Experience Design as a strategic approach for innovation

How can UX Design contribute to sustainability innovation?

Private and public organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the capacity of design as a key driver of innovation. Traditionally, companies have used design activities as a tool to inform the aesthetics and usability of a product and considered technology as a source of innovation and development. Today, the relevance of design has seemed to change. There is a transition from a traditional product-focused activity towards a strategic focus. Companies now utilize design as an effective approach to wicked problem solving such as climate change, and to support the development of innovation and to create stronger brands.

The increasing awareness of the benefits gathered from strategic design approaches got many companies to shift from a traditional product-focused design approach towards a strategic application of design. However,  to implement that shift in companies is complex and requires a better understanding of how strategic design is applied and exploited as a strategic activity, capability, and cultural approach. Therefore, this article addresses the question of how experience design can support sustainability innovation in companies. The article focusses on experience design and its potential for sustainability as well as the practical requirements for its implementation in a company context. The article summarizes results related to the Master thesis “Innovations through Sustainability Experience Design: Concepts and Practical Implementation” by Julius Piwowar for the master’s program in Sustainability Management at Oldenburg University, Germany. The thesis follows a qualitative research approach covering three methods: literature review, evaluation of design methods and expert interviews.

Why User Experience (UX) and Experience Design can empower innovation teams?

User Experience (UX) describes the interaction of the user, the product, and the usage context before, during and after the usage phase (ISO 9241-210). According to Paul Hekkert, Design Professor at Delft University, UX is described as “the entire set of effects that are elicited by the interaction between a user and a product, including the degree to which all our senses are gratified (aesthetic experience), the meanings we attach to the product (experience of meaning), and the feelings and emotions that are elicited (emotional experience)” (Hekkert 2006, page 160). Donald Norman, Director of the Design Lab at University of California who has coined the term User Experience with his self-selected title “User Experience Architect” in 1993 at Apple Computer, defines UX by three interlinked levels of processing (Norman 2013): First, the visceral level refers to users’ immediate experiences and subconscious judgments that emerge due to the sensual perception of an object and can take as much as 50 ms e.g. the look, sound, feel and smell (sensory pleasure). Second, the behavioural level involves experiences elicited by interaction (usability). Actions and reflections at this level are largely subconscious e.g. professional piano players do not reflect action and tone. The third, reflective level involves experiences based on conscious cognition e.g. the symbolic value of products, personal memories attached to a product or cultural effects. The scope of this level is before (anticipation, expectations, imagination), during and after the encounter with products (memories) and cause the highest level of emotions e.g. pride or guilt.

Experience design approaches are a key strategic competence because they help to make people central to innovation processes. The explicit focus on meaning, people’s needs, desires, motivations and emotions provides an overarching design objective that allows collaboration between different disciplines and inspires teams to work with a new perspective on innovation. This enables both incremental innovations pulled by the market (e.g. due to the emphasis on iterated observation, ideation, and rapid prototyping and testing) and radical innovation (due to fundamental questions of new meanings and their interpretation).

Experience design allows for product-independent reasoning. This means that the innovator (or designer) should not be biased by a particular innovation type at the beginning (e.g. a design process that starts with concrete technical solutions such as artificial intelligence, robotics or app possibilities) but should strive for the most appropriate effect (e.g. an experience or behaviour). They should instead start by exploring the (future) context and desired effects of solutions, not technical possibilities, moving the interest from developing products towards designing experiences. Beside direct experiences evoked in the product interaction (e.g. visual aesthetics and usability), this design perspective understands “products” as mediator for new experiences and behaviours that can benefit both personal and societal wellbeing. Thereby, experience design emphasizes on fundamental questions of new meanings and their interpretation and thus is ideally suited for innovation development with a sustainability context.

In conclusion, experience design empowers innovation teams to become “authors of experience focusing on the emotional and cognitive content of an experience, its context, the interaction involved, and the temporal structure” as described by Hassenzahl 2010. Supportive strategic design methods and tools are e.g. “Vision in Design: A Guidebook for Innovators” (Dijk and Hekkert 2016) or tools such as “Need Cards” (Hassenzahl et al. 2013), “Interaction Vocabulary” (Diefenbach et al. 2013a) and “AttrakDiff” (Hassenzahl et al. 2015; www.attrakdiff.de).

Why sustainability as an objective of design?

Thirty years ago, the Brundtland Report (1987) coined one of the most frequently cited definitions of sustainable development as the „development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs“. Today, the transition towards sustainability is needed more than ever before. The interconnected challenges of economic development, ecological integrity, and social justice jeopardize human and social wellbeing around the world (e.g. Luederitz et al. 2016). This means experts demand solutions that require rebuilding production and consumption patterns dramatically.

The innovation and design phase is crucial for the sustainability performance of products and services: Decisions made during the development stage define 80% of the production costs as well as 80% of the environmental impacts (Tischner 2015). This is where the main course is set for energy and material consumption in production and use. The disposal and recycling options are also determined to a large extent by specifications in the design phase. Hence, it is promising to focus on the development and design of sustainability innovation.

When looking on sustainability innovation there are different design options, with different sustainability potential. Fichter and Clausen 2016 summarize three different levels: The first levels covers technical and process innovation e.g. the design of an electric car. The second level covers service and usage system innovation e.g. car or ride-sharing solution. Finally, the third level covers institutional innovations and thus addresses the cultural aspects. This is enabled by thinking completely out of the box. According to the previous mobility examples, this level would question the extent of the mobility demand as such and thus is looking for the overarching need e.g. the need for recreation. Thereby, new solutions could be e.g. replacing traditional holidays in Thailand with local holidays. The levels do not stand for separated phenomena but influence each other and a combination of strategies is necessary for optimal sustainability potential e.g. sharing services depend on organizational as well as product innovation (see figure 1).

Depending on which sustainability innovation level is addressed and which quality of routine change is focussed on, there are different implications according to the acceptance of product and services. For example, sustainability innovation can be lacking on: (1) an aesthetic-perceptional level (e.g. unattractive, ugly, not appealing), (2) on a usability level (e.g. uncomfortable, frustrating) and (3) a cognitive level (e.g. unfamiliar, overstraining due to new routines, patronizing, manipulative).

Figure 1: Three levels for design interventions for Sustainability innovation and implications on routines (own figure based on Paech 2005, Hansen et al. 2009, Fichter and Clausen 2016)

Why is experience design valuable for sustainability innovation?

Experience design can help to overcome key innovation challenges:

1. Experience design can enable disruptive thinking since it provides structure and guidance to really define the meaning for future solutions. This is enabled by thinking about three dimensions of experience design: Reasoning from a desired effect from a general view what people need and aspire and what brings quality to society (in future) (dimension 1) to functionality and interaction qualities (dimension 2) and finally towards specific product properties (dimension 3). All dimensions are important and should be addressed in design; most effectively to reason from top to bottom. For example, the approach by Hassenszahl 2010 encourages starting the design process with a fundamental understanding of psychological needs. This enables designers to define the actual motivation to use a product e.g. “being competent” or “being related to others”. In the second step, one determines the functionality that is able to provide the experience and addresses the do-goals e.g. „making a telephone call“. The relation between these actions and the motives colour the experience, it sets the emotional tone. The final step covers the interaction with an object on an operational, often unconscious level, due to specific product features e.g. navigating with intuitive buttons and menu. Other approaches e.g. “Vision in Design” by Dijk and Hekkert 2016 enable designers first and foremost to explore the meaning of a product or service in relation to a future context. Thereby, these approaches allow innovators to, for example, question and rethink traditional business models and break with traditional innovation routines.

2. Experience design can enable the assessment of design failures and thus can improve the design of sustainability product service systems, with new usage routines and a lacking market acceptance e.g. sharing or access-oriented business models. The perspective on user experience enables an understanding of sustainability solutions as a cohesive, integrated set of experiences (e.g. Diefenbach and Hassenzahl 2017) and allows innovators to think through all (emotional) stages of a solution – from initial intentions to final reflections; from anticipation to disposal. Thereby, the UX stages (visceral, behavioural and reflective; Norman 2013) and aesthetic principles (e.g. “Unified model of Aesthetics” by Hekkert 2014) help to systematically assess pain points (design failures) of products and services.

3. Experience design can support creation of product features for behaviour change. Design activities that focus on psychological needs (e.g. autonomy, relatedness), self-determined action and meaningful experiences can enable innovators to identify sources of (intrinsic/extrinsic) motivation and thus contribute to creating patterns that elicit intended (sustainable) behaviour. This means the artefact is understood as a unique means of facilitating behavioural change to realise social impact, to deliberately making use of the inevitable influence of design to shape social or ecological concerns (e.g. “Designing for Society” by Tromp and Hekkert 2018). In addition, the systematic understanding of design interventions (e.g. “Design with Intent” by Lockton et al. 2010) support innovators to translate good intention into action. Most appropriate with interventions which disrupt daily routines and enable reflection without patronizing, imposing or manipulating behaviour (e.g. “Aesthetic of Friction” by Laschke 2015; “Design for Wellbeing” by Becker et al. 2018).

(4) Experience design can enable durable design. Focusing on user needs, aesthetics, and the user-product interaction enables innovators to explicitly create meaningful solutions with durable and timeless design qualities. According products are used longer and oppose the obsession of fast fashion cycles and throwaway products.

Figure 2: The potential of experience design for sustainability

Competences for Experience Design towards sustainability

Design and the development of (sustainability) innovation are based on analytical and creative processes, which cannot fully be modelled or conceptualized in an experience design methodology. Effective and efficient innovation processes subsequently consider a combination of different perspectives including the way the specific company understands, utilises and values design as an activity, capability and cultural approach. Piwowar (2018) has identified eight core competences (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Eight core competences for innovating with Experience Design towards sustainability

Furthermore, Piwowar indicates the need for an open and flexible approach to enable combinations of experience and sustainability methods and tools at each of the three conceptual levels e.g. at the context level the “Sustainable Development Goals Check” (SDG-Check by Geibler, Piwowar and Greven 2019) and “Need Cards” (Hassenzahl et al. 2013) can support the context analysis of the method “Vision in Design” (Dijk and Hekkert 2016) (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Identified combinations of methods and tools* at each of the three conceptual levels (levels adopted from “Vision in Design” by Dijk and Hekkert 2016). *Context Analysis and Analogy Technique (Dijk and Hekkert 2016); SDG-Check, MIPS Analysis, Hotspot Analysis, Sustainable Business Canvas (Liedtke et al. 2019); Need Cards (Hassenzahl et al. 2013); Interaction Vocabulary (Diefenbach et al. 2013); design with Intent (Lockton et al. 2010); AttrakDiff2 (Hassenzahl et al. 2015).

Practical requirements for implementing Experience Design for sustainability

A number of practical requirements for implementation of experience design in companies were identified based on interview recommendations from industry and scientific experts:

  • Initiating the implementation of experience with specific market positioning and promotion strategies such as contacting the leadership team first, not the design unit; convincing the leadership team by providing understanding on meaning and innovation, not radical change. Radical change is an important element but not suited as a starting point. Provide understanding of what will be meaningful in the future and is already meaningful. Thereby, the organization is framed as a place where there is already relevancy at present and for the future. This allows prioritising future strategies.
  • Contacting the leadership team because they can enable the cultural and structural conditions for long-term organizational transformation. This involves e.g. prioritizing innovation purposes beyond technical improvements; setting up specific innovation infrastructure and roles to break with traditional innovation routines; to question traditional business models; to not strive for the obvious solution. Thereby new ideas must be pursued, not doubted or terminated by operational practices e.g. due to new internal/external labs or a holistic innovation culture.
  • Encouraging the innovation team (or the organization holistically) to work in multidisciplinary, cross-functional teams. Thereby the team thinks about people first and technology and business second; later the team brings together desirable traits from a human point of view (e.g. experience designer and user researcher) with what is technologically feasible (e.g. engineers) and economically viable (e.g. business experts). This transformational process within the organization can be supported by assessments tools e.g. with the “Customer Centricity Score” (Baars et al. 2015). In addition, teams should collaborate with sustainability experts from start to ensure that the solutions are developed within sustainability boundary conditions.

In addition, the successful implementation requires supportive political conditions. Conditions that address, for example, universities and policy makers.

  • Offering multidisciplinary design programmes with an emphasis on innovation and design research including skills that cover both formal aesthetics and research. According methods should enable students to translate literature results from e.g. psychology or sociology into design concepts and to perform real-world and lab experiments utilising interviews and observations. This can enable designers in multidisciplinary teams to present their (robust) design results and roles with confidence e.g. in front of the management board.

Julius Piwowar
Julius Piwowar works as a research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in the research unit ”Innovation Labs”. As a research fellow, he is currently working on open innovation and human-computer interaction as well as business models for living labs. He holds a double Master’s degree in Strategic Leadership from Karlskrona University (Sweden) and Sustainability Management from University Oldenburg (Germany). His thesis for the Master in Sustainability Management is entitled “Innovations through Sustainability Experience Design: Concepts and Practical Implementation”. His main interests and research topics are design methodologies and prototype development of digital assistance systems for sustainable lifestyles e.g. smart living and shopping.
Julius Piwowar
Julius Piwowar works as a research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in the research unit ”Innovation Labs”. As a research fellow, he is currently working on open innovation and human-computer interaction as well as business models for living labs. He holds a double Master’s degree in Strategic Leadership from Karlskrona University (Sweden) and Sustainability Management from University Oldenburg (Germany). His thesis for the Master in Sustainability Management is entitled “Innovations through Sustainability Experience Design: Concepts and Practical Implementation”. His main interests and research topics are design methodologies and prototype development of digital assistance systems for sustainable lifestyles e.g. smart living and shopping.

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