Can You Design Experiences? Take a Lesson from Mardi Gras


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Photo by Dave Fish 2/18/23

Recently I celebrated my 30th birthday for the 12th time in one of my favorite places on the planet, New Orleans. I booked flights inattentive to the actual time of year and was shocked to learn a few days before arriving that I booked at the height of Mardi Gras. I wondered why dinner reservations were so hard to come by.

Now, if you have never been to Mardi Gras, it is a sight to behold. I have been to many large events; multi-day music festivals, sporting events, fairs, and very large conferences. Nothing compares to the immensity and wonderful chaos of Mardi Gras.

This is an event that runs roughly two weeks and crescendos in the last few days with numerous parades planned and improvised. Yesterday my daughter and I walked from the French Quarter up Canal Street to Mid-town, roughly 4 miles, and the entire four lane divided highway was filled with people, barbeques, dancing, and musicians. This was only one small slice of the city-wide celebration. While many have the perception that is drunken mayhem, which it can be, by and large I found it a safe, fun, and friendly event.

Many times, people think you can design experiences. Mardi Gras does have a master plan of parades and street closing but beyond that, it is definitely not designed a priori, it is spontaneous human chaos. Based on my study of the topic over the years, I don’t think you can design experiences the same way you bake a cake, assemble a car, or build a home. In the same way, you can’t control your daughter, spouse, or employee you cannot control the experience of others.

Experiences are spontaneous and organic. The best you can do is create the potential for great experiences. Much like an RPG Dungeon Master creates the world and players create characters to explore it, the same can be said for Customer Experience Designers. You are the Dungeon Masters of the CX world.

What are some of the components of creating great experiences? Let’s throw some beads at that question, shall we?

Make it Social

First, we are by nature social animals. The reason why solitary confinement is so feared and so very damaging to humans is the fact that we need others to function. There are reams of social science that show the damaging effects of isolation on the elderly, caregivers, inmates and others who are denied social interaction. Depression, addiction, sleep deprivation, suicide, and sociopathic behavior are all associated with social isolation.

Mardi Gras is the epitome of a social event. At least one million people gather in New Orleans to participate in Mardi Gras most years. Participants interact with their own families and social groups, but also with strangers from all walks of life. While alcohol is often used as a ‘social lubricant’ for some, most are just out walking around taking in the sites, eating, and people-watching. But there is one thing a bit different about Mardi Gras than normal events…


Any student of psychology is probably familiar with Social Exchange Theory. In a nutshell, the theory holds that people tend to seek out rewards and avoid punishments and this mental calculation of ‘what’s in it for me’ is used in the ‘exchange’ between individuals. This exchange, the theory holds, is the foundation of human relationships.

Many things are exchanged during Mardi Gras. Food, cheering, and most of all beads. Why beads? Jake Rossen of Mental Floss explains it best

“Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops. Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display “bead lust,” or a penchant for shiny objects. It’s one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap plastic.”

So, this goes back a long way. Encouraging reciprocity in any experience is almost guaranteed to make the experience more engaging and enjoyable. Reciprocity is very powerful. It is the social engineering that makes social media so powerfully addictive (please “like” this article!).

Any good teacher or performer knows that the best lessons and performances are those where the classroom or audience gets into the act; literally. Creating opportunities for reciprocity can also improve any experience you are trying to influence.

Include Nature

Every semester I ask this question of my students: “close your eyes and think of an experience where you were happiest.” The mention of nature is always included in the majority, if not all, of their descriptions.

As I have written before about how biophilic designs incorporate nature in the design of physical settings. These designs have been shown to have a positive impact on productivity and stress reduction. People like being in nature.

However, it doesn’t need to be an office building with some ferns added. It can be so much more. Turning back to Mardi Gras, the parades and festivities are all outside. We had the great luck of having exceptional spring-like weather during our stay. Most fun and memorable experiences are connected to nature.

Make it Authentique

My family recently went to a Florida beach town. While pleasant, it gave my daughter and me a bad case of the heebie-jeebies. There was something not quite right about it. It was an immaculate beach community with newly created buildings and parks. People drove around in shiny new BMWs and Mercedes. It seemed incredibly safe and serene. It was just too…fake.

Most people like experiences (and people) who are authentic, with so-called “warts and all.” Many times the beauty in things can be in the imperfections. The Japanese even have a word for this called wabi sabi which I have written about the application to CX before.

Imperfection is a hallmark of Mardi Gras. Despite the best effort of the courageous sanitation workers, the place is kind of dirty by Western standards. Infrastructure is spotty as well, with missing sidewalks and crosswalks. Most of the people you see are far from supermodels, at least the kind you see on Rodeo Drive. Mardi Gras is a quintessential New Orleans experience, which is far from perfect, which makes it a ton of fun. And also makes it…


When is the last time you ate something you never had before or saw something you have never seen before? These moments are increasingly fleeting and coveted as we age.

The Heath brothers spend a fair amount of time on this topic in their excellent book The Power of Moments. In this book, they point out that experiences are mostly remembered by their peaks and not the mundane ‘frictionless’ experience so many companies are striving for. They use as an exemplar The Magic Castle Hotel where you can order a popsicle from a special red phone by the pool, and it will be delivered by a tuxedoed waiter to the poolside for no charge.

Their point is, people don’t remember the mundane, they remember the unique. As CX ‘designers’ we should also look for opportunities to make our experiences unique. What can you do to make your experience more unique?

I always advise seeking opportunities where people are already looking for it in their journey; the move-in day to their new home, the first day on the job, opening the box of that new device, or entering their hotel room for the first time. They often time don’t have to be expensive. The connection to Mardi Gras is evident, it is as distinct and recognize as they come. There is nothing like it in North America that I am aware of.

Time to Pretend

Let’s face it, we all secretly want to be a superhero of some kind. We fantasize about what superpower we might have; telekinesis, teleportation, laser eyes, or at least we did when we were children. There is a very unfortunate social more about being considered ‘childish’.

I like to encourage childishness. That mindset clears away sometimes imagined barriers and enables exploring the possible. Design thinking encourages just that; to have the clarity of a child.

Mardi Gras gives you an opportunity for participants to wear crazy hats and clothes, don insane or wicked-looking masks, and just be someone you are not for a while… and do so in a socially acceptable way. Mardi Gras gives people permission to do that. People love it.

In setting the stage for great experiences, you may also want to incorporate this permission for creative freedom. Give people the right to have agency over their own expression and encourage that expression. You will undoubtedly be surprised by the results. Sometimes when you are not trying so hard to be you, you can see yourself more clearly.

À la Prochaine

I’m sure I may have missed a few antecedents to great experiences, but these six seem to stand out in great experiences from Disney to that amazing hiking trip through the Grand Canyon with your friends. I would be interested to hear if you think I missed any and if you could share any of your great experiences in the comments below.


  1. Dave – This is an excellent summary of how companies can think about the task of experience ‘facilitation, ‘ noting correctly that true experiences cannot be designed. I think of those sets of extraordinary experiences in my life, and quickly align these dimensions successfully with those instances.


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