Making Experience Themes

This past week, we conducted a two day working session with one of our clients. In this working session we created a set of Experience Themes using the method presented by Cindy Chastain at this past year’s IA Summit.

The idea of an experience theme comes from the notion of a theme in story telling or screen writing and Cindy had applied some of the same concepts into team building and brainstorming processes within the experience design process. [Video from the IA Redux note: this auto-plays]

We decided to try this with our clients and after re-watching the video of Cindy’s IA Redux presentation and talking with her directly, I came up with this set of instructions:

Themes Workshop

Break into groups

Part 1

  • Spend some time reviewing concept maps, personas, persona grids, content, business goals, marketing strategy, etc. (any material that might be relevant)
  • As a group, brainstorm and pull out all the experience attributes that come to mind from everything we know and have learned
  • Put each thought on a post it note (these should be experience attributes)
    what the site should do
    • what it should be
    • what user should do
    • what user should feel
    • what does the user experience
    • what do they feel
    • what do they encounter
    • feelings
    • understandings
  • Set aside any concepts that are related to the system
 (i.e. the site must do x, the flow should be y)

Part 2

  • Refine the experience elements
  • Cluster the post its into related concepts
  • Refine and filter the related concepts and as a group agree on one idea that represents the essence of that cluster
  • Make a list of the concepts after they have been refined
  • As a group, prioritize the list with the most important concept at the top

Part 3

  • Using the prioritized list, brainstorm to develop and write a theme that is strong and the group agrees on
  • Pull out the secondary attributes that support this theme from the list
  • Flesh out the rest of the THEME MATRIX
  • Put the theme in the matrix
  • Add the secondary attributes
  • Think about, brainstorm and flesh out the other elements

The Themes Matrix

The themes matrix is a very simple spreadsheet with a few blank columns across – the themes would be placed in the top boxes.

Along the left you have:

  1. Theme
  2. Concept
  3. Premise
  4. Sub-Themes
  5. Primary Activities
  6. Emotions to Evoke

Our Process

With our Tangible team and our clients, we had between 12 and 16 people during the entire session and we split into three working groups. The groups was a mix of designers, researchers, project managers and writers – with each team having a writer. We broke the session across 2 days so people would be fresh and energized throughout.

Part One was done in the afternoon of the first day after a 2 hour session reviewing product goals, marketing objectives, user research and personas discussion and other share outs.

Brainstorming was the easiest part. We are all pretty used to doing that. We kept the teams going by NOT doing any editing or naysaying. We were trying to keep to experience attributes – what a user should feel after and when using the site rather than system attributes. But that was the hardest part so we let people capture everything, figuring we would filter it out in Part 2. After about 2 hours and hundreds of post-its on the wall from 3 teams, we had petered out and we broke for the day.

We came back in the morning of the second day to do the rest. We got back into our groups and began the process of Part 2 – refinement. As a group we went through each post-it and clustered them into like type concepts. As each grouping emerged every group ended up circling the group and titling it with an overarching concept. (We were using whiteboards to cluster the post-its on so titling was easy).

Then we reviewed each cluster. At that point the group I was in had about 15 clusters. We decided about 7 of those clusters were system attributes (things like easy, secure, helpful etc) and these were set aside. The remaining clusters were reviewed and we decided whether or not the overarching concept was the most salient and strongest.

Each final, overarching concept was then put on a list. Then the group prioritized the list. The group I was in, decided to do an exercise of prioritizing the list based on each of the three personas we were working with. This was an interesting side-exercise and led us to three very different lists that warranted further discussion, especially around the primary versus secondary personas. At this point, we had each team present to the others the prioritized list. It was interesting to see where we overlapped and where we were headed down different ideas.

The final step of the day, Part 3, was to take that list and distill a theme from the top concept. This is the hardest part of the process – requiring that leap of creativity – but was well worth the work. Since we had a list of three, we set aside our tertiary persona, then looked at the top 4 concepts for the two left (top 1 and 2 for each). From that we started brainstorming themes that seemed relevant and expressed these concepts.

Once we had a couple, we started writing the concept and premise. In doing this we realized that one of our theme ideas made a great concept for our strongest theme idea.

At this point we jumped around the matrix a bit and filled in the emotions and the activities then went back into flesh out the concepts and the premise.

For us, the premise was the hardest thing to write. Since nobody was a true story teller or came from a film background, we had a hard time differentiating the premise from the concept. But we persevered and came up with a stake in the ground.

Then we had each group share their Theme and associated ideas. The group as a whole discussed and made suggestions to help differentiate the three themes that we ended up with. At that point, we ended the session and a small group of us transcribed the material and refined the themes, concepts and activities for presentation to our stakeholders.

We think this process was terrific in that it helped gel the team (which is made up from many organizations including ours from the outside) and once we have the final approved theme, we will have a guiding vision for the content strategy, voice and interaction design.

current: experience matters design :: senior level interaction design and systems strategy consulting former partner, tangible user experience; Yahoo! founder of the public and internal Yahoo! pattern library. design director of ued teams responsible for designing solutions across key yahoo! platforms: social media, personalization, membership and vertical search.


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