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The Experience Stack at d.construct 2007

At d.construct at the end of last week, I presented on the experience stack. This is an idea I’ve been mulling, thinking about the various layers of experience in a way analogous to the seven layer OSI model of computer networking.

As usual, I’ve put the slides and transcript online. Read the Experience Stack.

Some portions of the presentation went well, but overall I wasn’t pleased with my articulation of the ideas. The comments I’ve received and read online are also mixed–some people got a lot out of various slides, while others felt presentation was confusing. That’s a shame. I used to feel okay about confusing pieces, because nonlinearity can be fun and confusing is a price you pay. But I’d prefer now to have a baseline accessible to everyone, so I want to review what happened.

What made the talk confusing

I threw the structure baby out with the bathwater. My presentations so far this year have shared a very definite rhetorical structure. In an attempt to get some distance from this, I organised the material as a fool’s alphabet, starting with A is for adaptive design and finishing with Z is for zooming user interface.

The scattered approach was intended to mirror the experience of people with products, where every pattern is assumed meaningful and so we have to design for all levels of the experience stack simultaneously.

It also meant, however, that the fundamentals of a good presentation were skipped: I did not say, at the beginning ‘this is what you’ll get'; I did not, at the end, give a simple, graspable take-home message (violating my own point about treating everything as products with simple statements of intent); I did not use pacing to help people know when I was illustrating versus when I was building up to a more substantive point.

In short, I took away the contextual cues people use to feel situated and comfortable within a presentation, and removed the explicit ‘resets’ I usually use to help people who have drifted off get back into the flow. In short, people felt lost!

I had too much material. There are simply too many examples in this presentation, and they aren’t grouped well because of the constraints I set myself. I usually leave room to dive into examples if the audience are looking lost, but because of the quantity of material I didn’t give myself time to digress on the fly.

I tried a live demo. No matter that it worked in AV check on the previous day… I was using a Wii remote control to pan and zoom an image embedded in a Quartz Composer movie embedded in a Keynote slide, controlled by an application broadcasting Wiimote data to a custom-written Quartz Composer patch. That’s precarious at the best of times. Ironically it functioned perfectly well technically–I just forgot that I gesticulate a lot more than I notice when I talk, that my hands shake, and that – when I’m on stage – I get so focused that I forget what buttons do what (seriously: I can’t even take photos on stage unless my camera is already turned on, because I can’t remember what button does what).

Other technical problems were the metadata portions of my slides being cut off (my computer recognised the projector differently on the day), a couple of movies freezing (I think because the presentation slides had been set up a lot longer than I’d tested), and the loss of sound.

I didn’t explain the core premise sufficiently. This is partially due to the absence of structure, but also because I could have used the experience stack as a common thread but choose to leave it till later to introduce it. Even then, I didn’t spend enough time explaining myself. Consequently some people didn’t get what they came for (and for those folks, I’ve written up the stack concept itself in a separate post).

Why I made these mistakes

There are two reasons. First, I tried to change too much at once from my usual style. There are problems with using the old rhetorical structure, so I needed to find an alternative… but it would have been better to make that shift with old material. I don’t understand this new material well enough yet to really, really condense it, and my discomfort with this style of presenting almost made me freeze on stage about halfway through. It’s been a long time since that happened.

Second, I took a risk and it didn’t pay off. I wrote the full talk in long-hand before delivering it, and it looked unusual but I genuinely thought it would work. In retrospect I can see that it works better as something written: you need to be able to refer back to make sense of the structural reveals and the examples.

What I was pleased with

All of the above makes it sound like my talk went terribly. It didn’t – I’ve had good comments too – but I’ve had a few talks recently go as well as I could ever hope and that’s pushed my standards pretty high.

I’m still pleased with the experience stack concept itself. I think I have, now, a decent way of understanding and explaining experience design, in a way that draws together my various other explorations.

I enjoyed putting together the slides. I colour controlled the slides again (as discussed in this first slide of Products are People Too), and it really binds them together visually. And the first slide uses gentle video in the background, with the ocean washing the beach behind the title. I’m going to do more with that.

This was also my first outing of the new version of last year’s 2D presentation code, this time integrated with Keynote and using a Wiimote. It didn’t go smoothly, but it had to be used to be understood and I know a lot now about what needs to be built.

Finally I was pleased – and thankful for – the friendliness of those who came to d.construct 2007. I talked with a ton of people afterwards, and my talk got a good reception with at least some of the audience. It was fun to see the notes they’d taken, and to hear about their work.


I’ve been asked for a list of books (and other things to read) mentioned. They are, in order:

And the presentation slides and summary of experience stack idea are also online.

Before this:

8 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Ivan Pope said on 10 September 2007...

    Great self-generated feedback. I thought it was brilliant and enjoyed it hugely. No matter it jumped around a bit – it got me thinking and wondering and wanting more. Congratulations.

  • 2. Ian Lloyd said on 10 September 2007...

    I was trying to explain what I saw to some colleagues and said “It was a great presentation, really interesting content and approach, but don’t ask me to repeat/decipher what it meant.” It had me intrigued, all the way through, and I appreciated that there was a lot of effort put into the slides.

  • 3. Tim Beadle said on 10 September 2007...

    Hi Matt,

    I really enjoyed your talk, as it transported me back to my undergraduate world of Industrial Design, something I have little to do with these days. You’re not a Brunel graduate by any chance, are you?

    Great slides, and so what if people had to make a bit of mental effort? Don’t be too hard on yourself!



  • 4. Matt said on 10 September 2007...

    Thanks guys, I appreciate it. Pretty slides + clarity is what I aspire to. I don’t think things went badly at all… just middling, and reflection’s the best way to improve, right?

    Tell you what though: it feels very strange to be back at work after a great day in such an opulent venue. I’ve never been so tempted to move to Brighton.

  • 5. Mike Stenhouse said on 10 September 2007...

    I thoroughly enjoyed your talk! It took me a while to figure out exactly what you were doing but I was quite happy to trust that there was a point and just see what emerged; I loved the odd connections and having to guess at whether the connections were real or imagined. I was at d.construct to be inspired, not to learn anything in particular… By way of testimony, I bought two of the books you mentioned during your talk.

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

    Hi Matt,
    I got lots from the presentation, you had a tough slot as many of us were still sluggish as our bodies attempted to metabolize lunchtime alcohol. I did find it hard to remember some of what interested me afterwards and the bit that didn’t really work for me was the coco pops add (it is still kind of a cereal if you can’t be bothered to mix it just not very customized), that of course is only a tiny part of the whole.
    Key thing is that you put it all online, I am already benefiting from picking through it. Although it may have been one of the hardest presentations to remember key points from at the time, it may also provide some of the richest pickings when pulled apart and digested afterwards :)

  • 7. Will McInnes said on 13 September 2007...

    Matt – for me, yours was easily the best talk on the day.
    I’ll write more about my overall thoughts on dconstruct07 when I get a moment spare, but seriously – it was fascinating, the nonlinear challenge you set yourself paid off handsomely, I found it amusing, insightful, fascinating and difficult (as in, positively demanding of my brain) – all of which made it the stand out talk. PS. I’ll drop you a mail – it’d be great to meet up in the real world.
    It was excellent stuff – Will

  • 8. AG said on 17 September 2007...

    Aww, don’t be so hard on yourself. Believe me, I know what it feels like when you try to probe beyond the perimeter of your comfort zone with new material – that’s just exactly what I did last May at Cooper Union, and I savaged myself after I got feedback similar to that you’re now getting.

    I think this is the price one pays for actually trying to deliver provocation, stimulation and insight to the audience, both out of respect for them and in the hope that this will in turn catalyze interesting discussions downstream. What I’m learning, though, is that not every audience wants to be provoked. Some of them do, but some just want the equivalent of you getting up on stage and playing “Sweet Jane” and “Walk on The WIld Side” until they’ve heard what they want or need to.

    I don’t say this by way of judgment. I’ve certainly been that kind of audience. But I understand more than ever how frustrating it can be when you’re asked for the Greatest Hits, and you want to demo your newer, shakier material. Either way, I know you of all people will press on.

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