We make much of our experiences, because our experiences make us.

I’m reminded of this every day at Mizzou School of Journalism as I watch student journalists live the “Missouri Method,” an immersive learning approach to journalism education. Some make graceful leaps from classroom to newsroom and back again. Most trek back and forth, with a few spectacular stumbles along the way. The “back and forth” is what counts, though, and it’s why wanna-be journalists from around the world hope to attend Mizzou: for the practical experience that they can’t get anywhere else. (Really, that’s what they say.)

But why can’t they get it elsewhere? There are many great universities with outstanding journalism programs shepherded by distinguished faculty. Yet none of them provides the range of opportunities and experiences available at Mizzou. With three professional, commercial news outlets (newspaper, TV, radio) attached to the J-School, students are participants and contributors in working news environments from the moment they enter the program. They learn, they apply, they miss a deadline, they get help from advisors, they can’t find a source, they work on teams, they have room to fail – to learn from their mistakes so that they do better the next time. They experience what it is to be journalists.

Designing for experience

Experiences are more than living through events. Experiences are the emotions one feels and the learnings one derives from the events of one’s life. One’s emotional state has great effect on whether and what one learns and the meaning one gives the experience. By extension, the way one perceives an event and its context has everything to do with how one meets and manages similar future events.

Designers of all stripes have recognized the importance of emotion, and of evoking the right emotion to elicit the sought-for experience. Whether a car or a zoo or a conference or a website, the design output is part product, part ambience, part interaction, part behavior. Each element produces an emotional response in the audience/customer. The sum of these emotional responses together with the interpretation and meaning an individual gives it is the essential experience of the user.

The great challenge, of course, is to come up with a design that generates pretty much the same experience for the majority of those who encounter it. In the world of digital media, frantic devotion to designing engaging and “sticky” user experiences has spawned the practice of user experience (UX) design (frequently misunderstood to be 21st -century jargon for user interface and/or screen design). Game designers take this a step further in focusing on player experience. And, while we don’t call it out specifically, elearning designers are greatly concerned with what we might call “learner experience.” Regardless of the discipline, all designers seek to create a common emotional experience among the audiences that interact with and within their product or program.

Context and content count – but so do emotions

With a respectful nod to Rummler and Brache (20 years ago, they got us thinking about the “white space” in organizational charts), experience design is fundamentally about the emotional white space that surrounds each audience member. Experience designers seek to mold moments and interactions that provoke the emotions that cause us to focus, to remember, to decide, to perform, and to learn. Learning designers, like game designers, put their audience into settings and situations that require choices. When designed well, the content and sequence of choices the learner/player must make juxtaposed on the context, ambience and environment surrounding those choices fill the emotional white space with anticipation, frustration, fiero (the feeling of pride we get from overcoming an obstacle or mastering a challenge), and, ultimately, accomplishment – all the emotions that lead to practicable learning and repeatable performance.

I believe it was Pete Seeger who quipped, “Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don't.” While there is a certain truth to his statement, my inner-learning designer prefers a more purpose-driven approach to life – and design. My experience tells me that good learning design must examine the emotional white space that lives around each learner so that the learner’s experience leads to the learning s/he wants and needs.