Dessy Chongarova

My first memory of performing an “experience design” activity goes back to when I was 5. I was staying with my grandparents in their summer house near the Black Sea coast, not having to wear shoes for weeks. One of those days, my grandparents had guests over for lunch. At the end of the meal, they asked me to go pick up some apricots from a tree in the garden and bring them to the table for desert.

At age 1, my main design concern was to wear panties in an unconventional fashion.

At age 1, my main design concern was to wear panties in an unconventional fashion.

I must’ve thought that simple raw apricots are not exquisite enough for а desert, so I wanted to come up with a better way to serve them. I decided they had to be peeled and the pits removed so that consumption would be as easy and delightful as possible. After a few iterations, the form of a puree emerged and I was envisioning the pleasant surprise of the guests. I wanted them to feel taken care of and to have a wonderful sensory experience.

I was doing my best to put myself in their shoes, so I was testing the product myself, while I was making it. I didn’t care about not having the perfect tools at my disposal. In fact, carefully chewing the apricots and spiting equally big portions of apricot puree in little glasses, seemed to me like the most natural and caring thing to do.

I hadn’t shared this story with my family but to figure out my age at the time, I needed my mom’s help. So I described to her the picture of the summer house I had in my memory, and I ended up revealing my secret. “Oh, if the kitchen was still in the bungalow, you must’ve been 5 or younger” — she casually responded and asked: “How is this design, anyway?”

Great question, mom! One way to look at it is through a broader definition of design. Going back to 1971, we find one in Victor Papanek’s book “Design for the Real World”:

“All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process.”

In other words, design is taking something from its current state to a preferred state. You can see how intentionally turning apricots into apricot puree is a design activity. But what I find more fascinating about my process at age 5 is its user-centredness. I can clearly remember envisioning the experience my grand-parents’ guests would have with the apricots and how easier and more delightful it would be if they were pureed. As Thomas Wendt puts it in “Design for Dasein” (2015):

“[Experience design] is concerned with the cumulative experiential qualities a user might have with a system.”

The word “might” above holds the key to the difference between 5-year-old me and how I approach design today. An experience is subjective and deeply personal. So claiming it can be designed would be rather arrogant. However, we can design for a desired experience. But how do we know what the desired experience is?

5 year-year-old me made an assumption about the best apricot experience there could be — easy to chew and smooth — and she didn’t question it. She was most probably missing baby food, and thinking that’s what’s best for everyone. I know her audience wasn’t old enough to have chewing difficulties, so that wasn’t a problem she was trying to solve. In fact, escaping from city life, the grown-ups were probably craving fresh fruit, just picked from the tree, in its rawest form.

Taking the time to understand the users’ context and discover their needs through observing behaviour and asking “why” should be the first step of human-centred design process. Aligning those needs to a business problem we’re trying to solve allows us to define the desired experience to design for. Prototyping and testing potential solutions with users helps us make sure we’re on the right track. This process is what distinguishes a human-centred design from a 5-year-old.

This is the process that I’m working on mastering, while trying to nurture the curiosity, authenticity and playfulness of a 5-year-old.