The Intersection of Liminality and UX

Reconsidering our Realities to Inform Research and Design

We recently had another riveting discussion in the Design Justice Reading Circle about the intersection of liminality and UX research and design. I began the discussion with my take on liminality as representing the “in between” that people often find themselves in – waiting for a website to load, a line to checkout, riding BART from one point to another, etc. However, as UX research and design consultants, we’re in a unique position as we are also liminal in nature. We are both inside and outside our clients’ organizations; whether we are centrally embedded in an organization, or consult with a client, the fact we aren’t employees allows us to help enact change more swiftly.

We discussed different notions of liminality and liminal spaces, ideas of recognizing bias, how we fill space between experiences, and areas for change in UX research and design. A large part of the discussion focused on the filling of liminal spaces. Conner pointed out that Slack’s customizable loading screen messages “are so lightweight that it gives the experience flavor and character, making it feel personal.” This definitely aligns with Slack’s mission to create a culture in a digital space. Building off this idea, we began exploring another interesting experience, standing in long lines at Disney Parks. As a “user” of Disneyland, most of your time is actually liminal, you’re trying to experience different attractions, but you must wait in numerous lines to accomplish that goal. We know Disney makes liminal experiences great because otherwise people would not return; Disney Parks are “The Happiest Place(s) on Earth” and they didn’t get there by having subpar experiences. The customer is constantly engaged in and by their surroundings, and at the same time, Disney also offers Fast Passes for those that want to pay; these customers can minimize their time in liminal space. So, Disney is simultaneously maximizing profitable liminal space and minimizing non-profitable liminal space. Also consider, by offering a Fast Pass, they are creating an improved experience; so it’s not all bad. They could be posting ads everywhere instead.

Speaking of negative uses of liminal space, we also covered some truly terrifying use of liminal space. Imagine a ride on the train that was permeated with ads, not just on the walls, but in the floating space all around you and on your devices, over the speakers of the train and more. On one hand, utilizing “empty space” to extend the experience can be really useful, like a tutorial while a program loads. This would be considered more “honest” UX design. On the flipside, there is the notion of a dark pattern, a technique used in UX to trick people into an experience. We discussed how dark pattern design utilized in a liminal space could be used to distract a user or extending this idea, why sometimes, having an empty space is incredibly important. 

Mary was particularly worried about filling all of our empty space: “the best ideas I have are in the shower or walking the dog… you are comfortable and while part of your brain is working [on the task at hand] you can be thinking of other ideas… there are places where you are not stimulated and that is good… maybe sometimes you should just be bored?” To take this idea one step further, it might be important to acknowledge that it’s necessary for our brains to not always process the stimuli from our surroundings. For that reason, I’m an advocate of “free space” (as I think it leads to deeper thought and introspection), our culture and constant connection leaves people with a constant fear of missing out on an experience. Consider the last time you just relaxed… when you didn’t feel compelled to do work, or when you were more than a few feet from your phone? Most of us are experiencing a negative feedback loop where the “fear of missing out” is what keeps us connected and forces us to fill our empty spaces with experiences. But, this fear of missing out shouldn’t be a constant and pervasive worry – we should be okay with mental downtime to allow us to actually think more deeply.

One of our readings pushed us to think more about the discomfort associated with the unknown and the empty. We discussed the notion of discomfort as not necessarily synonymous with liminality but the byproduct of it. In line with this thought, a few of the UX researchers here recently attended the UXPA conference and found there was a lot of tie-ins with the workshops they attended. “One speaker discussed using more Post-it notes to foster inclusive discussion and another suggested taking all of the chairs out of a conference room to make people uncomfortable.” And so, the uncomfortableness is then a means to an end, a driver of change. Or is it?

So what drives change then? One point we all agreed on was that as researchers and designers it is important to acknowledge what you do and do not know if you want to deviate from the status quo. As Mary shared, “at some basic level, you only know what you know. You are born from your own experience. Understanding what you know and what you don’t is essential for research.” Vidhi shared that “to humbly say that we are not a part of [someone else’s] reality is very important.” When it comes down to it, what is obvious for you, your reality, is different from that of every other person. By learning to work with an understanding that everyone’s reality is only a tiny fragment of the whole puzzle, researchers and designers can cater to the needs of as many people as possible.

So where does all of this leave us? I’m left with a lot of questions for the future. I’m particularly interested in thinking about how people will design and conduct research in the liminal experiences created by technology and innovation. Will people have to worry about their free space being consumed by ads or something else? As an example, what about traveling to and from work? People currently use this time for a variety of tasks, but how will autonomous driving serve to create more free space, more liminality and provide people with the opportunity to do more? Will the “freedom” come with strings attached? Sure, your vehicle can drive itself, but at what cost to you? Overall, how can we as designers and researchers encourage others to think on the fringes of where they are comfortable to drive change?

A general outline of what we discussed in our DJRC meeting. Courtesy of Mary.

Questions to Consider

  • Do you design or research in a liminal space? How do you design for liminal experiences? 
  • Should all liminal spaces have some “substance”?
  • How can understanding the concept of liminality inform how we understand reality? How does this understanding inform our research and design practices?

Main Themes and Takeaways

  • UX Research and Design Consultants are liminal in nature; we work on the fringes of a company and have tremendous ability to impact change.
  • We should be cognizant that designing for liminal spaces/experiences requires a balance – we must remember that some emptiness is necessary.
  • Your reality is different from everyone else’s because each person’s reality is dependent on their lived experiences.
  • By engaging people in liminal space, remaining cognizant of what we do and do not know, and finding a good balance of designing for “empty spaces”  we can enact change.

Shared Readings


David Pearl

August 5, 2019

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