5 Staging Experiences: A Proposed Framework for Designing Learning Experiences

HILARY MCLELLAN

Contributing Editor

This article was originally published in the November-December 2002 issue of EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY, p. 30-37.

Experience design is an emerging multidisciplinary approach to design that has important implications for the design of instruction. Experience design is actually an ancient practice, going back to the earliest human impulse to develop rituals, ceremonies, drama, and even architecture. But the design of experiences has become much more pervasive during the past century, with media, including radio, television, and interactive electronic media, playing a central role. Over the past decade, experience design has come to be recognized as an approach to design that integrates concepts and design strategies from a number of fields (Mclellan, 1999, 2000). This includes psychology, drama, graphic design, human-computer interaction, multimedia and Web design, game design, economics, advertising, customer service, interior design, architecture, urban planning, storytelling, exhibit design, theme-park design, and captology-the science of persuasive technology. The integration of multiple approaches offers a powerful, synergistic approach to design. This includes the design of learning experiences.

Experience Design Applications in Education

There are already important examples of experience design in education, although they are not always recognized as such. Museums such as the Explorato­rium in San Francisco and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City are at the forefront of designing interactive exhibits and visitor activities within the framework of experience design (Hechinger, 1999; Wilkinson, 2001). The success of these museum exhibits demonstrates the tremendous educational potential of the experience design approach.

One highly successful example of experience design in education is the case study method used at the Harvard Business School and elsewhere (Barnes Christensen, & Hansen, 1994; Christensen, Hansen, & Moore, 1987). The case study method features highly interactive, participatory learning experiences that build upon each other. Central to this approach are case studies, open-ended stories that call for examining complex, subtle information from multiple points of view in order to determine the best outcome–the best conclusion to the story featured in each case study. This approach has been refined over a period of decades to optimize the experience design. Instructors receive training so that they will perform their role properly to optimize this highly learner-centered approach,

A very high-tech example of experience design is the Experience Learning System under development at the Institute for Creative Technologies (http://www.ict.usc. edu/). The JCT was established at the University of Southern California to provide the U.S. Army with highly realistic training simulations that rely on advances in virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and other cutting-edge technologies (Hafner, 2001; Kaplan, 1999). This research center at USC develops integrated core technologies that are critical to both the military and to the entertainment industry. The combination of training and entertainment at ICT is very much in keeping with the experience design approach.

The JCT initiative highlights that the critical R&D challenge in developing virtual learning systems extends beyond the technology to the full dimensions of the experience (insofar as possible). Today’s challenge is “to focus on the more unpredictable side of the human psyche, simulating emotions and the unexpected effects that panic, stress, anxiety, and fear can have on actions and decisions when an officer or a soldier is deep in the fog of war” (Hafner, 2001). To enhance the realism, JCT has built a theater with a screen that wraps around roughly half the room. Three projectors and a sound system make the theater so realistic and directional that it can trick the listener into believing that a sound’s source is coming from anywhere in the room. The growing interest among researchers in these kinds of simulations builds upon both the rise in computer processing power and the growing sophistication of psychological theories.

Experience

What is experience? This is an important starting point for examining experience design. Csikszentmihalyi (1991) puts this into perspective from a psychological point of view. According to Csikszentmihalyi, people seek optimal experiences, which he refers to as autotelic experiences. He explains, “The autotelic experience, or flow, lifts the course of life to a different level. Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals” (p. 69). Csikszentmihalyi has found that an optimum state of flow or ‘autotelic experience’ is engaged when there is a clear set of goals requiring an appropriate response; when feedback is immediate; and when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is high but manageable. When these three conditions are met, attention to task becomes ordered and fully engaged. A key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself; even if undertaken for other reasons, the activity that engages us becomes intrinsically rewarding. This type of experience is fundamentally enjoyable. Optimal experiences are the ultimate goal of experience design.

Economists Pine and Gilmore (1999) explain that when a person seeks out an experience, he seeks “to spend time enjoying a series of memorable events that a company stages–as in a theatrical play–to engage him in a personal way” (p. 2). Buyers of experiences value being engaged by what the company reveals over a duration of time. “Just as people have cut back on goods to spend more money on services, now they also scrutinize the time and money they spend on services to make way for more memorable–and more highly valued–experiences” (p. 12). The work of the experience stager is ephemeral, since it has an ending point, but the value of the experience lingers through the memory of the experience. Pine and Gilmore point out that one important distinguishing aspect of experiences from an economic point of view is transformations. “Why do people pay good money to experience the muscle pain of a fitness center or the enjoyment of a concert? The answer: to be affected by the experience. The experiences we have affect who we are, what we can accomplish and where we are going, and we will increasingly ask companies to stage experiences that change us. Becoming different is more valuable and more desirable than the experience itself” (p. 12).

Interactive design researcher Jodi Forlizzi (2002) claims that there are three ways that we can describe dimensions of experience. “The purest form of experience is experience, the constant stream that happens while we are conscious. Another way to talk about experience is to describe an experience, which has a beginning and an end, and changes the user and the context of use as a result. Finally, a third way to talk about experience is to describe experience as story, the way that we condense and remember experiences, and communicate them to people in a variety of contexts.” Once again we see the emphasis on what is taken away from an experience–in the form of a story. Forlizzi further explains, “There are three ways that we describe user-product interactions. Sub-conscious user-product interactions are the most automatic, or fluent ones. They do not compete for our attention and do not have to be re-learned. Cognitive user-product interactions cause a change in the user and sometimes the context of use as a result. They can be learning experiences, or times that a product does not match anything in our past history of product use. A storytelling user-product interaction is when an interaction with a formal product narrative (the set of all possible functionality) results in a subjective interaction with a subset of features.”

From an engineering perspective, Carbone and Haeckel (1998) explain that “experience consists of the ‘takeaway’ impression formed by people’s encounters with products, services, and businesses–a perception produced when humans consolidate sensory information. We constantly filter a barrage of clues, organizing them into a set of impressions–some of them rational, some emotional. These impressions can be very subtle–even subliminal–or extremely obvious. They may occur by happenstance or by purposeful design. They may exist as isolated episodes or as managed suites. Collectively, they become an experience” (p. 1). It is the experience designer’s mission to create an overall experience that is in accordance with the overall design goal and to orchestrate all the different impressions so that they are in harmony with all the other elements of the experience.

Csikszentmihalyi (1991) focuses on the actual experience while it is taking place, but the other analysts all emphasize that part of an experience is the takeaway–what lingers on in memory, in the form of a narrative. Stories have a central role in experience design as we shall see. The goal of an experience designer is to create an engaging experience, in the context of Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of optimum experiences, while at the same time establishing a take away that will establish the experience in memory.

Experience Clues

A multitude of clues helps to influence how people experience things. It is important to be aware that these clues exist and to understand how they can help shape an experience. Furthermore, these clues can be designed to support the design of experiences. Left unattended, these clues can interfere with the success of a designed experience. Carbone and Haeckel (1998) explain that if these clues are unmanaged, they may cancel each other out and leave no overall impression. Or, even worse, they may induce a strong overall negative perception. But if the clues are systematically crafted into a positive overall impression, the clues can tremendously enhance the underlying purpose of the experience. “Engineering an experience begins with the deliberate setting of a targeted customer perception and results in the successful registration of that perception in the customer’s mind. Systematically designing and orchestrating the signals generated by products, services, and the environment is the means to that end” (p. 1 ).

Carbone and Haeckel distinguish between perfor­mance-based and context-based experience clues. Performance clues relate to the function of a product such as a software program while context-based clues are conveyed by appearance and behavior, for example, graphic and audio design.

Carbone and Haeckel further explain that there are two types of context clues, mechanics and humanics. Mechanics clues include “the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and textures generated by things, for example, landscaping, graphics, scents, recorded music, handrail surfaces, and so on” (p. 1). Humanics clues emanate from people. Humanics clues are engineered by defining and choreographing the desired behavior of employees involved in the customer encounter. Humanics clues must be designed with a sensitivity to how different clues play out in different cultures. Humanics are most effective when they are integrated with mechanics. Carbone and Haeckel report:

Managers have a fairly good understanding of mechanics clues because they are often an important part of product design–the shape, quiet operation, colors, smells, and textures of a new car, for example. Not as obvious, perhaps, is the extent to which new technologies can enhance the range and impact of mechanics. We are using new 3M technology for scent management in some of our experience designs. 3M is now looking at the potential of “experience management systems” that can be readily turned into customized sound and smell clues. This is important, because nothing is more evocative of certain experiences than sounds and smells. (Anyone who hears a certain song from his or her high school days is subject to instant and involuntary flashback.) Without doubt, opportunities abound for skilled experience engineers to create “signature scents and sounds” for particular brands of movie theaters, hotel lobbies, commuter train cars, computers, and virtually any other object or space. Humanics determine the interpersonal relationships in a buying experience-how employees make customers feel. (p. 2)

Humanics clues must be recognized and managed more effectively than they usually are today. Disney provides a role model.

Of course, humanics clues can come from the people presented in educational media programs as well as from people encountered face-to-face. The field of persuasive technology (captology) has as a goal to adapt some humanics clues to technology. Some, but not all, efforts to incorporate humanics clues into interactive media have been successful. The semi-­intelligent agent “Phil” who appeared as a fictional prototype in Apple Computer’s Knowledge Navigator (1987) vision video was very engaging, with strong humanics appeal. Mok (1996) explains, “In the video, what-if scenarios were acted out by a nerdy professor and his digital agent “Phil” in the year 2000. The dramatization showed Phil helping the professor prepare a lecture and work on a research project with fellow professor Jill Gilbert. Phil also reminded the professor to call his mother. Although the video was never meant to portray realistic possibilities but only to create an impression of Apple as a forward-looking company, it introduced into the public mind new concepts of what technology–and engineers–could do” (p. 92).

Walt Disney was perhaps the very first modern experience designer. Carbone and Haeckel (1998) report that Disney emphasized purposeful, comprehensive design. He made sure that every clue supported the overall design purpose. Walt Disney was “a prime exemplar of a visionary with exceptional perceptiveness who consciously embedded clues in his cartoons and theme parks to create the unique Disney experience. The Disney Co., perhaps better than any other firm, understands the value of purposefully stimulating as many senses as possible” (p. 2). For example, once when the company hosted an indoor “beach party” for the press at one of its hotels, “the setting included sand, the smell of suntan oil, a boardwalk arcade, music, lighting, the sound of surf, and other clues to produce an overall impression of a beach environment. Such detailed focus on sensory clue design extends to each of Disney’s park attractions, and to the parks as a whole” (p. 2).

According to Carbone and Haeckel, Disney’s training program for new employees exemplifies successful on-the-job behavior modification designed to inculcate the desired humanics. “Employees audition for roles, don costumes, work with props, and rehearse extemporaneously ‘in character.’ When they are at work, they are on stage. In fact, Disney engineers the work experience of its employees by carefully crafting their roles to include picking up specific signals from customers’ behavior and responding in specified ways” (p. 3). Disney employees are carefully trained to interact with members of the public in ways that reinforce the overall design goals that the Disney theme parks seek to achieve.

The case study approach offers an example of how mechanics clues can be utilized in an educational setting. Barnes et al. (1994) report that, “Harvard Business School classrooms have been architecturally designed to minimize physical distance and to maximize psychological togetherness between teacher and student, and to encourage student-to-student rather than instructor-to-student interactions” (p. 42). It is interesting to note that online courses can be designed using virtual space to similar advantage, in ways that can encourage discussion and small group learning. Although the discussion format is very different online–in particular, the lack of face-to-face contact and the extension of participation time around the clock, the notions of spatial layout and other mechanics clues can be engaged to support an optimum learning experience that is highly interactive and participatory.

Carbone and Haeckel (1998) identify one more type of experience design clue: the sticktion clue, a thematic clue designed to catalyze positive stories. As they explain, sticktion is a term 3M engineers use to describe a design point between abrasion and slippage that should exist when a magnetic head “reads” information by sensing the magnetic particles on a tape. In the context of experience management, sticktion refers to a limited number of special clues that are sufficiently remarkable to be registered and remembered for some time, without being abrasive. Sticktion stands out in the experience, but does not overpower it. When sticktion clues are well-designed, they are both memorable and related to the “motif” of the experience. “A motif is a succinct, verbal characterization of the desired take-away customer perception” (p. 5). One example is Apple Computer advertising theme, “Think different,” associated with images of people such as Albert Einstein who did just that. Carbone and Haeckel emphasize that sticktion clues can backfire if they are poorly conceived, or if they conflict with mechanics and humanics clues.

Similar to the sticktion clue, Pine and Gilmore (1999) emphasize the importance of theming. They explain that an effective theme must be concise and compelling. It may not be stated overtly, yet its presence is clearly felt. Theming an experience means scripting a story that involves participation by the audience. According to Pine and Gilmore, five principles are paramount in developing a theme:

  •      An engaging theme must alter a person’s sense of reality.
  •      The richest venues possess themes that fully alter one’s sense of reality by affecting the experience of space, time, and matter.
  •      Engaging themes integrate space, time, and matter into a cohesive whole.
  •      Themes are strengthened by creating multiple places within a place.
  •      A theme should fit the character of the enterprise staging the experience. (pp. 49-51)

Stories

Stories are fundamental to the way people structure information. Increasingly, stories are recognized as a valuable tool for knowledge transfer and training. Psychologist and interactive design expert Donald Norman (1993) explains, “Stories are marvelous means of summarizing experiences, of capturing an event and the surrounding context that seems essential. Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context, and emotion” (p. 129). This encapsulation of information, including especially the emotional dimension, is what makes stories so important for experience design.

Renowned scientist Edwin 0. Wilson (2002) takes this a step further: “We all live by narrative, every day and every minute of our lives. Narrative is the human way of working through a chaotic and unforgiving world. The narrative genius of Homo sapiens is an accommodation to the inherent inability of the three pounds of our sensory system and brain to process more than a minute fraction of the information the environment pours into them. In order to keep the organism alive, that fraction must be intensely and accurately selective. The stories we tell ourselves and others are our survival manual” (p. 10). Furthermore, “Researchers have learned that stories–both the ones stored in our memories and those we generate as we interact with the world–are essential to each of these aspects of learning. Facts presented in stories, as opposed to lists, are much easier to remember. Likewise, facts that stir up intense emotions are quickly and easily stored in our brains (think, for example, how easily your students remember what happened in Hiroshima) and well-told stories are a great way to tie emotions to facts. Researchers have also demonstrated that the common marks of good storytelling–­metaphors and analogies that draw the audience in–­work because they allow the audience to tie the story to previous knowledge and experience” (p. 10).

Drama Model

One important type of storytelling is drama. Both Laurel (1991) and Pine and Gilmore (1999) highlight drama as one important framework for understanding experience design. As Laurel explains, “Drama, unlike novels or other forms of literature, incorporates the notion of performance; that is, plays are meant to be acted out” (p. 15). It is valuable to think of a learning experience as a performance to be staged.

Plot, theme, setting, atmosphere, dialogue, and characterization are the components of a drama. All of these elements work synergistically to create a memorable experience. The plot is the arrangement of the incidents that create the path through the drama, including surprising reversals, progressive revelation of knowledge, unity and balance of events, the emotional effects, the climax, and the denouement. Some key concepts advanced by Aristotle include the option of making choices, the sequence, progression, and duration of events, and the rhythm and tempo (Pine & Gilmore, 1999).

Acting coach Keith Johnstone (1999) defines dramatic action as the product of ‘interaction’ where ‘interaction’ is “a shift in the balance between two people” (p. 77). Drama falls flat unless it succeeds in evoking a shift in balance, an impact on the audience. Johnstone illustrates this by saying, “No matter how much the actors leap about or hang from trapezes, or pluck chickens, unless someone is being altered, it’ll feel as if ‘nothing’s happening'” (p. 77). This emphasis upon a shift in balance is similar to Pine and Gilmore’s (1999) emphasis on the importance of transformations. And Shedroff (2002) argues that any experience that is transformative is inherently inter­active.

Laurel (1991) explains that the principles of drama can be adapted to experience design in order to create “imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality-worlds in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capabilities to think, feel, and act” (p. 33). Similar to this, Maya Lin (2000), the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., explains, “I create places in which to think, without trying to dictate what to think.” This emphasis on spatial design, designing the place where experiences are staged, is very relevant to education. The design of classrooms to support the case study approach demonstrates this aspect.

It is important to note that drama takes many forms. For example, there are highly formalized genres, such as opera, as well as improvisational theater. They all share a dramatic structure featuring beginning, middle, and end. Playwright Arthur Miller (1958) once said, “The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds come home to roost.” This refers to the fact that dramatic stories always follow a circular path of events that bring the story full circle so that the dramatic conflict established at the beginning is brought to closure one way or another by the end.

The work of Julie Taymor, director of Disney’s The Lion King musical on Broadway, represents still another form of drama, one that is very much in keeping with the experience design approach. It is an elaborate and beautiful spectacle that utilizes many nontraditional theatrical techniques, including Thai shadow puppets, Japanese puppetry, and stark symbolism, together with music, to create moods and convey an animal’s characteristics, as well as to advance the story (Shedroff, 2001). Blumenthal and Taymor (1999) report that Taymor’s work integrates elements from different cultures and traditions. “More important, it integrates language, thought, feeling, image, sound, and movement in an organic experience” (p. 52). Taymor explains that she designed this musical around the theme of a circle, inspired by the song “The Circle of Life” that is a part of it.

Boundaries and Constraints

Both boundaries and constraints are important considerations in experience design. Shedroff (2002a) recommends that one of the most important ways to define an experience is to search its boundaries. He explains that while many experiences are ongoing, sometimes even indefinitely, most have edges that define their start, middle, and end. “Much like a story (a special and important type of experience), these boundaries help us differentiate meaning, pacing, and completion. Whether it is due to attention span, energy, or emotion, most people cannot continue an experience indefinitely; they will grow tired, confused, or distracted if an experience, however consistent, doesn’t conclude” Shedroff, 2002a).

Shedroff (2001, 2002a) recommends thinking of an experience as requiring an attraction, an engagement, and a conclusion. The attraction initiates the experience. It can be cognitive, visual, or auditory, or it can signal any of our senses. Supplementing the attraction, there must be cues as to where and how to begin the experience.

The engagement is the experience itself. It should be sufficiently distinct from the surrounding environment of the experience to hold someone’s attention as well as cognitively important or relevant enough to motivate someone to continue the experience.

The conclusion to an experience can come in many ways, but it must provide some sort of resolution, whether through meaning or story or context or activity. The conclusion provides the emotional satisfaction of closure. Shedroff (2001) warns that often an experience that is engaging has no real end, leaving participants dissatisfied or even confused about the experience they have undergone.

Adams (1999) emphasizes the importance of limitations as a factor in design. “You have to understand the grain of the medium you’re working in. Be aware of the limitations of the medium. Use those limitations to your advantage.” For example, in the computer game Myst, the designers successfully used a limitation–the slowness of the medium–to convey an evocative sense of mysteriousness. Thus, constraints, if addressed effectively, can actually enhance experience design.

Implications for Educators

Experience design offers a powerful yet flexible approach to the design of instruction that promises to be highly effective (see Table 1). It is important to understand that this is a purposeful, comprehensive approach to design. There must be a broad, unifying vision, together with attention to how all the components fit together. The design process must include great attention to subtle details and clues that may have previously been perceived to be outside of the instructional design process. This includes boundaries and constraints. The broad vision must include the purpose of the learning experience and selection of a theme. Related to this, the experience designer needs to identify the “take away,” the central story that participants should remember.

Drama provides a valuable model for sequencing learning activities so that there is a clear trajectory of beginning, middle, and end–with closure at the end. Shedroff (2002a) refers to this sequence as an attraction, an engagement, and a conclusion. This dramatic arc should be present in the experience overall as well as in each individual module. Each class meeting should have a clear arc, building up to a climax, a high point of energy, focus, and dramatic tension, and then coming to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. The overall class should have a similar cohesiveness. A continuum must be established in the organization of learning events. Experience clues should all be identified and planned so that they are coordinated and serve to support the purpose of the experience. Dramatic strategies, including the progressive revelation of knowledge, are all available to the educator within the experience design approach.

The experience designer should determine how stories are deployed to support retention of the take­away narrative. For example, in the case study approach, anyone, including students, can prepare case studies for discussion. The case study approach emphasizes role-playing: student groups play the role of professionals trying to come to terms with a subtle, problematic case, based on research and analysis. There are many ways to engage with stories; the experience designer must choose the strategies that best fit the situation.

The experience designer should identify the roles and responsibilities of the different participants, including both students and instructors. It is important to keep in mind that the experience should be highly participatory for the guests (i.e., the learners). At the same time, participation must be well-defined and tightly focused. For example, at the Harvard Business School, training for faculty in how to implement the case study approach focuses upon training faculty to serve as guides who ask valuable questions and keep the discussions focused, rather than dominating the discussions.

The role of the instructor includes setting boundaries and formulating questions that will lead to a comprehensive examination of the issues at hand, helping the other participants to stay on course and maintain a meaningful discussion. And the instructor establishes the sequence, progression, and duration of events. The instructor must determine–and implement–the rhythm and tempo of the learning experiences. For example, what transitions take place and need to be managed? What building, diminution, contrast, and release enrich the energy level within a learning activity? How many incidents of what intensity occur over specific periods of time?

Conclusion

Experience design offers an important model for the design of instruction and instructional media, although it is still at an early stage of development. Shedroff (2002a) explains, “Experiences are one of the most valuable memories we have and one of the things most people spend the most amount of time and money on. Successful experiences are valuable both financially and emotionally and the more we learn about how to create them (whether through approach, process, understanding, or specific criteria), the better the experiences we can create and the more enriching our lives can become.” Shedroff (2002b) also points out that most technological experiences-including digital and, especially, online experiences-have paled in comparison to real-world experiences and they have been relatively unsuccessful as a result. He recom­mends that developers must understand what makes a good experience first, and then translate this as well as possible into the desired medium without the echnology dictating the form of the experience.

Shedroff (2002a) adds, “While everything is, echnically, an experience of some sort, there is something special to many experiences that make them worth discussing. In particular, the elements that contribute to superior experiences are knowable and reproducible, which makes them designable. The concept to grasp is that all experiences are important and that we can learn from them whether they are traditional, physical, offline experiences, or whether they are digital, online, or other technological experiences. In fact, we know a great deal about experiences and their creation through these other, established disciplines that can-and must-be used to develop new solutions. These aren’t always obvious and, surely, they aren’t fool-proof, but it’s important to realize that great experiences can be deliberate and based upon some principles that have been proven.” This is a valuable message for educators as well as interactive media developers. Experience design is fundamentally human-centered and thus a valuable way to approach design for learning.

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Hilary McLellan is a partner with McLellan Wyatt Digital in Saratoga Springs, New York.

 

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Staging Experiences: A Proposed Framework for Designing Learning Experiences Copyright © 2018 by HILARY MCLELLAN. All Rights Reserved.

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