How does design transform the user experience, and can we measure and track its business impact?

Research Project Name

Experience Reigns

What We Did

We conducted a series of client roundtables across five cities—Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Washington, DC—to explore the meaning of experiential design (ExD) through the perspective of our clients and to examine how we might better measure and track its business impact. Client participants included senior executives representing a wide range of lifestyle enterprises that focus on experience, such as retail, real estate, hospitality, entertainment, transportation, and technology companies.

The first two roundtables, in New York and Los Angeles, hosted expert panel discussions with thought leaders at the edges of experiential design: two futurists, a robot designer, a trend analyst, and a food and sensory experience artist participated. Other roundtables used gamification, facilitated conversations, and one-on-one interviews to gather insights. These were intentionally open conversations meant to spark ideas, reflect the spirit of the cities they were held in, and cast a wide net across multiple industries to capture any and all ideas around what makes a great experience.

At the completion of the roundtables, we analyzed the conversations and grouped the key themes into six broad categories.

The Context

Companies increasingly seek to create great experiences for their customers. But though the word is used frequently, “experience” has a variety of meanings to those who employ it. Service models, immersive environments, digital interaction, products, events, and brand activations all fall under the umbrella. The best experiences combine all of these elements to create a holistic, long-term engagement with the user.

As consumers increasingly choose to have experiences rather than owning things, designers will need to pay as much attention to creating emotional space as they do physical space. One point that’s universally agreed upon: consumers are smarter and savvier, and their expectations are higher than ever. A one-dimensional, one-note experience falls flat and fails to impress. In response, companies are beginning to focus on new ways to measure the return on their investment as they leverage experience as a means to deliver improved brand loyalty and business performance.

The continued pace of technological innovation cannot be ignored. As future generations spend more time in the digital world, they may not even think of virtual experiences as being different from “real” ones, potentially rendering the strategies and vocabulary we use to understand experience, space, and behavior obsolete. And as data mining becomes more sophisticated, technology will enable increasingly customized and personalized experiences.

People are living, working, and socializing in all kinds of environments, at all hours of the day. As a result, we have come to expect experiences that combine and facilitate multiple types of interactions, delivered in spaces that serve several purposes and cater to a wide range of needs.

The Results

We analyzed and synthesized the results across our five roundtable discussions, and developed strategies based on the themes our clients identified as important aspects of design experience:

Tap into emotion. The ability to capture hearts and minds is key to eliciting powerful emotions. Experiences that allow individuals to connect in new and meaningful ways can inspire us to feel, behave, and think differently. Design can evoke emotions by signaling permission to experience something positive and new, or provide guardrails and guidance that can be springboards to adventure, freedom, and exhilaration. Many of the most effective and innovative experiences are successful precisely because they tap into the most basic human emotions.

Be consistent from real to virtual. Emerging technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, sensors and the Internet of things, are increasingly blurring the lines between the virtual and the real world—with virtual experiences serving as extensions, articulations, or even replacements for physical space. The ultimate goal is to create engaging, seamless interactions that feel the same across digital and human domains. The creation of a strong narrative that will merge the two worlds is critical to building meaningful relationships and rich experiences that work on both sides of the line.

Engage all five senses. Activating emotions through the senses is central to creating great experiences. Understanding how sensory stimuli—sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste—affect emotions and behaviors is a powerful aspect of design experience. Stimulating and exciting the human senses on a variety of levels throughout an experience serves to deepen emotional connections and create lasting memories.

Anticipate needs and solve problems. The best experiences are those that anticipate user needs, solve problems, are intuitive to use and understand, and deliver the right solutions at the right time. Whether responding to people’s increasingly busy lives or releasing them from the pressures of time and place, the best-designed experiences give people the freedom to choose their manner and level of interaction with a brand, product, or service.

Sometimes this means taking away negative aspects from an existing experience, rather than adding anything new. Solving problems simply, elegantly, and intuitively can be a game-changing design innovation that transforms the way people perform everyday tasks. This is especially true in “burden categories” such as healthcare and transportation.

Create something unique and new—but also familiar. The most memorable experiences are often those that feel completely novel, or offer unique or unexpected qualities that surprise and delight. They change our perspective and invite us to look at the world in new ways. Ironically, many of these novel experiences are effective precisely because, in all their novelty, they still feel somehow familiar. Introducing a known quantity, then flipping it on its head, is a powerful technique for creating a meaningful experience.

Consider every element. Compelling design doesn’t stand on its own. Customer experience now involves a greater number of touchpoints across multiple channels, where the experience is only as satisfying as the weakest link in the chain. The most immersive experiences are those in which every element along the user’s journey has been carefully considered, from the enticement to an experience, through the entry, engagement, exit, and extension. It’s important to identify the interactions that matter most, so that every point of contact delivers the highest consumer value.

What This Means

Measuring experience requires a common lexicon. Experience means different things to different people. In order to measure outcomes, we need to develop a common language around experiential elements to ensure that we are talking about experience in the same way. Consistency and a common language are the keys to measurement.

Measuring experience is measuring people. Experience designers treat people as a medium in the experience. Therefore, understanding human behavior is a core element of the discipline. In order to measure experience, we must first understand people. That means expanding our research toolkit to include psychographic analysis as well as demographic analysis, and adding ethnography to survey data. The goal is to understand not just what kinds of choices people make, but why.

Measuring experience will be different for each industry. Because experience is so broad and encompasses so many elements, there is not a single solution that fits every experience. In order to measure, we will need to develop different metrics and rubrics for each industry.

What’s Next?

Our next phase of research will be to conduct a nationwide survey among 2,000 consumers to identify the attitudes and values of those individuals who are design-oriented or have conscious awareness of design’s impact. We will conduct parallel ethnographic research among consumers across five cities, ranging from big to small, to better understand the design elements that help create great experiences from the consumer perspective. This variety of research methods will help us uncover how consumers think about design, how they talk about and identify aspects of experiences, and identify consumer “archetypes” that map to different experiences.

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Tom Ito, Elizabeth Brink, Jim Oswald, Rob Jernigan, Kevin Rohani, Shamus Halkowich, Gil Castellon, Sarah Freeman, Stephanie Lee, John Bricker, Lauren Adams, Tate Ragland, Stephanie Krieger, Miriam Safi, Nathan Wasilewski, Win Mixter, Jim Crawford, Elise Hunt, Lin Jia, Yasuo Kishibe, Christina Adamidou, Yichun Wu, Tim Etherington, Xiaomei Lee, Deanna Siller, Kate Kirkpatrick, Laura Latham, Tom Milavec, Do Young Ahn, Jesse Kirsch, David O’Brien, Christine Barber, Virginia Sertich, Amelia Medina, Beth Novitsky

Year Completed