What Is An Experience?

March 2021 - Adam Matthews

UX is important in a whole host of aspects for a university. In fact, the term ‘student experience’ is one that is used throughout the sector.

Thanks to competition driven by league tables, NSS surveys and growth, ensuring a good student experience goes beyond getting a degree. It’s worth stopping and thinking about what we mean by an experience. Consider what an experience is. We might say things like:

  • 'That was a great experience to get the opportunity to speak at that conference'
  • 'It’s all good experience for your next career move'
  • 'I failed to prepare for my assignment and didn’t leave enough time to complete, that wasn’t a great experience'
  • 'She is a very experienced designer and will work well on this project'

So, how would you define an experience?

1: Noun – practical contact with and observation of facts or events. For example, 'he had learned his lesson by painful experience' or an event or occurrence which leaves an impression on someone: 'audition day is an enjoyable experience for any seven-year old'.

2: Verb – encounter or undergo (an event or occurrence): 'the company is experiencing difficulties'.

So, we have someone encountering something - an event and for that someone there is a feeling or perception aligned to that event. If we are to design an experience then this encounter will in some way be mapped, planned and designed (i.e. it won’t just happen by accident).

Experiences make us happier than physical artefacts


Buying an Apple Watch isn’t going to change who you are; taking a break from work to hike the Appalachian Trail from start to finish most certainly will.

This quote is from a Forbes article titled Why You Should Spend Your Money On Experiences, Not Things. This is based on research around purchasing ‘things’ in contrast to ‘experiences’, for example, a watch over a holiday. This is based on research by psychologists which found that experiential purchases make us happier than material purchases.

There is also commercial evidence that experiences are more popular than material artefacts in what has been branded the experience economy.

Subjects and Objects

A useful way to think of experiences in the context of UX design is to consider subject and object. This is a widely used idea in philosophy. From a design perspective, subjects we can say are people (students, staff etc) and objects we can say are designed ‘things’ – buildings, digital platforms, content etc. Subjects and objects interact to produce an experience.

We can apply this thinking to a whole host of scenarios:

  • Open days (physical and digital)
  • Application processes
  • Marketing contacts
  • Teaching and learning

Take away point

Creating the objects is the easy part – they are objective. Ensuring a positive interaction between object and subject is the tricky bit. Subjects’ experiences are subjective and each individual has their own experience with an object.

There lies the challenge for good UX design.


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