Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dewey, user experience, and design

I know I have written about this before, but yesterday I lectured in my course, "Experience Design", about human experience based on a text by John Dewey. The text is the chapter "Having an experience" from his book "Art as experience". Reading this text and explaining it, once again I realized how extremely rich it is. The way Dewey discusses human experience and what it means to have "an" experience is amazingly valuable to any designer.

It is fascinating that with the notions that Dewey develops to analyze human experience he reveals and opens up for so many questions that are not usually addressed when it comes to user experience design in our field.  For instance, it becomes clear that having "an" experience is in itself not a goal, and that "an" experience might be highly uncomfortable but still leading to intended results. Dewey makes it clear that we have to distinguish between the purpose (intention) of designing something to lead to "an" experience and the nature of the experience itself. His analysis also covers issues around what determines people's experiences, by bringing in aspects such as competence, background, and culture. He makes it clear that a carefully designed artifact by a thoughtful designer requires the same kind of carefulness when it comes to the perceiving and appreciation on the behalf of the "user". These are only a few aspects to be found in this great text.

Dewey also addresses the role of the designer versus the user, even though he is not using those concepts. He argues for prototyping (again not with that word), and he covers so many aspects of design and use that I think the text should be a core reading for any designer and maybe the only needed one. IT is also fascinating to see how much of Donald Schon's ideas are already present here. Schon did his PhD dissertation on Dewey and it is obvious how Dewey inspired Schon. That is why anyone who appreciates the work of Schon, should also read Dewey.


Mads Nygaard Folkmann said...

I totally agree on that. Dewey’s text is also highly influential for our understanding of aesthetics in relation to experience. This was actualized in Richard Shusterman’s 1992 book Pragmatist Aesthetics which took its starting point in a critical dialogue with Dewey. Art as Experience (and the chapter you mention) is a very rich text – a text that opens up ever new perspectives. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that there is only little reception of Dewey’s Pragmatism in a European academic context, where e.g. continental phenomenology has played a major role in some of the same fields as Dewey has worked with. If I am right, Dewey is still to be discovered.

Erik Stolterman said...


Good to see you here. I appreciate your comments and I agree and hope that Dewey will become more recognized and influential.


Jeremy Yuille said...

Hi Erik and Mads,
…it is interesting that Dewey is so prevalent in the US but quite unknown in Europe. There's some good stuff on Dewey by (of all people) Donald Schön… and perhaps my favourite paper that links him to continental philosophy (and HCI, to some degree) is one that looks at the concept of 'breakdown' in the work of Dewey, Heidegger and Leont'ev

I love chapter 3 of art as experience, and also think that chapter 5 (the expressive object) is really useful when thinking about the kinds of artifacts designers make during the design process. His 'statements - expressions' framework is very useful for thinking about (and discussing) concepts like ambiguity and designerly moves..

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Jeremy
Thanks for the comments and for the link. I will take a closer look at that, it looks exciting. I am glad to see that there are more people out there who appreciate Dewey :-)

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