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The Experience Stack revisited

Since the central point of my experience stack presentation was somewhat obscured because of my playing with the structure, I thought I’d have another bash at it here. Setting an idea up like this feels unnecessarily dogmatic, but frameworks are only meant to be rocket boosters to the actual design so it doesn’t feel too constraining. Anyhow. You can read the original presentation in addition to this article.

Five layers

The experience stack is a way of thinking about the different levels at which experience design operates. Experience design can be thought of as…

  • branding;
  • service design;
  • product design;
  • interaction design;
  • human factors.

Just as with the OSI seven layer model of computer networking, these layers can be thought of in a tiered stack… but not reducible to one another. It is not possible to express the experience of discovery, in the service layer, to the cognitive components in the human factors layer, for example.

Let’s go into these, from the bottom up, and look at the contribution to experience from each.

Human factors

Human factors covers physicality and cognition. Cognition I’ve covered in the Mind Hacks-derived presentation, Assumptions, Attention and Affordances: it means we have to know how people pay attention and the limits on it; the impact of the workings of visual perception, and how things like arrows, shading and visual change are more important than we realise; and how to take advantage of all of this. I would include peripheral vision and tactile feedback in this.

Physicality is about understanding two things: First what I’ll call body thinking (where physical movement affects our emotions), and second, the physical and physical context of the interaction: how does one stand to approach an object, like a radio; how do its movements and shape indicate the possibilities and constraints of interaction. See for example our material explorations in wood and have a look at the identical and complementary shapes photo: that construct would be perfect as a replacement for the Bluetooth pairing process, because it shows clearly and two (and only two) objects are supposed to join together. Or also read about how to make objects ‘disappear’.


The interaction layer includes many of the ideas in The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Interaction Design and From Pixels to Plastic: it takes common interaction patterns like play and sociality (see social software), and positive and negative emotions and drives, and uses them appropriately.

In the Experience Stack presentation, I discussed the different ways in which games start… learning from successful interaction patterns and applying them to the product at hand is definitely part of this layer. (For example, seeing that we enjoy observation can lead to product feature ideas.)

Knowing how people will adapt their product – applying customisation – and showing how that is possible is also, to an extent, part of the interaction layer.

It’s about making the interaction not just something to be learned from the manual, but part of a pleasant, intuitive, engaging experience–and the best way to do that is to learn from other experiences.


In the middle of the stack is how people experience their products–not while directly interacting with them, but nor in the more distant, less controllable way of brand. Products should be firmly identified: a product which has a sentence to identify it and a target audience can also have goals and metrics to tell when it’s performing well, and will be better understood by its team, and its host organisation. Customers will be able to tell other people about it, and develop a personal understanding of the product and how it will behave.

Metaphorically, a product should be ‘shelf-demonstrable’–able to be understood simply from a first look, even if that understanding growth in breadth and richness in the future.

The point of this layer of the stack is two-fold. It says that the best way to have a good product experience is simply to have a good product. But it also says that predictability and a common understanding of the product as a discrete thing is important (it is for this reason that I’ve said previously that products are people too).

Note that this doesn’t mean that a product must only do one thing, because people are capable of seeing very abstract bundles of behaviours as ‘things’… but if a product does two things, the conception of what it’s truly about may need to change. And adaptive design points out that products have fuzzy edges that change at different speeds, but that’s just something to incorporate into the overall understanding of what a product is, and design for accordingly.

Also in this layer are firm identifications of the other actors and situations. Who will be using this product? In what situations? Considering archetypal people and situations can help target product features.


Experience hooks (more) are those moments you remember in your story of your life with a product: how you meet, how you show your product off to friends, how you clean it. When I’ve discussed this before, I’ve referred to unboxing as a key moment in the product life-cycle.

Designing for these moments in the product-as-service is the service design layer of experience, and lets us associate brand ideals with product features. For example, certain experience hooks can be made a feature of–especially social, or particularly easy, for example.


The experience of the product is cloaked in messages, direct and indirect, which set up mental understandings of the product. A person then uses these models for implicature–the understanding of a product beyond its explicit communication.

It’s rare the brand – this high-level experience – can be seen as separable from the product itself, but Volkwagen’s Night Driving commercial and the site They’re Beautiful by Jackson Fish Market both create experiences beyond the product. These brand experiences affect the use of the product itself because the different layers of the experience stack are indistinguishable in people’s mind, and even weakly associated still bleed into one another.

Consideration of the brand influences what design and feature decisions are made at every other layer in the stack.

Rationale and approaches

Central here is the Generation C trend (people form communities; expect to be connected socially and electronically; Gen C are comfortable with complexity and want control; they are creation and expect co-creation), and their demands. And then ideas like social software and adaptive design point in the direction of a more holistic kind of design. Experience design is what bundles this all together, as it implies that all aspects of the product experience (from every part of the stack) are considered as one by the user, customer, or viewer… and if the experience is awful, they feel awful.

Approaches come out of using the stack–looking for experience hooks and considering the context or situation can help generate ideas. Using the brand as a guiding principle can help select features. Running through the interactions with the product and making sure they’re aligned with emotions and behaviours that are enjoyed or avoided also helps. These are all very direct uses of the experience stack.

More generally, it has to be realised that experience is very badly understood by observation: the designer has to take part. I can sum this up: Nothing is easier than believing we understand experiences we’ve never had (source).

4 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Chris said on 12 September 2007...

    Thanks for the re-wireing on this. This kind of thing is not directly in my sphere of interest or work but much of resonates, especially the mind-hack type stuff. I liked the slides comparing the different circles for example.
    Interesting that I am increasingly expecting presentations etc. to be available after the fact, to be picked apart and digested, it makes the whole process more interesting and valuable.

  • 2. Timo said on 17 September 2007...

    I like this. Wondering where content fits in the model?
    When we talk about experience, surely there is something about narrative and engagement and time, particularly when you mention the Olinda (sound) and TV (cartoons/video)…

  • 3. Jim Rait said on 19 September 2007...

    I assume that models are a slice of reality; the experience stack slice is really interesting. For my slice of product reality (using it in Matts’ way) I started with Maslow and ended up with a pyramid.. the faces of which are consumer expereince, technlogy, communication, packaging system -links and . I think your model helps question the person who wants “The iPod of….his marketplace” expecting a box not a system.. wonder what Olinda would map like on the pyramid? Hmmm!

  • 4. Matt said on 20 September 2007...

    Timo: good point about content. I rather think it’s separate-but-not-independent from this way of looking at experience. In fact, there are all kinds of highly tangible things, like packaging, functionality and price, which are mostly influenced by well-understood factors: market positioning, demographics, human factors, what people want. What an experience approach does is gather up the experiential impact of all those things, and once we’ve done that we can take experience into account in the early design… and use it to inspire *new* directions too.

    Jim: thanks for the pointers there, good thinking.

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