Experience Designers Engage Customer Participation


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By J. Robert Rossman and Mathew D. Duerden, coauthors, Designing Experiences, (2019), New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 

There is great interest in participating in the experience economy. Twenty years ago, the prevailing notion was that experience is simply another type of service. But, B. Joseph Pine, II and James H. Gilmore in their seminal book, The Experience Economy, asserted that experience was indeed a fourth type of economic activity along with commodities, products, and services. Elsewhere, Pine lays out this case. Service features are nice, easy, and convenient. Experience features involve engaged time well spent across a series of designed micro experiences that create drama and eventually yield the intended macro experience. This difference is made clearer when one is faced with designing an experience.

Much corporate effort these days is focused on unengaging people by providing them services that facilitate disconnection. We call it the “auto pay” world. Sign up for auto pay and you will never need to think about a bill again, it will automatically be taken from your account each billing cycle. No need to think or engage further, a perfect service. In contrast, an experience engages individuals to pursue interesting, intentional outcomes and to participate in achieving them.

Experience design begins with a sincere focus on understanding customer needs. In experience focused organizations, customers are the center of the enterprise’s activities and their organizational structure reflects this commitment. An experience occurs when the participant is presented the opportunity to do something or interact in some way that contributes to the outcome of the encounter. Participants seek opportunities for co-creation, they want to be engaged participants not passive spectators. Communications professor, Clay Shirky, tells us that customers want to be treated as if their presence matters. That is, they want to be involved, sustain interaction and contribute to the outcome. To be part of the experience.

Outdoor recreation outfitters who operate multi-day river rafting trips must make experience design decisions about how much to involve participants in a trip’s activities versus how much the outfitter will provide. Powering the rafts by paddling, making and breaking camp each day, and meal preparation are three crucial activities that must be completed. In most cases, there are not enough staff members to complete these daily activities so there are experience design choices about which to involve participants. Different outfitters develop a “signature” to their trips by which of these activities are accomplished by participants and which are done for them. Most outfitters include participants in paddling the rafts as this is one of the primary daily activities and is an expected part of an extended river trip. But there are differences between outfitters in how much participants are expected to participate in making and breaking camp each day versus participating in food preparation.

It is helpful for organizations to consider the work that needs to be done to deliver their products, services, and experiences and consider how they could involve their customers more intentionally in the process. How might your customers be engaged as collaborators rather than passive consumers? A recently commissioned study by Hitachi Europe found that 58% of surveyed European companies had engaged in co-creation projects with consumers to help drive innovation. In 2018 IKEA rolled out an initiative called “Co-Create IKEA” that allowed consumers, students, and entrepreneurs to develop new product ideas.

Richard Florida, when chronicling desires of young, educated creative individuals, observed that they want opportunities for participatory experiences they can have a hand in structuring. The opportunity to co-create is a major feature that differentiates an experience from a service. Delivering a service involves doing things to and for a customer. Delivering an experience involves facilitating the customer’s involvement in producing an outcome. We refer to these customers as participants. They come expecting and intending to participate in some way that contributes to the unfolding event and affects its eventual outcome.

Attending cooking classes has become an interesting tourism destination experience. The goal is to prepare local food and to do it yourself. If you want a meal prepared for you, go to a restaurant. If you want the experience of preparing it yourself, attend a cooking class. Additionally, these are almost always uniquely indigenous; you prepare local dishes with locally sourced ingredients and unique cooking methods. Providing more engaging experiences is trending across the tourism and hospitality industries. This summer Airbnb expanded its experience offerings to also include multi-day curated “adventures”. In 2016 the Transformational Travel Council was launched. They define transformational travel as “Transformational travel is intentionally traveling to stretch, learn and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world.”

People engage in undirected, serendipitous experiences every day. Why design them? Designing and staging experiences is a riskier production process than delivering a service. In service delivery, the provider retains control of production and delivery. Letting participants have a role in determining outcome, co-creation, is the source of both a participant’s interest in an experience and risk for the provider in giving up some control over outcome. If you want to provide meaningful, engaging, memory producing experiences, you will need to take this risk. An experience that is well designed and staged helps minimize the risk.

A good design is intentional. It implements outcomes desired by the designer, the participant, or both. The outcomes intended drive most other design decisions. Thus, a well-defined outcome is essential. Second, there must be opportunities for co-creation. Participants come to engage and help accomplish outcome. This feature builds in personal ownership and a unique outcome. Third, the design outlines how various components of the experiencescape (e.g., people, place, relationships, blocking, rules, and objects) will interplay to create the unique environment where the experience occurs. Finally, the designer manages the flow of time and how much will be allocated to each of the mini experiences that compose the larger micro experience. Orchestrated correctly, interesting mixes of mini experiences ebb and flow to create the drama of the experience resulting in a climax that is memorable.

A good experience designer has a background in the social psychology of engagement, competence in design thinking, and an understanding of the drama of participating in engagement. Almost all experiences have service components that support their operation. Ensuring that these service components are produced well is an important contribution to a good experience. But these services are not the experience. Good experience designers realize that supersizing a service will not transform it to an experience, but good service delivery will enable a positive experience to emerge. In contrast, poor service delivery will detract from an experience and may keep it from emerging.

Games provide a good analogy of an experience. All games, including sport, have a set of rules that provide enabling conventions. That is, they clearly define what knowledge, skills, and abilities will be venerated in the gaming encounter and what behaviors are not allowed. Rules clearly define what can and cannot be done in the gaming encounter thereby freeing individuals to perform and engage in ways that clearly allow self-generated accomplishments. Participants willingly accept this pact and are freed to engage and do something when playing the game. In the same way, people want to participate in experiences in a manner that enables them to influence outcome. They want their presence to matter. Good experience designers realize this and facilitate opportunities for engaging co-production. When staged well, these engagements produce self-generated outcomes worth committing to one’s memory.

If you want to know which companies are winning at experience design, simply look at any list of industry specific top Net Promoter Score performers. Invariably, these companies understand experiences and they are making intentional decisions about the experiences they provide to their customers. A commitment to experience is why Costco won’t increase the price of their hotdogs and why Airbnb offers both stays and experiences to their customers. All organizations need to think about what they are doing to intentionally design and stage experiences for their customers and make sure they are investing resources to hire well prepared experience designers.

J Robert Rossman, Ph.D.
J. Robert Rossman, Ph.D. is a professor and dean emeritus at the College of Applied Science and Technology at Illinois State University. Throughout his career he has pursued the concept of experience as a scholar, author, and designer as well as managing the organizations that deliver them. He has spoken about his unique experience design techniques around the world. He is co-author of "Recreation Programming; Designing, staging, and managing the delivery of leisure experiences" (currently in its 8th edition) and "Designing Experiences" (2019).


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