The External Environment of Human Experience

It is important to note that the dimensions of experience in using a product or service are not enough to understand the present and predic...

It is important to note that the dimensions of experience in using a product or service are not enough to understand the present and predict the future. In order to explain where a product or service is positioned in the three dimensional model and predict in which direction it will move, it is imperative to consider the relationship between a person’s present experience and the environmental elements surrounding the person.

Experience is created through the constant interaction between a person and the environment surrounding that person. In addition, let’s think from the perspective of a company that provides a product or a service. A product or a service that provides a great experience to users is constantly influenced by external factors, and vice versa. Under the same context, renowned organizational behavior scholar James March of Stanford University claimed that as the organization adjusts to the environment, the environment adjusts to the organization (March 1991). Then, what kind of external factors interact with human experience? In fact, most experiences are prone to be influenced by external environments.

Of course, there are other external factors that influence human experience such as political, legislative, and ecological environments. More complex systems of analysis do exist (such as PEST, SLEPT, and STEEPLED), but their influence on human experience is quite similar to SET and I decided not to include them. I want to approach the complex subject of experience in the simplest frame possible as stated in the law of parsimony.

Many studies from different fields have used SET to understand the influence of macro environments (Law 2006; Cagan and Vogel 2013). However, I believe SET has not been applied in understanding human experience before. It is ironical that external environments have been used to analyze political policies or product development processes, but their influence on the people that need to follow the policies and processes have not been investigated yet. Let’s find out how sociocultural, economic, and technological environments influence human experience of a product or a service and vice versa.


The Characteristics of the Socio-Cultural Environment

The socio-cultural environment is related to the awareness and behavior of a person who uses a specific product or service. This includes population demographics, lifestyle, and miscellaneous cultural anthropological characteristics as well. Let’s take the example of the cultural dimensions of different countries. Individualism and collectivism refers to whether a person within a group considers the individual’s or the group’s benefit as a priority (Hofstede 1980). A society with high individualistic tendencies is centered on the self, considers personal goals to be important, and individuals seek to be evaluated as such. On the other hand, a society with high collectivism considers other people’s opinions to be more important than the individual’s and shows high interest in how others are evaluated.

I conducted a research on the differences in individualism and collectivism among users of mobile data services in seven countries (Lee et al. 2010). The results of my research revealed that Taiwan, Korea, and Hong Kong showed high individualistic tendencies while Japan, Australia, Greece, and Denmark showed high collectivistic tendencies. Due to differences in these tendencies, I discovered that how users in each country experience a similar service differed vastly. For example, people in Hong Kong, who scored high on individualism, used personalized health services widely whereas in Japan, which scored high on collectivism, personalized health services were not widely utilized.

Companies constantly need to consider how to make a more successful product or service by adequately reflecting a target population’s socio-cultural elements. A few years ago, I collaborated with Samsung Electronics that wanted to develop new mobile phones for different countries. A specialized product was created through the results of this research. One of those examples was an application with a special alarm targeted towards countries in which the population was predominantly Muslim. The application alerted the users of the times for call to prayer, showed a compass that pointed to the direction of Mecca so that users would know in which direction they should pray, and provided relevant information guiding users during a prayer.

In general, the speed of change of socio-cultural elements is relatively slow. Prior research on patterns of human reaction based on external changes to the environment reveals that awareness and attitude do not change easily (Ram and Sheth 1989). Nevertheless, there is a user category that is sensitive to the release of a product or service and seeks to spread relevant information about the product or service to other people. These people are often called opinion leaders or lead users (Von Hippel 1986). Socio-cultural elements initially tend to put a strain on new experiences, but the product or service tends to diffuse into the population rapidly once it is approved by opinion leaders and lead users. A great example of this can be found during the release of the smartphone into the market. Experts and amateurs alike in many countries, including Korea, wondered whether the smartphone would be able to effectively replace the feature phone market. However, the image of the
smartphone as an intelligent and modern device spread through opinion leaders in their 20s and 30s. This change in awareness was an important element in supporting
the diffusion of the smartphone into the mainstream market.

Recently, the speed of change that socio-cultural elements bring about has increased mainly due to the wide propagation of online environments and the development of social computing environments such as social networking services (SNS). Most people between ages 10 and 50 own smartphones, and so they have access to a wide variety of online environments and social computing. SNS such as
Twitter and Facebook are designed to share social issues and events in real-time to as many users as possible. Since most of these people are connected to diverse SNS at all times, the rate of change that socio-cultural elements bring about is increasing at greater speeds.

The Socio-Cultural Environment and the Threads of Experience

Socio-cultural elements share a close relationship with the sensual, judgmental, and compositional threads of experience. First, let’s take a look at the relationship between socio-cultural elements and sensual experience. Among socio-cultural elements are those that gear towards influencing the sense of presence. For instance, there is a growing demographic of single people around the developed world that possess economic power, utilize the internet well, and are not afraid to enjoy their lives. In Korea, we call them the “single-joks.” The single-joks have a strong desire to live a free life and consider their freedom, rational thinking, and jobs rather than being enclosed in the traditional frame of marriage. They purchase products and services that help express their individual personalities such as cars. Several automobile models have been released to suit the demands of the single-joks and many of the automobile companies are targeting them through designs and colors that help express individual personalities. Therefore, the proliferation of the single-joks is acting as a stimulant for the release of products and services with a high sense of presence.

On the other hand, there is a socio-cultural element in society that is steering towards a low sense of presence. A good example is the rise of flat style design. Flat style design seeks to express every design element in the simplest way possible and is closely connected to minimalistic design. As products and services begin to prefer flat style design, visual stimulation has weakened in the perspective of sensual experience as designers have shifted their focus on expressing meaning through compact and implied designs. In the Apple iOS 7, it is clearly evident that they have replaced skeuomorphic elements that induce a high sense of presence with a flat UI that emphasizes typography, single color tones, and pictograms.

As socio-cultural elements are becoming more important online, especially social media, the tendency to emphasize a high sense of presence has become more concentrated. Under the context of the online environment, a product or service that cannot quickly grab the attention of a user will quickly stumble in the market Information that does not immediately stimulate a user’s sense will end up not getting any “likes” or “views” in the vast ocean that is the internet. Therefore, the increasing intensity at which mobile phones and social media develop will cause experiences with strong, sensational stimulations.

Socio-cultural elements are also closely related to the judgmental thread of experience. Clay Shirky points out that people, who were used to passive external stimulations in the past, are now showing the desire to directly experience and control things (Shirky 2010). One good example of this is the popularity of user-generated content (UGC). While users in the past enjoyed watching video content provided by broadcasting companies or the movie industry, they now create and edit their own content and actively share it among other users. Even the behaviors in which they utilize broadcasted content show differences. For the 2014 FIFA World Cup, users were able to watch matches on multiple screens not only the default angle the broadcasting station provided but with the freedom to choose a camera angle that focused on a single player of their interest, for example. Users’ utilization of social media, an element of a socio-cultural environment, shows that judgmental experience possesses an internal locus of causality.

Socio-cultural elements also heavily influence the compositional thread of experience. Recently, the desire to share information and communicate with people in different areas is growing. This means that experience is leaning towards a strong relational cohesiveness. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking services, as an example, provide a function often called the activity feed or dashboard that combines a real-time feed on other users’ activity on the network. This function has helped these services to evolve into supporting stronger cohesiveness among users.

In the perspective of compositional experience, diverse services are heading towards providing a strong cohesive experience. As most age groups possess digital devices and utilize the internet, people are ready to use services that posess strong cohesiveness. For example, Google offers a cohesive and seamless experience for all of their services such as Google+, YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail, and many others across many device platforms such as mobile, tablet, and PC.

In a reverse perspective, the experience of using a product or service can have an effect on socio-cultural elements of the environment. A highly cohesive social computing service causes people to worry about security breaches, for example, leaking of private information. There is a growing number of people that do not use mobile messenger services like KakaoTalk because they are afraid that their information may be accessible by others. To reduce such privacy issues, messaging services have surfaced that limit the amount of time a user’s message stays online until it gets deleted and cannot be accessed by the users themselves. They attempt to solve the problem of privacy leaks by setting limits to keep the level of cohesiveness to an appropriate level while maintaining social relationships. These services are examples of how users’ experiences of using products or services influence the socio-cultural environment.

The Characteristics of the Economic Environment

Elements of the economic environment comprise of macroeconomic variables such as economic volatility, inflation, and interest rates. As the economy slows down, people spend less, i.e. consumption decreases, which leads to the reduction of “available assets,” as production decreases as well. In other words, the willingness to pay for the same product has reduced. However, macroeconomic changes do not affect all people in the same way. Some people can barely afford a one-room house but at the same time own a luxury car. In an ancient oriental classic, Mencius speaks
of “no stable living, no stable mind.” How a person feels about his/her quality of life changes based on the state of a person’s economic power and the economic environment. This leads me to assume that the quality and direction of experience is influenced by a person’s willingness to pay for a product or service.

Generally, government officials in charge of economic policies reduce interest rates or expand financial policies in order to boost consumer confidence and increase consumption. However, it is questionable whether such economic policies can lead to the consumption of specific products such as digital devices. The decision to purchase products that are now a necessity in daily life such as PCs or smartphones may actually be influenced more by how much convenience they offer compared to their competitors rather than the consumption pattern of the economy. Economic variables that affect human experience tend to be influenced by artificial change, and its effects may be uncertain. Therefore, the macroeconomic environment can be changed arbitrarily with policies.

The Economic Environment and the Threads of Experience

Firstly, let’s think about sensual experience. When people think they have a good amount of economic power, they tend to care for a high sense of presence. On the other hand, a high sense of presence may not be important for people that do not possess that level of economic power.

For instance, the economic prosperity of the United States after World War II led to the production of automobiles such as the 1957 pink Cadillac and 1959 Chevy. These automobiles entered the market when the United States reached a golden age and became the most powerful country in the world. The end of the war led people to believe that an age of suffering and depression had also ended. As the economy picked up rapid pace and economic scarcity became rare, people started to express their personalities and started to seek enjoyment in their lives. In order to meet these needs, automobile manufacturers produced models that looked different than conventional automobiles. Sensual colors such as red, pink, and green, and special exterior designs like the shark tale shape provided a high degree of sense of presence. Companies led people to believe that their automobiles reflected individual personalities and preference. On the other hand, small, fuel efficient cars were preferred during the oil crisis of the 1970s and 1980s when economic power was low. During that period, the degree of sense of presence was not very high.

The economic environment also influences judgmental experience. In the 1980s, economic depression and the effects of the oil crisis led to a continued state of economic instability. During this time, automobiles were perceived as vehicles that moved people from one point to another. Since automobiles were used for functional purposes, users were not interested in changing the exterior design or tuning the engine. They merely used the automobile in its original state. Therefore, the locus of causality was external. On the other hand, the previously mentioned 1950s was a time for expressing individual personalities as seen in the automobiles of the times; hence, the locus of causality is internal.

The economic environment also influences compositional experience. During the economic boom of the 1950s, Americans moved away from cities into suburbs and created close-knit communities. However, modern humans who feel that they lack economic power are crammed in endless rows of houses and apartments and lack relationships with their neighbors. When the economy is in a good state, people show a high degree of cohesiveness, whereas the perception of a faltering economy shows a low degree of cohesiveness in general. But interestingly enough, there are cases when cohesiveness increases amidst a dark economic situation. Let’s think about the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. The dire economic situation actually increased the cohesiveness of the Korean society, and citizens actively participated in donating gold for the economy. In the eyes of the western world, the fact that an economy the size of Korea’s received IMF help may have seemed like an exception. But an even greater exception was that people were determined to help save the economy, and so even amidst turmoil, cohesiveness among the people became stronger.

The Characteristics of the Technological Environment

Elements of the technological environment include everything from the maturity of a piece of technology, the potential to develop an innovative technology, the development process of a competitor technology, and complementary technologies. But while technology itself is important, there are other factors surrounding technology such as laws, policies, and intellectual property that influence human experience in significant ways. There are several characteristics of the technological environment.

Firstly, the technological environment, unlike other environmental elements, is characterized by its extremely fast-paced change. According to Moore’s Law, the performance of a semiconductor will increase by two times every 18 months. Based on this law, a semiconductor 10 times faster than the semiconductor today should be developed within 6 years. Now compare that to the possible feeling if your height would double every 18 months. This is the current speed at which technology is
developing.

Secondly, the technological environment is often times difficult to predict due to the inconsistency of technological changes. For instance, no meticulous analysis of the current state and future of analog film could have foreseen the emergence of the digital camera. A phenomenon, called technology discontinuity, is the source of the difficulty in explaining the influence of the technological environment on human experience.

Thirdly, the characteristic of technological elements is that it not only influences technology itself, it also has a vast influence on the experience of people using the applications of technology. CEO Joseph Fan of Taiwan Mobile once said that there are no companies that fail because of technology. What he meant was that the key is the business model that the technology creates and how the technology changes people’s awareness and experiences. Therefore, the ways that technology is applied, rather than the technology itself, is how technological elements influence human experience in a large way.

The Technological Environment and the Threads of Experience

The influence of the technological environment on sensual experience tends to flow towards the direction of increasing immersion and sense of presence. For example, since the cathode ray tube (CRT) was first released in 1987, TV technology developed towards a larger screen and higher resolution. In the 1990s, flat screen technology developed through LCD or PDP methods, and now OLED, UHD, and curved UHD methods are being developed further. These developments are evolving towards providing higher immersion and sense of presence. In terms of audio technology, stereo systems were developed as Dolby technology in 1968. Now, audio technology focuses on getting rid of noise while enhancing sense of presence. In addition, audio technology has merged with 3D video technology, known as realistic audio technology, to predict the distance of a sound in order to further enhance immersion and the sense of presence. Furthermore, tangible technology utilizes
Xinput and direct input (mobile gaming pads) to create faster reaction speeds and provide more realistic experiences to users. Game controller technology has also adopted the dual vibration motor in order to enhance the sense of presence of, for example, virtual collisions and explosions and provide more realistic experiences to users.

Changes in the technological environment themselves do not provide a clear answer to whether the locus of causality is moving toward a more internal or external direction. For instance, big data technology, which is receiving a lot of attention nowadays, weakens user’s initiative and the locus of causality becomes external. Oppositely, a surgical robot arm like ‘da Vinci’ provides control up to degrees that humans were previously unable to manipulate on their own; user initiative is greatly strengthened and the locus of causality becomes internal. But generally, technology for many unspecified users such as automatic payment systems in banks and search functions in search engines tend to become an external locus of causality, whereas technology intended for professionals with specific objectives has the tendency to possess an internal locus of causality.

The technological environment also influences relational cohesiveness in the perspective of compositional experience. SNS such as Facebook and Twitter provide diverse methods to communicate with other people. However, the compositional relationship between products or services tends to reveal both technologies with high and low cohesiveness. This is because technologies with high cohesiveness are often times a required necessity. As technology shifts towards high cohesiveness, a product or service’s functionalities increase as well as the connection between them. But many functions that are connected together in a complex way can increase users’
fatigue and, in turn, weaken cohesiveness. To solve this problem, new functions are created to increase compatibility while reducing complexity, or new products or services aim to outright reduce cohesiveness. For example, the mobile phone started out with calling and texting functions. Then, the camera was added, and together with MP3 functions the mobile phone enabled greater functionalities. As functional cohesiveness increased, it led to the development of the smartphone. However, as users felt fatigue and stress from such high cohesiveness, companies have started to develop technology for products such as wearable devices that focus on a function’s usefulness under specific contexts. In this way, human experience also influences the technological environment.


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