series of interactions and the emotional responses and/or physical responses that these interactions generate. To look at "experience" in terms of individual service or product touchpoints is ultimately too limiting. It is the total sum of that counts.

Another interesting point is contained in Marc's example of the "I love you" SMS. Here, the phone's designer merely facilitated an interaction between two individuals. Facilitating an experience and creating one are two very different things - designers should always consider which role they being asked to play at any given time in the design process.

Finally, the value of an experience is exceptionally subjective. I was delighted to see Marc's reference to the van Boven and Gilovich work from 2003. This ties in directly to the work of Akerlof, Spence, and Stiglitz on asymmetric information, which won them the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001. Let me share some thoughts.

Despite any theoretical shift from a materialistic society that covets things, to a post-materialistic culture that nurtures experience, the value of physical items has always increased if they are accompanied by a good story. A vintage watch is worth more if it comes with all its original paperwork, receipts, etc. An antique chair's value can change dramatically depending on its provenance. (A chair previously owned by Winston Churchill is going to be worth more than a chair from my house). Yet neither watches nor wing chairs physically change because they come with a piece of paper.

As designers, dealing with the subjective nature of experience could well be our greatest challenge. This may also explain why experience is so difficult to define - which brings us back full circle to the beginning of this commentary.

Reiss, Eric L. (2000): Practical Information Architecture: A Hands-On Approach to Structuring Successful Websites, Addison-Wesley Publishing,