Mind states, or: How to describe a User Experience

Everyone involved in customer experience/user experience—designers, product managers, UX strategists, brand managers, developers, marketers—will at one point struggle with the challenge of defining the qualities of the experience they’re after.

And judging by articles and talks we see going around, we tend to do that in terms of interface style (‘clean’, ‘minimal’, ‘rich’) or in terms of usability (‘intuitive’, ‘relevant’, ‘dynamic’).

However, these describe the interface rather than the actual experience, which is what results from using the interface. And this is a problem, as the interface is not the goal—the resulting experience is. The interface is simply the means.

So we need to describe the experience; but how does one do that? Challenging, considering the multitude of dimensions an experience has. These include all the emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, and behaviours related to the interaction with your company, services, and products.

What you will recognize is that using a product will result in all kinds of short-lived small emotions/feelings, but in the end will leave you in some kind of state of mind that can last minutes, hours or even days. They are the overall result of an experience – and as such the part to focus on is: How does the experience improve the state of mind of your user?

The follow -up question is then of course: Which mind states does the user desire? This is where something called the Rokeach Value Survey came in.

The Rokeach Value Survey (RVS) is a values classification instrument. Developed by social psychologist Milton Rokeach, the instrument is designed for rank-order scaling of 36 values, including 18 terminal 18 instrumental values. The task for participants in the survey is to arrange the 18 terminal values, followed by the 18 instrumental values, into an order “of importance to YOU, as guiding principles in YOUR life”.

The instrumental values overlap with what other psychologists call ‘expressive values’; they come in handy when you try to describe you brand’s personality.

The terminal values however are of most interest here. They describe what a person would like to achieve in life. But when you approach them from a different angle (and with slight rephrasing), they provide a list of possible mind states. As such, they work really well to describe the qualities of a user experience.

I have adapted the values from the Rokeach list for this purpose, and the result is the following (incomplete) overview:


“Using our product/brand gives you the experience of… ”

What’s good to recognize here are two things:

  1. The distinction between short-lived feelings and these mind states, which exist at a more episodic level.
  2. Most of these states are directed at the self: safety means ‘I feel safe’; belonging means ‘I feel like I belong’; independent means ‘I feel independent’. A few (trust, justice, harmony) are directed are directed outwards.

Example 1: Hautelook, a shopping website offering flash-sales

Shopping at Hautelook lets you experience….

• The excitement of the hunt
• The joy of discovery
• The satisfaction of scoring a bargain

Example 2: Transavia, a budget airline

Travelling with Transavia lets you experience…

With these established, old and new propositions should be reviewed against it, as they should add to one or more of these experiences.

Think about your own brand now–which set of values from this list would fit it? One way of determining this (and the road I usually take) is to consider the propositions you’d like to present your users with, and then to see to which values they contribute. It’s a great exercise for a workshop with representatives from throughout the company (from CEO to programmers).

Next steps

Thinking about mind states, more questions arise such as:

You could hypothesize for instance that more active mind states lead to higher activity, whereas more calm states lead to less purchases. Or that more future focused mind states (excitement, longing) lead to different purchase behaviour that those with a focus on the current moment. It could well be the other way around, too.

Food for research.