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SXSW: Balancing Order And Chaos In The User Experience
by Molly Evans 12 Mar 2016

Achieving good design online and offline as well as a positive user experience is like orchestrating a symphony.

JW Marriott in Downtown Austin from balcony of Austin Convention Center during SXSW Interactive 2016. Photo: Molly Evans
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I’m attending the 23rd annual SXSW Interactive conference, exploring a variety of issues and inspirations currently surfacing in the world of technology. Follow @mkatevans for quick updates throughout the weekend and check back with Art&Seek for full stories. 

Achieving good design online and offline, and in turn, a positive user experience is like orchestrating a symphony, said Katie Dill, who heads experience design at Airbnb.

It comes down to the sheet music — the unifying element that organizes a conglomeration of instruments into a cohesive and beautiful product, a song. Design that carries a person through an experience online — booking a flight, for example — and then manifests in the physical realm — getting on the airplane — renders a pleasantly melodious effect on users.

Dill said some companies like Disney can control every moment of a user’s experience because they have the technological capability to cater to an individual, but more importantly, Disney owns all the moments of a person’s experience. They control the narrative of the experience from getting the Magic Band put on your wrist to meeting your favorite character or eating Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles.

The Sharing Economy

But for companies in the sharing economy, like Airbnb, Lyft and Handy to name a few, individuals from the community (the host, driver or person setting up your IKEA furniture) rather than from the specific company play a integral part in orchestrating a user’s experience.

These members of the community are unique individuals largely outside of the company’s control, but they make experiences with the company more dynamic and diverse. There is exclusivity and authenticity to the story, Dill said.

An example: Dill was coming home from work in San Francisco, and her Lyft driver suddenly turned on strobe lights and techno music in the car because he was a part of that niche of music lovers. And she took another Lyft in Austin this week, and her driver was deaf. Her experiences were unique enough to want to tell hundreds of people — the advantage for companies in the sharing economy. 

But how do designers control what they can and cope with what they can’t when orchestrating a user’s experience? How do you bring order to the chaos, so to speak, Dill asked? 

Five pieces of advice for designers to strike a balance between order and chaos:

  1. Zoom out. Get a sense of the big picture. Who are the players involved in the UX and what are they contributing? What are the milestones along the user’s journey? Where are we in control and where do we rely on the community? 
  2. Look ahead. Anticipate what could go wrong. When you experience the physical manifestation of your digital interaction (i.e. meeting your Airbnb host), it’s “the moment of truth,” she said. Is everything there that you expected? It helps for a company to be transparent on its site and app — include photos of the apartment or profiles pages for the drivers to manage a consumer’s expectations.
  3. Set the stage. The digital platform (a website or app) sets the stage and provides the structure for the physical interaction, Dill said. 
  4. Keep it real. As a designer, help set expectations by being transparent and clear and consequently build trust with users. 
  5. Open up. The community is participating in the “story” of a user experience, whether your company is a part of the sharing economy or not. How do we help our hosts, drivers, etc.? Designers don’t want to dictate/control; they want to inform/inspire the community. 

Here’s how Airbnb puts it all together.

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