As UX/UI designers, we tend to associate interfaces with experience. Some of these deliverables, particularly from tech companies, are pure digital play. Customers spend a significant amount of time scrolling through social media, looking for information with the shortest number of steps, or completing a repeated transaction, such as an online payment. You could thus say that the interface is synonymous with the experience. How far we are from reality if we choose to go down the path.
Rene Magritte is regarded as one of the most famous surrealist painters of the 20th century. He is also celebrated as a thinker who had a deep appreciation for philosophy and psychology. In fact, many of his best works had a combination of these elements. Perhaps the most well known pieces would be the pipe that reads “this is not a pipe” in French. On the surface, it is what the painting states: not a pipe, but a painting of a pipe. On a deeper level, the object and the words create a level of cognitive dissonance — a perception of contradictory information. As the human brain registers the words, it fails to acknowledge that the pipe is simply an image. This is what Magritte has to say about the painting,
“It’s quite simple. Who would dare pretend that the REPRESENTATION of a pipe IS a pipe? Who could possibly smoke the pipe in my painting? No one. Therefore it IS NOT A PIPE.”
Others across time have contributed to this conundrum. You would have come across the famous saying by Alfred Korzybski’s “The word is not the thing” and “The map is not the territory”, as well as Denis Diderot’s “This is not a story.”
And then, there is Marshall McLuhan’s quote, “the medium is the message”. Rather than the content being the message, McLuhan argues that it is the technology (ie. the medium), that shaped and controlled the human association and action — or in other words, the human experience. It does beckon the same question: would the content or the technology be the actual experience, or a representation?
In perfect symphony
I recalled writing a commentary about my personal experience from a live musical concert and the use of technology. Oh how I wished I could have a live orchestra to play the symphonies of angelic music at my whim! The reality is that an orchestra of over 20 musicians is highly unlikely to attend to my every desire. A more practical approach would be to listen to their album or a playback from YouTube. And whilst the melody and lyrics are the same, I had written that the experience is vastly different, from the acoustic differences between the electrical signals of the machine and the vibrations of the Stradivarius violin, down to the change in environment (theatre vs bedroom). Technology does make it more accessible. It brings users closer to the content at a cheaper and faster rate, but it’s nowhere close to replicate the quality of any actual experiences, no matter how advanced it is. Video conferences, VR, metaverse included. (Except for new experiences like fantasy worlds, that’s for another day)
The treachery of interfaces
The image above is the rendition of the 21st century version of Magritte’s masterpiece. There are 4 elements to the composition — sand, phone mockup, QR code and the text. Whilst the text and phone mockup attempts to mimic a similar effect to the pipe, the sand is an amalgamation of another artwork: The Human Condition also by Rene Magritte, through the intentional overlap of the background and the medium. Embedded in the screen is the QR code, which redirects the user to a wiki on the human condition artwork. The content is compelling, but is the interface the representation or the actual experience? Who could possibly touch the grains of the sand in my phone mockup? No one. Even so, not even the image could satisfy such an experience of touching the actual sand of Råbjerg Mile in Denmark, where this photograph was captured. Before someone could debate about the feasibility of making a trip to North Denmark, how often have we stepped out into the world and experience nature and touch the sand? It seems that human beings in the 21st century may be undergoing a desensitization of experience through the use of technology, where we are more comfortable with pixels of an interface rather than the grains of sand.
In perfect synchrony
By now, I hope you have reached a level of consciousness that there are at least 3 experiences: full digital experiences, actual experiences, and interfaces that attempts to replicate the actual experience. Yet to think that people should therefore reject digital experiences misses the point of this article. Rather, it is equally crucial to identify where are the physical, service and digital touchpoints along the journey that accentuates the entire integrated experience.
Take a famous airlines, Singapore Airlines (SIA), as an example. Their offerings bring about a sense of prestige, comfort and excellences, yet SIA doesn’t rest on its laurels on leaving content as it is. An example would be the new batik patterns released in 2021. Not only was there a direction to change the visual designs of the brand assets on their digital channels, such as the website, inflight entertainment system and native apps, it has extended this approach to the airline merchandises and physical collaterals, with special treatment of the patterns based on the material and finishing of each artefact. Furthermore, there is a further extension to how the brand sounds, and how the brand smells, with floral notes from the flowers in the SIA batik motif. It leaves customers imagining what else Singapore Airlines will do when it comes to taste and touch, or even through signature gestures such as receiving bouquets of flowers on an inflight experience. At this point, the power of concept transcends beyond the medium to encapsulate an entire integrated experience. How else could other brands learn from Singapore Airlines?