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PDE - a Model for
Innovative Experiences

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What makes or breaks a customer experience? How can you create an employee experience? And what can stakeholder management learn from game design? With the model in this article, designers and developers of all stripes might find the answers.

I am fascinated by the creation of experiences. It annoys me when I get wasteful sugar sachets with my coffee or honey sticks with my tea that I didn’t ask for. But it delights me when a vendor emails me valuable tips and tricks for a device they sold to me a few hours earlier. The procurement departments of my clients sometimes frustrate me with their senseless bureaucracy. But I was pleased with a humorous exchange I recently had on Twitter with a delivery company concerning the locations of my packages. When it comes to experiences, I care.

Yes, we need more business agility and continuous innovation and all that. And professional workers must nurture an agile mindset and a growth mindset, yadda yadda. But ultimately, your business thrives or dies because of the innovative experiences you offer to customers, employees, and other stakeholders. Only the outcomes you create for others can alter the impact you have on yourself.

That’s why I’m working on a model that can help you develop your skills in Experience Innovation (XI). Because, let’s face it, “We need to improve the customer experience” is not a helpful suggestion. And, “Our employee experience is lagging” is not very actionable. What are your options? What is your toolbox? What are the aspects and categories and elements and techniques for crafting a great experience?

In the work described below, I took great inspiration from game design and game theory. I believe that game creators are often the most skilled of all product designers. They have to be skilled because no user is required to use games. I need a freezer, and a spreadsheet, and a navigation system. I don’t need Wingspan or Exploding Kittens. Therefore, to persuade people to “waste” time on using their products, game designers must know all about creating engaging experiences. More than anyone else!

In other words, there’s a lot that experience innovators can learn from game design. I hope you like my contribution to the field.

Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics (MDA)

Let’s begin with a brief look at the MDA framework, a popular game design model proposed in a paper by Hunicke, Leblanc, and Zubek in 2004. Many game designers use this model to describe and understand three main aspects of games, defined as follows:

  • Mechanics are the base components of a game (product or service), including the data, rules, algorithms, and physical manifestation. Mechanics is everything I see when I open the Wingspan box.
  • Dynamics are the run-time behaviors of the game (product or service) that act on user input and respond through the mechanics. Dynamics is what happened last week when I played Wingspan with my family.
  • Aesthetics are the users’ emotional responses and what drives them to use the game (product or service). Aesthetics is the fun we had while playing Wingspan and the desire to play it again soon.

MDA Framework
MDA Framework, via Wikipedia

The MDA framework has gained broad support among game designers and helps to differentiate between what an experience designer has direct control of (Mechanics), what kind of behaviors are generated when the mechanics start working (Dynamics), and what the intended experience is for the users (Aesthetics).

However, the framework has also been criticized for neglecting some critical aspects of game design as well as using some confusing terminology.

Design, Dynamics, Experience (DDE)

Various authors have created alternative models in an attempt to fix some weaknesses of the MDA framework. In my opinion, the best suggestion was offered in a paper by Walk, Görlich, and Barrett in 2017. The authors made several improvements to MDA and named their model the DDE framework.

  • Mechanics was renamed to Design to reflect that there are non-mechanical components of product design that designers have complete control over;
  • Design was then further divided into Blueprint, Mechanics, and Interface to give room to non-mechanical game design elements such as concept drawings (Blueprint) and graphics style (Interface).
  • Aesthetics was renamed to Experience because the word “aesthetics” has specific associations that don’t adequately cover the model’s purpose. When we talk about a user’s drives and feelings, the term “experience” is a better choice.
  • Experience was then further divided into Senses, Emotions, Motivations, and Player-Subject Perception, which enables us to understand experiences in more detail.

DDE Framework
DDE Framework, via Game Developer

The DDE framework is a valuable improvement over the MDA framework. I appreciate the better terminology and the subdivisions of the three main aspects of game design. In fact, I was already working on a similar improvement over MDA when I came across the DDE model. The additional insights helped me in my quest to expand the models beyond game design and to develop a model for experience innovation (XI) in general.

The Product View

ProductA product is a newly created innovation or service that offers value for some people. The product includes design, development, and delivery, and it refers to everything we have direct control over as experience innovators. It covers all the work of a cross-functional, self-organizing team, which is why Product is a more inclusive word than Design.

My model has a Product view in which I distinguish four categories.

  • Models consist of all the plans, drafts, diagrams, and drawings that designers, developers, and managers make to create the product or service. The distinguishing feature of this category is that a user typically never gets to see these items. Many product design, change management, and leadership tools fit in this category. (For example, Scrum boards, the Business Model Canvas, and Job-to-be-Done templates.)
  • Techniques are the mechanics that are directly noticeable by the user and have a particular intended effect on their experience. For example, progress bars are a design technique that can offer users a sense of accomplishment, and countdown timers may help induce a sense of urgency. (Note: Yu-kai Chou’s Octalysis framework provides a rich library of gamification techniques. It is highly recommended.)
  • Elements are the most basic mechanics that can be used as parts of techniques, similar to atoms forming molecules and food ingredients becoming cooking recipes. Though users can often directly perceive the elements, user experiences are generated mainly by techniques. For example, a Discount of the Day is a technique that uses elements such as an asset (something valuable), timebox (a deadline), symbols (a message to stand out), and notifications (to alert the user). Users can see the elements, but what they act on are the techniques. (We can notice the rice and the saffron but what we crave is the paella!)
  • Interface is simply how a product, service, or change is presented to the user, its inputs and outputs, and any controls through which it can be used or applied.

Compared to DDE, my model splits Mechanics into Elements and Techniques, similar to programmers distinguishing between programming language constructs versus coding patterns and architectures.

Please note that there are many other ways to subdivide the Product view. Mine is just one suggestion, and I will happily go along with others.

The Dynamics View

DynamicsThe MDA and DDE frameworks offer little guidance in terms of system dynamics. There is merely the suggestion that various kinds of interaction exist between players and the game and that some system behaviors can be emergent, unintended, and even undesired.

I take the opportunity to subdivide this view into five perspectives, inspired by complexity science and sensemaking literature.

  • Clarity is the perspective where the user is entirely clear about a situation, knows what to achieve, and understands how to get there. Cause and effect are clear, and the user knows which instructions will take her toward a positive outcome. After learning the winning strategy of Tic-Tac-Toe at the age of six, this simple game would be a good example.
  • Confusion is the opposite of clarity. It refers to situations where there is insufficient information, fuzzy outcomes, and incomprehensible or conflicting signals. This could be intended or unintended by the designer. Either way, the user will have to be inquisitive until meaning forms. For many people, the first minute in an escape room is a fine example. (For me, it’s the entire stay in the escape room.)
  • Convolution is the perspective where there is a complicated path toward a good outcome, but it is intentionally hidden or unintentionally obscured. Like with puzzles and mazes, the user must inspect intricate details and work rationally toward the best decisions, which can take significant time and effort. A Sudoku puzzle would be a good example. (Or, for people unlike me, the entire stay in the escape room after the confusion has cleared up.)
  • Coherence is the opposite of convolution. In this case, it is impossible to identify cause and effect. Things are complex, and there are many unknowns. Any action can potentially change the entire situation. In this context, it is only possible to make meaningful progress through careful, safe-to-fail interaction. One can think of playing Werewolf, a Scrum planning session, or navigating traffic in India.
  • Crisis is the last of the five perspectives. It sits right in the middle because a user can end up in a crisis at any point, whether by design or not. In this case, skilled intervention is needed, either by the user or by the experience manager, to get the user out of her dangerous situation. A boss fight at the end of a game level is one example. A hacked user account is another.

Any experience with a product or service most likely involves a bit of everything. At different times, users will experience combinations of clarity and crisis or convolution and confusion. The question is, are emergent experiences intended or unexpected? And are they beneficial or harmful?

Game designers are usually delighted when unintended dynamics emerge that are beneficial to gameplay. Sadly, with change management, it is often the other way around: unintended dynamics are harmful to the employee experience.

The art of game design (and product design and change management) is to innovate with an experience so that the player, customer, or employee perceives just the right amount of clarity, confusion, convolution, coherence, and crisis. An experience innovator can only succeed through plenty of iteration and (play)testing.

The Experience View

ExperienceThe final part is all about the experience as perceived by a player, customer, employee, or other stakeholders. My suggested subdivision has four categories.

  • Senses seems an obvious category. It includes sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch and the various ways in which humans can experience physical pleasure and pain. Many products and services exist that are specifically designed to stimulate the senses. One can easily think of alcohol, drugs, theme park rides, and Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
  • Motivations is the second category. It answers the question of why people use a product or service. I offer my 25 Drives Grid as a helpful tool in this area. It can help a designer aim specifically for drives such as Curiosity, Competence, Friendship, Recognition, and many more. (The DDE model refers to this category as “intellectual journey”, which I find a misnomer because the examples offered, such as Challenge, Fellowship, and Discovery suggest motivation rather than intelligence.)
  • Emotions are different from Motivations. The feelings generated by specific products and services are experiences that often (but not always) come after the motivation. My motivation to see a movie with my partner last week was driven by Curiosity, Intimacy, and Beauty. But the emotions our chosen film elicited were anticipation, surprise, joy, and (sorry!) also a little boredom.
  • Habits is the last category I added to the Experience part. Habits are easily overlooked, but they are a powerful thing to achieve. I always buy Sensodyne toothpaste. I get all my books from Amazon. And every morning, I go running. These are some of my many habits. Between 40-90 percent of human behaviors and experience is habitual. For product designers and change agents, habit-forming, getting people to change their behaviors indefinitely, is the ultimate achievement. I offer my Behavior Change Dynamo if you want to learn more about this.

Similar to the other two views of the model, the Experience part typically combines all categories. People’s habit of watching Netflix every day is driven by certain motivators, resulting in some pleasant emotions, and involves stimulating two out of the five senses.

Again, I’d like to stress that there are other ways to subdivide the Experience view. Mine is just one suggestion, and I am interested to learn about others.

Conclusion

So, how should we call this model? The PDE Framework sounds a bit dull. Maybe a Framework for Innovative eXperiences? FIX? I haven’t decided yet. But the name doesn’t matter much as long as we agree on Product (what we control), Dynamics (what happens), and Experience (what is perceived) as three fundamental views. This distinction applies to games, services, and many kinds of change efforts. And then, there are various ways in which we can subdivide the three views. I merely offered my suggestions.

PDE model

This model is neutral when it comes to existing methods and frameworks such as Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, LeSS, Design Thinking, and Lean Startup. I hope that it can help people fix problems with the dynamics and experiences of their products, services, and organizational transformations.

Your innovations thrive or die depending on which experiences you offer to customers, employees, and other stakeholders. If you want to join me on a journey of Experience Innovation, sign up here.

This Model for Innovative Experiences is part of The Versatile Organization workshop.


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