10 Fundamental Principles of Experience Design

10 Fundamental Principles of Experience Design

Ten fundamental principles of experience guide our work at THINK, and we use them to illustrate how and why we developed our UX Canvas. We’ve introduced each of the principles before (A New Canvas for User Experience), and now we want to begin unpacking each of them more fully by describing why they are so critical to designing great experiences. Let’s start at the top with the first 5:

People have experiences.

"And, it’s actual human beings who will express emotion based on the experiences they have ..."

“And, it’s actual human beings who will express emotion based on the experiences they have …”

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth reiterating and bringing to the forefront of your thinking. When designing for the web, it’s easy to be distracted by SEO considerations, page load times and other automated, online algorithms and platforms. If you aren’t careful, you’ll discover that you are designing for bots and spiders crawling the web rather than for real people, sentient beings looking to accomplish a task, explore content, experience emotion, engage with your brand, etc. SEO may be a constraint that you have to work with, but bots don’t have experiences. People do. Live it. Breathe it. Die by it. Your user/customer/prospect/client is a real person. Always. Of course, this notion extends beyond the web as well.  Real people are the ones downloading and using apps, interacting with embedded interfaces, moving from screen to screen over the course of the day. And, it’s actual human beings who will express emotion based on the experiences they have – joy, happiness, frustration, satisfaction – whatever that may be. Algorithms are not burdened in this way.

People seek pleasurable and rewarding experiences.


Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.)

This is a biological imperative. We are programmed at the cellular level to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s an ingrained survival instinct and it can be observed in the behavior patterns of single celled organisms. It’s also an inherent quality of western philosophy that can be traced back to ancient Greece. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.) taught that pleasure and pain were directly associated with good and evil and the only reason to ever choose pain over pleasure is because it will ultimately lead to even greater pleasure. Rather importantly, Epicurus also believed that pleasure could be defined as the absence of pain and suffering, both physical and mental. This is significant because it allows us to calibrate our perception of pleasure not as something that is exclusively or overtly joyful, but as something that spans a spectrum ranging from relatively neutral, tranquil feelings, emotions and sensations through heightened levels of happiness, joy, comfort, and satisfaction, both physically and mentally.


Sigmund Freud

In 1895, noted psychologist, Sigmund Freud, dubbed this inherent biological drive to seek pleasure as “The Pleasure Principle” in his Project for a Scientific Psychology. In George Ortega’s book, Exploring the Illusion of Free Will, he writes “Human beings are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s what we do. Through every moment of our lives, we’re making decisions based on the prediction that that decision is going to result in the greatest pleasure to us, either immediately or in the future, or is going to minimize any kind of pain we might feel. We’re completely programmed in this way.”

"Even tasks as seemingly mundane as using an ATM machine..."

“Even tasks as seemingly mundane as using an ATM machine…”

These ideas are important because as we design experiences that are heavily task oriented or necessary in the performance of a job, our goals do not have to be to turn everything into an interactive, gamified, animated experience, but rather to design the types of experiences that promote efficiency and that accelerate successful outcomes. Customer service reps want to quickly resolve problems. Surgeons want tools that will augment their knowledge and skills and help them render their patients healthy again. Even tasks as seemingly mundane as using an ATM machine or pumping gas should be perceived as easy and frictionless for users. This is pleasure. It may not be fancy and it may not elicit fireworks, but that’s fine. Fireworks would be inappropriate for these experiences. It’s important to note, however that designing a pleasurable and rewarding experience requires defining what that means on a case by case basis. This involves acknowledging and identifying potential areas for friction and negative outcomes and then intentionally designing those issues out of the experience. It also requires defining what pleasure means in the context of the experience. When pleasure requires fireworks, make sure to deliver fireworks.

Experiences change people.


“Experiences change people.”

There are a myriad of quotes and variations to the idea that as humans, we are the sum total of our experiences. Personally, I like Maya Angelou’s take on this: “You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.” She has nailed the most salient qualities of this concept. It’s all there. Every bit of it. Our entire lives are a series of cumulative experiences that influence who we are, how we think, what we aspire to, etc. And she also implicates the pursuit of pleasure as an important quality. “As designers, we should embrace this notion fully. We should strive to make all of the experiences we design, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, positive for our users. They will be influenced by what they do, see and hear. It will change the next decision they make. It will become ingrained in their DNA. This is where the idea of heritage comes from, in fact. (That’s a different discussion, however, but it is related and worth mentioning.) This is not to imply that every single thing we design has significant, life-altering implications, but we should acknowledge that there are implications and they are cumulative. We can affect behaviors and outcomes. We can change perceptions. There is power in what we do. So, whether you are a fan of Voltaire or Spider Man, or something in between, embrace the idea that with great power does come great responsibility. Affect good things. Change people in nice ways. Design experiences that enable people to be better versions of themselves.

Experiences are discrete.

This notion has both micro and macro implications. A single button press, a menu drop-down, an animated transition, a page load . . . these are all discrete actions or events. We can think of them as discrete, micro experiences. A user presses a button or clicks on a menu with the expectation that the action will trigger a reaction. This, in turn will lead to the next decision and action. This is actually one of the key tenets in GOMS (goals, operators, methods and selections) modeling and some forms of usability measurement. In this way, experiences can be broken down into very small components or building blocks that come together to form a more holistic, yet still discrete, overall macro experience such as a session or task.


“This is why we remember Doug Flutie’s “Hail Mary” touchdown pass from 30 years ago, but we likely don’t remember the game as a whole – even if we were there..”

The discrete quality of experiences is also associated with memory which is why you might remember a broken link or an improperly mapped button that created a frustrating or confusing experience. It’s also why you might remember booking an airline ticket online three days ago, but not remember a specific key press or button click during the process.  We tend to remember discrete outcomes – often with an emotive connotation such as success or frustration. Although experiences unfold over time, which we’ll address next, it is very common to remember them as discrete events. This is why we remember Doug Flutie’s “Hail Mary” touchdown pass from 30 years ago, but we likely don’t remember the game as a whole – even if we were there. The cumulative experience is overshadowed by a discrete moment. Conversely, Ricky Henderson stole 132 bases in 1982. Even he probably doesn’t remember all 132 steals. Individually, their significance pales in comparison to his achievement for the season. Micro. Macro.

Experiences unfold over time.

"Experiences unfold over time."

“Experiences unfold over time.”

Even with experiences linked to discrete actions, events and moments, there is still an important association with time. Some experiences are enhanced because of the time required for them to unfold. Vacations fall into this category. So do video games such as Halo or Assassin’s Creed which may require upwards of 40 hours to complete. Omni-channel retail experiences unfold over time, across devices and locations. Learning new skills – and software – requires time, as does the transition from beginner to expert. It is often the emotional quality of how time is spent engaged in an activity that is most valued about an experience. Similarly, some digital experiences such as shopping on Amazon, navigating with Waze and streaming video content on Netflix become better over time due to the algorithms that track our actions and decisions in order to make the experiences more personal and relevant for us. Time is valuable and we all want to feel as though we are spending it wisely. We want to be rewarded for our time. Conclusion . . . for now This is quite a lot to take in and consider. For this reason, we’ve only addressed five to the 10 Principles of Experience. In the follow-up to this post, we’ll delve into the remaining principles.

  • Experiences are memorable.
  • The magic of the experience is often in the nuance.
  • Prior experiences set the context for new experiences.
  • Brand experiences should always be designed.
  • Experiences balance emotional attributes with functional/measurable attributes.

Until then, we welcome your thoughts and comments on this post.


Michelle Berryman is THINK’s Director of Experience Design Services. When it comes to great user experiences, Michelle believes in the power and elegance of simplicity. @MicBerryman can often be found traveling the world, camera in hand, looking for beauty, inspiration and fresh perspectives on the world around her.