Can a product be an experience – or is one a subset of the other?

No, a product is not an experience, it is part of an experience.

As I've written before, the idea that anyone can "design an experience" is incorrect. You design solutions and products that are a part of user's experience, and what you design has to be crafted in a way that both reflects the user's expectations and supports their needs and behavior. You do that be doing the "leg work" by researching the user and learning what works and what doesn't for them. When you try and "design an experience" I think some designers focus on the wrong things – the UI, the features – and therefore lose site of the people who use it.

A product can, however, be part of an ecosystem, which gets much closer to being a more holistic reflection of the user's experience. The best products have an ecosystem that is aligned with user's needs and workflows, and therefore is percieved as having a "better experience." What Apple has done with the iTunes/iPod/Iphone/Mac/iPad infrastructure is an attempt at such an ecosystem, and for many people this interconnected product suite works quite well for them. And it doesn't work at all for others… people are different.

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How would you measure user experience of physical packaging?

The obvious answer to me is in usability testing.

Define a series of tasks that you want to test the packaging for. The obvious task for packaging is…well, opening it. The next obvious task is about the content displayed/printed on the package. What is the product? What are the primary features that the packaging tells you about? Once you have the tasks, you test several sealed packages with participants. You record them as they try and open the package, as well as describe to you what they think of the package's printed content. You run them through the content-specific tasks you have defined. You have them do a standard usability questionaire after the tasks, one that is rewritten to align with the tasks tested.¬†

You can even do A/B testing of different versions of the packaging if you have the time and capability.

After analyszing the test results and the questionaires, you should have a fairly good idea what works and what doesn't. As the opening of a package is one of the first "experiences" that most customers have with a new product, more companies should be focused on designing the packaging (and evaluating and measuring this) than actually are.

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