Creating Meaningful Digital Experiences

A few weeks ago, Roundarch Isobar hosted a panel discussion titled “Creating Meaningful Digital Experiences: The Semiotics of UX” at FutureM 2012 in Boston.?The third annual conference took place at Microsoft’s NERD Center and was produced by MITX (Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange), a New England association for Internet business and marketing.

The goal of our session was to explore the significance of consumer interactions with brands through digital media. In particular, we sought to examine how semiotics?the study of sign systems and the transmission of meaning?might provide insight into the ways in which user experience design influences those relationships. After the better part of 90 minutes, we concluded with at least as many questions as when we started, but we also set the stage for a deeper conversation about how we shape user experiences ? and how they shape us. (1)

We kicked off the discussion with a brief introduction to semiotics and its relationship to the practice of user experience. Though not widely practiced in the U.S., semiotic theory is more commonly used in Europe to analyze brand communications, usually in the form of advertising or product packaging. A semiotic analysis helps both the company and the designer understand how the brand means, as it were, not just what it means.

In basic semiotic theory, objects communicate via some representation (a sign, e.g. a word or image), for which we have or create an interpretation. Distinguishing the thing itself from both its representation and its interpretation in the mind of the viewer creates an opportunity to deconstruct the process of meaning creation. For example, when marketing is perceived as off-brand, a semiotic analysis can help us understand why. Was the breakdown between the brand and the sign or the sign and the interpretation (or both)? This kind of analysis applies equally well in an interactive context, where people view components of the user interface, have an interpretation, and then respond. The closer the design matches the behavior the user expects (based on their interpretation), the more usable the interface is perceived to be. At its most usable, a UI may be said to feel intuitive?it behaves exactly as expected.

This understanding of a brand’s user experience ? as a one-way communication between interface and audience ? is too myopic and utilitarian. The user experience is not simply of?or by?the brand, it is generated?with the brand. Our interactions with brands via user interfaces influence and often define our relationship to the brand. Whether intended or not, each interaction carries meaning. But how, exactly? Semiotics may offer some clues.

Following the introduction, Joshua Glenn (semiotic brand analyst, @hilobrow) walked us through his approach to analyzing brands from a semiotic perspective, including an overview of how brands transmit their essence via cultural codes. Using premium vodka branding as an example, he showed how easy it is for brands to dilute their power by sending mixed signals. Josh concluded by exploring the potential for collaboration between brand semioticians (who tend to focus on marketing communication) and UX practitioners (who tend to focus on interactive media). To the extent that user experiences are brand experiences, there would seem to be fertile ground on which the two disciplines can meet.

Our second panelist, UX strategist Thomas Wendt (@thomas_wendt), started his presentation by deconstructing the way meaning is conveyed through a user experience. Rather than focus on the distinction between the user interface and the user experience, Thomas led the audience to consider how the screen itself introduces a new space into the interaction between the user and the brand. When considering the screen itself, one can perceive a design space (between the designer and the display) and an interaction space (between the user and the display). From this perspective, it is easier to identify the place where the designer participates in the process of helping brands create user experiences. Thomas ended his presentation with a survey of those methods most beneficial to the design of intentionally meaningful interactions.

Brand and content strategist Katie McIntyre (@mcintyrekm) rounded out the presentations, taking us deeper into the designer’s role in the process of delivering meaningful digital experiences. Katie began by pointing out that if brands have personas and voices, it would be fruitful to think of the relationship between a brand and a user as a dialogue. Framed this way, the designer’s place is defined as much by her role as an intermediary in the conversation between the brand and the user as it is by the space in which she operates. While user-centered design (UCD) dictates that the user?s perspective be given primacy, thinking of the interactions between brands and users as a dialogue suggests a more balanced approach, with the designer as liaison, not just as advocate.

We wrapped up the session by taking questions from the audience, a few for each of the panelists. Most of the inquiries focused on the practical application of semiotics to user experience design. At the end of my presentation, prior to introducing the panelists, I had noted three ways in which a semiotic analysis of user experience is relevant to the work we do:

-?????? Digital experiences aren?t just tools or services. They are media; they are means of communication. The medium is still the message ? but what is the meaning? (2)

-?????? Because a brand is ultimately ?a person?s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization,?(3) brands are defined by the experiences they engender, and those experiences are increasingly delivered digitally.

-?????? More and more, digital experiences are personal and intimate. The ?relationship? between consumer and brand is no longer merely a metaphor?? it?s now a reality.

And while there is still more work to do to bring these communities together, Josh, Thomas, Katie, and I agreed that despite the lack of formal practices resulting from any cross-pollination between the disciplines, the combination of semiotics and UX can greatly enrich the brand-user relationship.

To review our thoughts leading up to FutureM, check out our discussion on (

?1. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964.
2. Ibid.
3. Neumeier, Marty. The Brand Gap, 2005.