A New Canvas for User Experience

A New Canvas for User Experience

“It’s not enough that we build products that function, that are understandable and usable, we also need to build products that bring joy and excitement, pleasure and fun, and yes, beauty to people’s lives.” Don Norman, Author of The Psychology of Everyday Things and Emotional Design

emotionaldesign1As an interactive agency that has specialized in designing digital experiences for 20 years, it’s interesting how frequently we still find ourselves having the “What is user experience?” discussion with clients and partners. This is the type of topic that can go in a myriad of directions. It is at once esoteric and philosophical whilst also being so tactical and simple. Experiences are rich and complex from multiple perspectives: biological, cognitive, social, cultural and anthropological. As John McCarthy and Peter Wright discuss in Technology as Experience, “Experience is difficult to define because it is reflexive and as ever-present as swimming in water is to a fish.”

This is undoubtedly why we will continue to have these discussions. It’s probably also why we often find clients may be reluctant to think deeply about the actual “experience” they want their users to have with their digital channels. It’s quite easy to talk about features and functionality, about content, measurement and analytics. It’s relatively easy to talk about calls-to-action and the things we want users to do within channels or even across channels. But, how frequently do we talk about how we want users to feel during and after an experience? This is where the subtlety lives – and where the challenge and opportunities for design can be found. This is the actual value proposition of user experience design.

At THINK, we believe there are ten fundamental principles of experiences:

  1. People have experiences.
  2. People seek pleasurable and rewarding experiences.
  3. Experiences change people.
  4. Experiences are discrete.
  5. Experiences unfold over time.
  6. Experiences are memorable.
  7. The magic of the experience is often in the nuance.
  8. Prior experiences set the context for new experiences.
  9. Brand experiences should always be designed.
  10. Experiences balance emotional attributes with functional/measurable attributes.

Travel is a wonderful metaphor with which to think about experiences. Consider your last vacation. Maybe you took a trip to Italy. You could have gone anywhere, but you chose Italy. You sought this out and you planned it – and then you waited in anticipation for the trip to start.  The trip was a five day tour of the country, culture and geography. You had two days in Milan, two days at Lake Como and a day in the Dolomites.


On the fourth day, you stumbled onto a little cafe in Varenna on the shores of Lake Como and you enjoyed a cocktail with Campari and freshly squeezed blood oranges while you watched the boats on the lake. You watched the bartender prepare the cocktail. You saw the light spray of the zest from the orange peel as he put the finishing touches on the cocktail, garnishing it with a twist of orange rind and carefully placing the glass on the cocktail napkin branded with the name of the cafe. It didn’t feel orchestrated, but it did feel professional and intentional and as if the bartender knew that his preparation of the drink, in that environment, was part of the moment for you. And it was. And, in retrospect, it was the perfect Italian holiday moment, and the one you remember most fondly. You’re going back there one day.

This story perfectly illustrates every principle of experience. It also describes the thoughtfulness and detail that make things memorable for people. Note the hierarchical and overlapping experiences, from the ‘entire-trip-as-experience’ to that one cocktail, the trip was made of a string of experiences unfolding in time.

Digital channel experiences should be equally thoughtful, evocative and nuanced. That is always our goal. One of the tools we use to help us design great experiences is the UX Canvas. This document addresses the persona for whom we are designing, the duration and cadence of the experience (once, multiple times, multiple times per day, etc.) and the emotional and functional/measurable attributes of the experience. It frames a discussion with our clients about the attributes the experience should embody and it breaks away the barriers for discussing emotions and feelings as they relate to users and experiences in context. In essence, the UX Canvas addresses the “Hearts & Stars” of the experience.


Download PDF –  THINK_UXCanvas


Lionel Tiger, Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University.

Our thinking around the emotional attributes of experiences has been heavily influenced by Canadian anthropologist Lionel Tiger and his ground-breaking book, The Pursuit of Pleasure. Tiger posits that people are biologically driven to seek pleasure, which he has broken down and classified in four distinct categories: physio-pleasure, psycho-pleasure, socio-pleasure and idea-pleasure. (Designer Paul Davison provides a very nice and succinct overview of Tiger’s premise.)

Tiger’s ideas have been further refined to embrace design principles by Patrick Jordan and his Four Pleasure Framework. Jordan believes that “[Achieving] product pleasurability is the new challenge for human factors. It is a challenge that requires an understanding of people — not just as physical and cognitive processors — but as rational and emotional beings with values, tastes, hopes and fears. It is a challenge that requires an understanding of how people relate to products.” We agree! Jordan also asks, “What are the properties of a product that elicit particular emotional responses in a person, how does a product design convey a particular set of values?”

emotionalJordan was specifically referring to physical products, but his premise and framework apply equally well to digital products, branded utilities, services and experiences overall. This is the right basis and these are the right questions to begin tackling the “Emotional” side of the UX Canvas. Other considerations for the “Emotional” side of the canvas include attention to “Moments of Delight” during the experience, things that make the experience memorable and resonant and how the person should feel during and after the experience.

functionalThe Functional/Measurable side of the UX Canvas aligns more closely with the features and functionality likely found in the business and technical requirements for the experience. This is where we identify and address architecture, structure, patterns, behaviors, mental models, analytics, content, cost and usability issues, basically any of the measurable components of the success criteria for the experience.

When using the UX Canvas, the intent isn’t necessarily to capture every attribute, but rather to capture key attributes that will define the experience and to spark conversation and dialogue with the key project stakeholders. We’ve found that for every project, the UX Canvas takes on a unique look and feel. Sometimes ideas are clustered together. Sometimes tag clouds emerge. Sometimes the emotional and functional/measurable attributes are connected and balanced. These are all reasons we like this tool. It is flexible and effective. Here are two examples of completed canvases from current client engagements at THINK.


It’s relatively easy to talk about calls-to-action and the things we want users to do within channels or even across channels. But how do we talk about how we want users to feel during and after an experience?


Perhaps Aaron Walter from Mailchimp (a great little Atlanta company) says it best:

“Designers shooting for usable is like a chef shooting for edible.”

Let’s all aim higher than this. Let’s design experiences with intent. Let’s think about the emotional side of our users, the reactions we want to elicit, the feelings we want to engender and the memories we’d like to create. User experience isn’t just about the intersection of business, technology and design. It’s about people.

  • Vicki Haberman

    Great work! In reflecting on the UX Canvas, I see it as a great platform for also discussing how experiences can be transformative. On the grand scale, there are transformational innovations – visionary solutions that change the way we live in such a way that we can’t imagine going back. But on any scale, there are opportunities to transform, to bring positive change – make things easier, more fun, more transparent, etc. I find the Canvas’ “before” and “after” highlight how, as designers, we should be purposeful in thinking about this. Whatever we bring to life leaves, to some degree or another, a lasting impact – our job is to make it positive and meaningful! So, in addition to exploring how users should feel during and after an experience, let’s also think about how we want users to be transformed by their interactions (hint: this should reflect insights you have about your users and their needs).