EXCLUSIVE: Attention Please! Why Experience Designers Should Be Careful With Extraordinary

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  • Experience designers should be careful with extraordinary experiences – because people’s attention is limited
  • Rather than try to make everything extraordinary, they should sprinkle extraordinary sparingly, the same way a chef uses spice
  • There is a continuum of experiences, from ordinary to extraordinary
  • Experience designers should first decide which type of experience they’re aiming for, and then design for that

How-to handbooks often encourage experience designers to create extraordinary experiences. Which makes sense because, after all, who wants an ordinary experience?

But if you want to be a really good experience designer, we think you should be very careful with extraordinary.

Extraordinary experiences, by their nature, require heightened attention – and that’s physically and emotionally demanding for people.

Since attention is a limited resource, this limits the amount of attention your participants can give. Knowing this, we recommend that, before you design an experience, you carefully select the moments you want your audience to really pay attention to.

A Continuum of Conscious Attention

In our book, Designing Experiences, we propose:

  • that humans have a continuum of conscious attention,
  • and that different types of experiences require different amounts of attention.

Most of the experiences we have in life are fairly normal and unmemorable, and involve little conscious attention: like brushing your teeth. Others require full, focused attention, and stand out as extraordinary: like your first attempt down an advanced ski run.

How To Design Extraordinary

To design an extraordinary experience, designers must stage an experience that does three things:

  1. captures the attention of participants,
  2. provides opportunities for co-creation,
  3. and produces desirable results.

For example, consider the difference between having dinner at a restaurant and participating in a dining experience that includes hands on instruction from the head chef. In the first example participants are merely required to select and eat menu items prepared for them. In the second example, they become co-creators of the experience as they learn how to cook their own meal. Consider the attention requirements of these two experiences and the chances of one being considered ordinary and the other extraordinary.

Actors Earn Extraordinary Through Co-Creation

Social-psychological research suggests that you cannot simply hand extraordinary experiences to people, like you were giving out candy bars. Instead, they have to ‘earn extraordinary’ by engaging with the experience and co-creating the outcome. People are much more likely to consider an experience extraordinary if they are asked to be actors as opposed to audience members.

This is not to say you can’t have a great spectator experience but we argue the more the needle shifts towards engaged participation as opposed to passive spectating the more likely the experience will be extraordinary.

Consider the difference in attention and participation requirements between watching a football match at home on the television as opposed to live at the venue. They are both spectator events but the setting at the venue is much more conducive to active participation. This increases if the person knows the cheers and traditions of the team they are supporting. The more opportunities to co-create, the greater the likelihood of an extraordinary experience occurring.

Design For Collectively Observable And Individually Perceived

Much of the disconnect between the outcome expected by an experience designer and the actual outcome achieved stems from unintentional design and lack of empathy for who is being designed for.

All experiences are made up of what is collectively observable and what is individually perceived. When you go to the movies everyone is having the same basic observable experience. You are sitting in similar type seats, eating similar snacks, and watching the same movie. Individually though you are all having unique perceived experiences. Everyone watching the movie is different. Different backgrounds, different opinions, and on and on. All of these differences will lead to a variety of perceptions about the movie experience everyone is having.

Experience designers have to design for both the observed and perceived experience. They need to understand who they are designing an experience for and use that understanding to intentionally design each touchpoint. Ritz Carlton does this by keeping detailed information on their most loyal customers. They know their preferences and will make sure to customize their repeat customers’ experiences based upon these preferences.

Susan W, who posted this image of a personal note she received at the Ritz Carlton Guangzhout to TripAdvisor, wrote “This is my 5th or 6th stay in the Ritz GZ in the past 10 years. I continue to be surprised and delighted by not only the courteous manner but, the attention for detail each staff member possess. From the moment you enter the hotel everyone remembers you name, your preference for tea in the morning, and your favorite night cap.”

The Five Experience Types

Now, through five experience types and five processes, we’re going to show you how to design experiences so that you’re more likely to achieve the aim you set out to achieve. In The Experience Types Framework, we graphically represent the five types of experience and the key processes that make them happen. The different types of experiences sound a bit like a mantra, ‘OMMMT’:

  1. Ordinary (or prosaic)
  2. Mindful
  3. Memorable
  4. Meaningful
  5. Transformational
The Five Experience Types (and Five Processes, although only four are shown), from Rossman, J. R., & Duerden, M. D. (2019). Designing experiences. Columbia Business School Publishing. Reprinted with permission from Columbia University Press

The Five Processes

There are five key processes that determine the type of experience a participant will take away from your design. (By the way, these processes are not presented in any particular order as they occur simultaneously.)

Process 1: Frequency vs Impact

A key consideration is the interplay between frequency of occurrence and impact. In short, impactful experiences – like memorable, meaningful and transformational ones – do not occur that frequently.

That said, the possibility that a memorable or meaningful or transformational experience might occur is a great motivator for people to continue participating in an experience.

You can see this in how people play golf. Even scratch golfers only hit the fairway on about nine of the eighteen holes in a typical round. But that’s enough motivation to keep them playing.

This is important to note because we want to take some pressure off the shoulders of experience designers. Not every experience needs to be extraordinary. Extraordinary touchpoints need to be sprinkled over an experience journey carefully akin to how you add spice to a dish.

Extraordinary touchpoints need to be sprinkled over an experience journey carefully akin to how you add spice to a dish.
Bob Rossman & Mat Duerden

Too little and it’s bland. Too much and it becomes overwhelming. Be strategic. Know that individuals sometimes don’t need extraordinary experiences every time they interact with you but are happy when you surprise them with one every once in a while. For example, Mat recently reached out to a retailer to order a replacement for a glass globe that was broken on a light fixture in his home. After taking Mat’s order the customer service representative said the replacement globe and shipping would be complimentary. This unexpected extraordinary experience immediately increased Mat’s affinity for this brand.

Process 2: Novelty

Novelty is not included in the Five Types Framework – because its effect does not vary along the continuum of experience types. Its effect is always the same: novelty works until something is no longer new. Never rely on novelty as your primary design approach. If you do you can find yourself stuck in a cycle of needing to always deliver something new and that can become overwhelming. We encourage you to find balance between tradition and novelty.

Disneyland, unsurprisingly, does a great job with this principle. People love to go to Disneyland to experience their favorite parts of the park and favorite rides over and over. The traditional aspects of the park are foundational to visitors’ experience, but Disney knows adding in some novelty also keeps people coming back. They do this in a variety of ways, including special celebrations at key holidays like Halloween and Christmas, updating events like their parade series, and cycling new characters throughout the park.

Process 3: Depth of Engagement

Another way of thinking about processes is how engaged a person needs to be. In other words, the amount of attention the experience demands. The deeper the engagement, the more likely that the experience will be memorable and meaningful. You can think of this in terms of psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 thinking, which he explains in Thinking, Fast And Slow.

System 1 is fast thinking. This is the sort of thinking that people engage in when they can don’t have to think too hard, when they can make sense of what’s in front of them without much conscious attention because the engagement is not that challenging, not that important, not seen as a threat, or it is a replay of a previous experience. People are likely to use System 1 when they’re visiting a place they’ve been to before or doing something they routinely do like commute to work. These types of experiences allow our brains, thankfully, to go on autopilot.

System 2 thinking, in contrast, is slow thinking. This happens when we encounter an experience that requires us to pay a bit more attention. For example, commuting to work at a new job, going to eat a new restaurant, or travelling to a new country. Individuals are more likely to co-creatively engage in an experience with System 2 thinking.

The London based immersive cinema firm, Secret Cinema, does an excellent job providing people with experiences that require System 2 thinking. They create immersive worlds based upon popular movies. Participants are required to not simply watch well known stories unfold, they are asked to be actors in the story. They have to think and react as they interact with paid actors in the experience.

The new Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel that Disney is opening in 2021 is a great example of a place designed to engage System 2 thinking. As opposed to a traditional hotel experience, which are mostly System 1 affairs, the Starcruiser Hotel is an immersive experience where guests are assigned roles and tasks to complete during their three day flight through intergalactic space. The hotel is built as an immersive theater complete with windows looking out into space, lightsaber training rooms, and actors portraying bounty hunters and storm troopers.

Services Are Not Experiences

Depth of engagement is a particularly useful lens to look through to see why services are distinct from experiences. This is useful because many of the things that people claim to be experiences are really just services – and that’s ok. Almost every experience journey, even extraordinary ones like visiting the new Star Wars hotel, will have touchpoints that need to be designed as services as opposed to experiences.

For example, many of us want simple, service-like experiences when we register online for what we hope will be an extraordinary experience. We want that part of the overall experience to be simple. Think about ordinary, memorable, meaningful, and transformative experiences as different notes on a keyboard. To create a piece of music you need to use all of those keys in different combinations. The same goes for designing the touchpoints of an experience journey. Services will always be a strategic part of experiences.

To create a piece of music you need to use all of those keys in different combinations. The same goes for designing the touchpoints of an experience journey.
Bob Rossman & Mat Duerden

Process 4: Required Energy

Memorable, meaningful and transformational experiences require more mental and physical energy. No wonder people don’t have a steady stream of them throughout the day. Or else they’d be exhausted by noon!

Paradoxically though, when people reflect after an experience like this, most people report that they are not tiring. Instead, they feel refreshed and re-energized from a pleasurable and positive accomplishment.

Leading researchers have articulated similar but different characteristics of extraordinary experiences. The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, for instance, coined the term ‘flow’ to describe the kind of engaging experiences that happen when just the right level of skill meets just the right level of challenge. And Martin Seligman, another psychologist, suggests experiences like this are hallmarks of thriving.

This perspective helps shine light on why experiences that require physical, emotional, and mental strain – even if they’re hard work – are so popular. It explains why millions take on endurance and obstacle course races like Tough Mudder and the Spartan Race. Why people go to movies that make them sad or scare them. Why people don’t want to simply travel but to have transformational travel experiences. Why doing things that stretch us can be so engaging and rewarding.

Process 5: Intended Results

Good experience design requires intentionally targeting specific outcomes. You usually don’t go on a journey without knowing where you want to end up – and the same applies to designing experiences. You need to have a final destination in mind, one that you and your intended participants will both value.

In Seligman’s work on authentic happiness, he identifies three outcomes – bodily pleasures, higher pleasures, and gratifications:

  • Bodily pleasures are immediate, come through our senses, and are relatively momentary in their duration.
    • For example, eating a delicious piece of chocolate.
  • Higher pleasures are similar, but more complex in what triggers their occurrence. They are enacted through more cognitive and varied stimuli.
    • For example, reading a great novel.
  • Gratifications involve the deeper attention of total absorption, a suspension of consciousness and resulting flow of oneness within the encounter.
    • For example, volunteering for a cause you believe deeply about.

As you can see in The Experience Types Framework, bodily pleasures occur with all experience types, higher pleasures are not possible in prosaic experiences but can occur with the remaining ones. Gratifications only occur in meaningful and transformational experiences. The implications of this for experience design are clear. You cannot have transformational outcomes if you only build bodily pleasures into your experience. And it’s the same for meaningful experiences.

Experience Types Summary

In The Experience Types Framework, each experience type describe the subjective reaction individuals have to an experience, both during and after. So, according to the model:

  • Prosaic experiences involve little attention to what is occurring
    • Like brushing your teeth
  • Mindful experiences require attention but produce no long-lasting reactions.
    • Like navigating your way through a busy shopping market
  • Memorable experiences require more attention and produce emotional reactions.
    • Like laughing with a colleague at work during a lunch break
  • Meaningful experiences produce emotion and personally relevant insights.
    • Like reading a book that changes how you think about a particular issue
  • Transformational experiences produce emotion, insights, plus attitudinal and/or behavioral changes.
    • Like achieving a personal best or deciding to train for a marathon

The Challenge Of Real People

It’s a useful theory. But in the practice, things become more complex, because different people may have quite different reactions to the same experience. Some may consider an experience meaningful, while others may consider it prosaic. Some people love live theater and others find it really boring. The outcome depends on factors such as:

  • an individual’s previous ‘experience repertoire’
    • A botanist is going to enjoy a tour of English gardens more than someone who knows nothing about plants
  • how attentive they have been to the current encounter
    • A student asleep in the back row of a classroom will have a different experience than the engaged student on the front row
  • their reactions to the stimuli in the experience
    • A piece of dialogue in an immersive play might trigger deep memories in one person, and leave another person cold

To overcome this challenge, that is, to make it more likely that people will give their attention and co-create memorable, meaningful, and transformational experiences – experience designers should take note of the differentiating characteristics of the five processes. In particular, experience designers should:

  • Remember that attention is a limited resource. And be strategic about when, how, and how often you ask for a participant’s attention

As designers develop experience maps, they need to be careful to not plan too many memorable, meaningful, and transformative touchpoints. Much of their work will focus on designing prosaic and mindful experiences so that attention can be held in reserve for those peak touchpoints that will require the attention necessary to produce the higher order outcomes associated with memorable, meaningful, and transformational experiences.

Consider Secret Cinema. As the provider of the experience, Secret Cinema has taken care of a lot of the heavy lifting for the experience. They’ve designed the physical space, hired actors, created various branching storylines, etc. All you have to do as a participatant is dress according to your assigned persona and then show up and engage in the experience.

  • Focus on processes that deliver engagement and outcome.

When designing an experience, it is all too easy to get side-tracked by seemingly important design features that are icing, not cake. The classic example here is the Fyre Festival that was all show and no substance.

The Fyre Festival: all show, no substance.

Great Experience Designers Are Attention Designers

Great experience designers develop the ability to ascertain when to make things easy and seamless for participants and when to call for their attention. It is ultimately the combination of all touchpoints and the reactions that participants have to them that combine to create the impact the designer is hoping for, and the memory, meaning or transformation that the person takes away from an experience.

For more indepth analysis of how great experiences are created, and how to build them, the WXO highly recommends Bob and Mat’s most recent book, Designing Experiences.

About The Authors

J. Robert ‘Bob’ Rossman

Bob has been designing and staging experiences for over 35 years as a designer, scholar, and consultant. His work has improved experience design by integrating the results of social science research on experience with the practice of designing and staging them. He is co-author of Recreation Programming, Designing, Staging, and Managing the Delivery of Leisure Experiences (2019, 8th ed.), and, with Mat, of Designing Experiences, (2019).

Mat D. Duerden

Co-author with Bob of Designing Experiences (published by Columbia Business School Press), Mat is an Associate Professor of Experience Design and Management in the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University. He teaches courses in experience design and need finding at the undergraduate and MBA levels. His research focuses on experience design in a wide variety of contexts including work and leisure.

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