Lessons the Irish Pub Can Teach Us About Experiential Design

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Source: Dave Fish

The cab driver on his way from Dublin airport was dispensing unsolicited advice on two topics to our family: alcohol and where to buy it cheaply. He cheerily pointed out the multitude of appealing and reasonably priced pubs as we zipped through the narrow streets of Dublin to our hotel.

Being properly primed, our first stop was at the Palace Bar in Temple Bar, one of the oldest and quintessentially Irish pubs. The Palace is one of many pubs and bars that my family and I frequented on our trip throughout the Emerald Island.

Lest you think we, or the entire Republic of Ireland, are a bunch of alcoholics, the pub is not just a place to drink alcohol. It has been defined as the secular counterbalance to the devotedly religious population’s many churches. The two institutions form the flywheel of Irish culture, that spin together to contribute to the population’s surprisingly sunny disposition, despite a dearth of sunlight, perpetual rain, and chilly temperatures.

Enjoying a pint of Guinness with my family as they noshed on fried fish and chips, I couldn’t help but notice the many lessons the Irish pub can teach us in experiential design. 

The Context

The first thing you realize in arriving at the pub is a sense of welcome. These are not the dark creepy bars that stink of old cigarettes and sour beer or the nightclubs that are designed as hook-up and party centers. These pubs are a social meeting spot.

My former professor at Claremont, Alan Wicker, researched and examined something he calls behavior settings. The basic idea of behavior settings is the context of where an environment influences the behavior of individuals within it. It also dictates the norms and mores of that environment. For example, the classic educational classroom dictates students sit and listen as the instructor teaches.

Through the ages the format of the Irish pub created a behavioral setting to help encourage a sense of community. It evolved as a way to enable customers to either be social, have private conversations, or be just as comfortable reading a book and having a cup of tea. 

Getting clear-eyed about the intent of your servicescape, whether digital or physical, is very important. So often retailers regard their space as a way just to sell goods. Sometimes this is very appropriate. Private label Aldi does a great job of offering high-quality goods at low prices in a non-frills easy to access manner.

Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

However, increasingly customers are looking not to just buy things but to experience things. With this as a new goal, it changes the complete design of the store. Companies really good at this like Bass Pro (and Cabela’s), Williams and Sonoma, and Apple know this and design to this goal.

The Service

The second thing you notice when walking into an Irish pub is the service. You are typically not confronted by a burly doorman (although we had to provide vaccination proof on our trip). It is generally an open and warm atmosphere. You are greeted with a polite smile by professional bartenders. By the look and camaraderie of the staff, I would have to guess they are well tenured. This gregarious trend seems to grow the farther west and more Gaelic the bar scene becomes.

Without exception the service was excellent with a wait staff that could read their customers. Not rushing them, not ignoring them, but doing what is difficult to train for; empathizing with their customers. A consistent trait in any good customer experience execution.

Another trait that is short supply in many American retail establishments is a sense of authenticity. For some reason, we teach our service employees to put on their ‘professional face’. They are to minimize their personal self and take on the shell of the brand as they signed up for some cult. Allowing employees to be who they are, without worrying about ‘being the brand’ is also a key to connecting with customers. Companies great at CX know to hire good people and let them be who they are.

Physical Design

One of the most intriguing aspects of pubs in general, and Irish pubs specifically, is the layout of the servicescape itself. It has a very careful balance of public, private, and mixed-use spaces. You can sit at the bar, which is many times cordoned off to smaller sections. There are small spaces around the perimeter of the bar that are also partitioned off in two-seat dyads for more intimate spaces. 

There are also low-slung tables with church-like pews and 2′ bar stools that can fit up to 14 people comfortably and are surrounded by 6′ partitions. In all cases these partitions are semi-private. They may have opaque glass, so you sense the presence of others but not see what is going on in the next stall over. They create ‘mini rooms’ where a group of friends can gather to talk and laugh.

Source: Dave Fish

In reflection this design is not at all dissimilar in what architect Ross Chapin describes as ‘pocket neighborhoods’ in his excellent book on the topic. Ross advocates for small communities where people know one another as a source of increased happiness for the community members. 

In his years of practice in urban design Ross talks about the porch as the ‘public-private’ hub where one can see your neighbors and talk to them if you wish, or just wave at them in acknowledgement…or if busy…put your head down in your book. The Irish pub has also evolved its design to mimic this at a lower level of aggregation.

With all these partitions you might think the place be dark and cave-like. Some are, but the most common design I observed offset this tendency by copious use of large mirrors on the wall, high ceilings, and use of wood which creates a warm environment. The connectivity with nature is often further enhanced with small warm peat or wood-fed fireplaces at strategic locations.

Using these design elements creates a pleasant inviting and multi-use environment that is appropriate to reveling, business, or privacy all in the same setting.

Designing Experiencing

I think many people in the CX space believe that ‘experience design’ is sitting down like an architect and laying out every aspect of a pre-programmed experience for their customers. In this mode of thought, the CX practitioner is the god-like designer for which his or her customers are wind up automatons who will carry out their prescribed experiences.

What is critical to understand as CX practitioners is that we are there to provide an environment for great experiences. It is not something we do to customers but something we enable. Great experiences are those created by customers; usually in an unprescribed and surprising way. The funny story, the thoughtful action, the unforeseen interaction.

Second while some thoughtful planning is necessary, we know is that like any good tool, experiences evolve and mature over time. Neither the iPhone nor the fork arrived in its fully formed state. Tools are constantly evolving and improving until they reach an apex of utility where further refinement is not required. Few tools reach this terminus; the paper clip, the fork, common claw hammer, and perhaps the Irish pub are one of the few that come to mind.

Much is the same for experience design. You start with a concept, test it, and refine it over time. Sometimes that concept can be bold and disruptive, sometimes slow incrementality is more appropriate.

Theft

A rich source of innovation in customer experience design in the theft and transfer of a concept from one domain to another.

What can we learn from the Irish pub that might be useful in other domains that necessitates the need for multi-use social layouts? For example, could we reimagine the dull cube world of the workplace as a pub, perhaps sans the alcohol? Temporary seating in private spaces, and larger impromptu but semi-private spaces for collaboration. Biophilic-like design to make less sterile and more warm and inviting.

Education is another candidate. So many education institutions, whether elementary schools or college auditoriums, are sterile and militaristic. The floors are cold and hard, the desks of plastic and aluminum, and the walls overly optimistic hues on cinder blocks. The social layout has a similar martial flavor. The teacher is in the front. The students are arranged neatly in rows in their seats are there to listen. Some teachers, if given license, attempt to change this context by rearranging seating or creating personalized bulletin boards, but they are a bit hamstrung by the inherent pre-destined design of traditional classrooms. This layout seems more tuned to keep well-ordered discipline than encourage learning let alone indulge in any form of creativity.

Every form of retail could also learn from the Irish pub. Insurance offices, retail banking, and other professional services that need a physical space could move away from the receptionist (bouncer) and private space layout to a friendlier and less intimidating space that could accommodate large groups, small groups, or one on ones all in a cozy environment. In fact, some banks have already started exploring new layouts and designs to move away from the old staid marble and brass layout.

Sláinte!

Lest you think I want to convert all retail establishments into Irish pubs, I don’t, although in retrospect that would not be a terrible goal. We can, however, borrow elements from other successful customer experiences and transfer them to a new domain. In the spirit of Blue Ocean thinking we can also leave the bad aspects behind and just take the positive ones.

What aspects can we take from fine dining and quick-service restaurants to create a new dining experience for customers? How do we borrow elements from the 1980s arcades and pool halls to create a new public experience? How can digital and augmented reality be used to re-invent servicescapes? We can mine the innovations of the past and in other domains to create new experiences in the future.

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