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An Interview With Experience Design Prof. Marc Hassenzahl

Some time ago I got the chance to interview Marc Hassenzahl who is best known for developing the concept of Experience Design.

Hi Marc, could you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

Hi everyone, my name is Marc Hassenzahl. I am the Professor of Experience and Interaction at the Folkwang University of Arts in Essen, Germany. There I am currently heading a small experience design group that explores design between the material and experiential, touching upon industrial, interaction and critical design.

I have studied both psychology and computer science.  After getting my education I worked in Siemens and other companies in the field of user interfaces (medical systems). After that I went back to the university where I got a PhD in decision making.

Your field of expertise is experience design, could you tell us how you came to this concept? 

I started out as a usability engineer with an aim to make things easy and usable. At Siemens I worked together with a fantastic graphic designer who revamped all the user interfaces of Siemens’ medical systems and managed to give them a very unique visual style.

Back then I could see that design was both adding something to the experience, while also violating usability rules. But I couldn’t grasp it, you know. This sparkled my interest in design and eventually led me to this idea, this extra quality that started out with hedonics and turned into experience design.

As a psychologist I was very interested in positive psychology, which is this idea that we should care more of the positive side of human behaviour. Ten years later this interest of mine ended up as academic happiness studies. It made me think about the real purpose behind products. Are they here just to solve a problem or also about making people feel better?

How would you describe the process of experience design when talking about services?

The first thing is that you need to understand is that experience is a part of the product. People often see products as something that is the result of design, features and technology, but most don’t know how their product fits into our everyday lives.

As designers we need to think how people will use our products. How they use it, when they use it, and why they use it. The idea of experience design is that you design the experience around the product.

How does gamification fit into this scenario?

I assume that by gamification you mean mostly these game mechanics focused on collecting badges, points and achievements. I think it’s a fully viable scenario and it depends on how you use it. In the end gamification relies on basic behaviorism, which why it can show good results. Just don’t use it as a manipulation tool.

I have a wide variety of gadgets that keep me motivated, and it’s a good start, but we need to go further.

What comes after gamification?

Storytelling has a great future in store for it. Zombie run is a very good example of this. It’s a fitness app where you are chased by zombies. The motivation for running comes from the story. In the end you didn’t go for a run, you escaped zombies. It launches you into this fantasy.

A student of mine is currently working on a project that involves people, who do not like to take their blood pressure medicine. It turns out that people don’t often take their pills not because they forget or because pills make them tired. They don’t take them because the pill itself reminds them of being ill.

So we built a story around this. The story is that there is a little guy inside you that you need to take care of, and taking the pill is the only way to do so. You now have an alternative story that gives you a different mindset. You are not taking the pill because you are ill, but because you want to take care of that little guy.

Another strategy that I like is going bottom-up. You try to create situations where you can make people behave as they should, i.e. trick them into doing something they would never have done themselves.

Let’s say that you try to drink less alcohol. The typical way is to abstain from alcohol, which is not always the best strategy. The best is something that is moderate. A quick trick is to have a water before a beer.

Now imagine that you would visit a bar and got a complimentary water bottle every time you got a beer, and the bartender would only give you a new beer once you have finished the water. You would accept this routine and the next day your hangover won’t be as bad.

Over time this would develop into a new habit.

From your presentation earlier I got the impression that the design industry needs a lot more people with a psychology background. Here in Estonia we have very few designers and researchers with this kind of expertise. What would you say to them? Why should someone with a psychology background move into the design industry?

I can only speak about academic psychology. Psychologists are usually focused on science. If you are in these surroundings, then you won’t think much about applying your skills and knowledge elsewhere. These types of psychologists will never get the idea or push of moving into design.

But there are applied psychologists who believe that their skills should be used to help people. The question is where you could do that. You could stay in psychology, but through interaction design you will see that it gives you new ways of applying your skills.

This is what I actually do. At the beginning it was about making technology better. Now it’s about thinking how technology could benefit our lives, how it can make us happier.

What is your message to Estonian designers?

I don’t know the Estonian design community all that well, but in design it is important to overcome these artificial boundaries that surround us. Simplified interaction design should become a part of product design. I always try to find ways of describing interactions without technologies. You interact with a chair, don’t you?

Another thing is that I would hope that people would become a little bit more experimental. Feel free to explore alternative ways of doing things. This is why many of my projects are a bit weird for some people, but it’s all about testing these very different ideas.

And an obligatory question, you are only here for a few days, what do you think of the city’s vibe?

Your Old Town is very lively and nice. This is something that we don’t have in Essen. Overall I am very impressed with the country and everything that is going on in Estonia. Plus it seems to me that the startup scene is sizzling. Oh, and the Garage48 HUB is very nice. Great atmosphere.

PS. If you liked this article then be sure to check out our amazing interview with dr Jettie Hoonhout from Philips Research.

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