Designers often argue about whether we’re designing an experience or designing for an experience, and ponder the more philosophical aspects of having an experience. Is an experience something designers shape? Is it something participants make?

Arguably, every experience is unique. But if this is true, what do we mean when we talk about the experience?

This makes for some great debate for designers. But what do the people who use the products and services we make think when they talk about experience?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently, instigated by my…um…experience…designing for patients of a neurosurgery clinic. The patients referred to the experience as what they expected to happen: what they thought the experience would be like in a general sense. They would check-in, wait, it would be crowded, they’d get called to an exam room, wait some more, see the doctor, then check out.

But there was also the experience of what actually happened. They complained about waiting. The doctor joked with them, saying it was his goal to make them wait. They laughed and felt better.

Which is the experience? The perceived or the actual? Which is more important in the eyes of the patient? Which is more important in terms of the service? What can designers design?

I will continue to ponder.