Can you really design experiences?

One British service designer suggests that the digital world takes away the power to design experiences - is she right?

The idea of designing experiences seems to be critical to most definitions of service design. Yet, Phillipa Rose, a service designer in the UK, has written a blog post suggesting that you can’t design experiences:

Contrary to popular opinion I don’t believe it’s possible to actually design an experience, whether physical or virtual. With self-service experiences, and automated online services, the service offer itself may be the same, but the individual experience depends on other factors – external environmental factors, physical, social and motivational factors.

A service designer can only facilitate the creation of an experience up to a point. In designing any service, markers can be laid out, clear routes and pathways, focusing on stimulation, functionality, comfort, and attention to detail, tailored to different types of users, but ultimately the individual experience is still governed by the user.

Her broader point is that, as users grow more digitally savvy, it becomes harder to dictate experiences to them – they help shape them themselves. And this is a point Phillipa develops in her post:

As technology develops, there are more opportunities for user interaction, feedback, personalisation, and even input into the development of an online service. Not only in the public and corporate sectors, but we are seeing increasing peer-peer transactions in the so-called sharing economy. A user of one online service, may well be a provider of another online service.

Commenters on the post take some issue with the idea. For example, Gordon Rae suggests that service design in fundamentally built on the idea of designing experiences, while John Lewis suggests that the generalisation she makes that one cannot design experiences seems utterly at odds with his perspective – and that maybe he needs clarification of her position.

It is, perhaps, a natural characteristic of emerging fields that practitioners can’t always agree on the fundamentals.

Is the idea of experience design fundamental to service design? Or does digital service design create a slightly different set of rules, where the user is more powerful than before?