What is an Experience?

A discussion was posted recently in the User Experience group on LinkedIn, asking: “What makes a user experience great?”


I like that this question was asked, so I thought I would post my answer here as well (with some minor edits), as a very brief definition of what an “experience” actually is. Once you think about an experience in the right way, a “great” one becomes much easier to create.

There are two primary aspects to a great experience in general, whether we’re discussion a product or life overall: emotion and cognition.

Emotional experience is based on our innate reactions to biological motivations. In a nutshell, it means you satisfy a need, such as food, sex, love, friends, status, justice, or some other emotional type of reward. i.e. — stuff that makes people happy.

Needs are often things we consider self-evident, for example: you want more people to like you because it’s nice to have more people like you. Therefore when someone sends you a friend request on Facebook, you feel good, even if you reject them.

The cognitive experience is about making it less work for your brain to see the path to those emotional things. Teach someone a trick, make it simpler to understand, solve a puzzle, etc. We usually call this “usability” but it also includes making things more difficult sometimes in a game.

On a form for web devices, putting the labels above a text field, and left aligned, ensures that the user can still see the label when they tap the text field and the phone zooms automatically. A label that is beside the text field is zoomed off screen (try it!). If they have to remember the label when they tap-and-zoom, that’s a little more to think about, and less people will finish the form.

People “want” what they innately want… but how they get it can be easier or more difficult depending on the design.

Emotions are simpler to achieve, when you understand the rules (read: psychology or behavioural economics). But since analyzing emotions from someone else’s perspective is difficult (your own experience and emotions get in the way), it often seems mysterious or unexpected in practice.

Cognition is actually more complex, but since it is also more objective, it can be easier to get people to agree on what is “easy” compared to what is “motivating”.

The real challenge comes when the two are combined; most people will rate a beautiful website as “easier to use” even when the analytics tell you different.

A good experience is a complex idea, but it is not undefinable.