Surfing, Monkeys, and Why You Can’t Design Experiences


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Source: Dave Fish

“Pura Vida!” our host yelled as we maneuvered down the gravel road on a balmy summer evening.

We were road weary after a five-hour plane ride and a two-hour bumpy drive to the little coastal town of Tamarindo in Costa Rica. It was nearing dark, but we were greeted by our Airbnb host as if we were a dear college friend whom we haven’t seen in a long time.

The Airbnb we stayed at was, well, a bit basic. While dated and spartan, it was to be our home away from home for 10 days as my wife and I worked remotely. Upon arrival we exchanged looks. Not noticing our hesitancy, our host briefly introduced us to the accommodations but then spent most of the time walking us around the grounds pointing out things we would never have noticed.

“Those are banana trees, those are… not sure how to say it English… but another fruit trees”, she laughed.

She went on and on about the grounds and our children were captivated. She then walked us down to the beach in jean shorts and a bathing suit that, we later learned, is customary all-day attire for the area. She delivered an upbeat and effusive overview of the town and surrounding areas. Her enthusiasm was contagious.

She was so charming and upbeat that we nearly forgot about what we later called “the shed” which was where we were staying.

Throughout our “workcation” we encountered time and time again a culture of freedom and pride. At first, to US sensibilities you wouldn’t think there was much to be proud of. The roads were unpaved and rutted, certain areas smelled like garbage (or worse), all manner of stray dogs freely roamed about, and people wandered down darken streets at all times of the night and day; oblivious to the danger to themselves or the marauding ATVs that roamed with little oversight. It was all wondrously chaotic but took a little getting used to.

Customer Experience is about Experiences

After a day or two we started to slowly settle in.

One night my daughter screamed and pointed at some creature and ran toward me. A large raccoon had entered through the lobby of a small resort we were eating at next to the Shed.

Looking at the alarm on my daughter’s face, the concierge yelled “it’s ok, it’s ok, mapache…es una mascota… umm it’s our pet.” The hotel had evidently adopted a raccoon amongst other animals as pets and they were allowed to wander about the hotel.

Sitting at dinner under the stars reflecting off the ocean, we barely noticed the mosquitos feasting on our skin as we enjoyed some amazing food and local beer. I could get used to this, well some of it.

Nothing about our experience was perfect or ideal, but it was all memorable. I remember watching a documentary that featured an off-roader whose vehicle broke down in the outback of Alaska. When interviewed on-scene he didn’t seem particularly upset, he almost seemed giddy with excitement. Looking at the camera and struggling with his vehicle he said, “if we didn’t run into any trouble and we knew everything that was going to happen… well that’s not much of an adventure is it?”. True enough.

This is the case with amazing experiences. Would we have preferred not to stay in the “shed” with proper air conditioning? I suppose. But then we would have missed out on the howler monkeys whipping fruit at the roof at 5:30 am — which makes for great memories.

“Designing” Experiences

The more I work in the field of customer experience, the more I am convinced that trying to “design” all (or most) aspects of an experience is a mistake. Have you ever been to a work function where there is planned activities? I had a colleague who, perhaps somewhat curmudgeonly, referred to those activities as “forced fun”. Heavily prescribed fun, makes it no fun.

Cramming people into some prescribed activity can evoke psychological reactance. Experiencing the same thing over and over again is, well, boring. No, the real fun is in the unplanned and spontaneous. Think about your most fun and memorable experiences. I bet most of them were ones that just happened in the moment.

So, What To Do?

So, should we just give up? Did Disney have it all wrong? No, not at all. What great experiences all have in common is they provide the ingredients for memorable experiences. They create the right environment and provide the right tools for something great. Disney lets you wander the streets and pick the rides you go on. You get to interact with the staff and play make-believe. The guest has agency and control.

The highlight of the trip was not a swanky dinner or a plush bed, it was watching both of my daughters stand up on surfboards on their own for the first time in their lives. It was the look of accomplishment on their faces — that novel feeling of wonder and agency that comes so rarely in life.

By inviting your customers in to co-create the experience you are making experiential art that people will want to come back to time after time because no two experiences will ever be completely the same.

As I have written in the past there is an important place for consistency in customer experience. People love to know what to expect; it is a source of certainty and engenders confidence. So having certainty over the things customers want to be certain about and the freedom to roam on other facets of the customer experience is the challenging balance of “experiential design”.

Unexpected Areas

You might think this doesn’t apply to a bill-paying application or your lawn care service, but I would argue you would be wrong. Many really great experiences are predicated on the unexpected and spontaneous.

Southwest encourages their staff to ham it up with their guests and they have one of the best experiences in the industry. Some flight attendance performances approach stand-up comedy. Rabid Tesla owners are willing to overlook known quality issues in their vehicle because of “fart mode” or that the alarm plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue and D Minor to accompany their alarm system.

To some these are whimsical wastes of time and engineering resources. To their customers, they are why they are loyal to the brand. Don’t overlook them.

As customer experience experts it is our job to imbue the fun into experiences, but not at the expense of diminishing the core deliverable. You have the “fun” and “functional” aspects of experiences. On Southwest, you want to get your destination safely, on time, and for a reasonable price. However, doing only that makes them a commodity. Imbuing the fun and unexpected into their design is important. As mentioned it is also important to keep in mind that CX, like marketing, is not something you do to people, it’s something in which they participate.

Where do Great Experience Come From?

You may be tempted to think that a great experience comes from the “product” or physical aspects of the experience. The comfort of the seat, the taste of wine, the softness of the sheets or shirt, or any other physical attributes that companies obsess over. There is one trump card that tends to override all tangible aspects of customer experiences.

As I am apt to do I frequently talk to the staff and employees about their experiences of where they work. I did so at the resort where we ended dining several times.[1] I talked with the bartenders, the waitresses, the receptionists, and the pool guy because, you know, I’m curious.

The folks at this small resort had a consistent message about working there; it’s like family. I didn’t meet anyone there whose tenure was less than 8 years, somewhat of an anomaly even in an emerging economy such as Costa Rica.

“You see that guy over there?” Raoul the waiter pointed to an older man cleaning out the pool with a long pole.

“He dug the pool that he cleaning.” Apparently, the man was here since the resort was founded some 20 years earlier and was instrumental in construction.

Could you imagine the loyalty of working at a place that you helped build? All the employees talked about the owners and how kind and generous they were to staff. They all seemed satisfied, engaged, and just generally happy with working there, even though I know they worked very long hours.

This attitude acted as a contagion to guests. While there wasn’t much to be upset about, the happy upbeat attitude of the staff served as a jovial salve for even the sullenest of guests.

While the resort was very nice, it’s not what made it special. It was the staff that made it amazing, in much the same way the experience at the “shed” was memorable.

Think about your biggest frustration with technology companies. Is it about the technology or the fact they have made it incredibly difficult to get in touch with a human being? Sure, there are many issues that customers prefer to self-serve, but when they want help, they want help. The greats in this space such as American Express and USAA know this and optimize their experience accordingly.

It’s NOT About the Product

Everyone who has taken a basic marketing class knows about the “4 Ps”. I remember reading it and finding it incredibly lacking and a bit militaristic. Many textbooks had the graphic and then “Target” in the middle as if a customer was something we want to hunt and kill.

Beyond that, the four Ps seem to be lacking what I felt to be pretty important ingredients to the marketing mix. Later versions would add “service” as if it was an afterthought. Later on, firms came up with other Ps such as “process” or “positioning”. Better formulations but still missing the mark, I think.

If we are to think critically about the marketing mix, what becomes obvious is that all of customer experience, and by extension marketing, is fundamentally a people business. People buy things and use things. Employees show why those things are valuable and how to get the best use of out them. To date, it is usually people who design products and make them better ostensibly based on feedback from other people. Like Soylent Green; it’s people. Today we get so caught up in technology solutions for everything, that is easy to lose track of people.

Injecting “Pura Vida” into CX

So practically what does this mean?

First, it is easy to lose track that the best solutions and experiences are usually the simplest and organic. They are not “created for” customers as much as they are “created with” customers. This is the essence of “Pura Vida”. While it means the “pure life” in talking with locals, it also means the “simple life” or the idea that you don’t need much to be happy. Indeed, Costa Rica is consistently rated as the happiest country on the planet.

We need to loosen up on “designing the experience” in the sense of controlling aspect. Provide the right ingredients for a great experience and let go. Let the experience happen. Companies such as LEGO have even uncovered great things by letting their customers do things they didn’t feel comfortable doing at first. You can’t control everything, and you shouldn’t.

Second, don’t get overly focused on product attributes, but lean into understanding and influencing the entire customer experience. Great hospitality companies realize vacations start the moment guests step off the plane and end the moment they step back on and plan appropriately. This is done by achieving customer empathy via journey mapping or even simply talking to a cross-section of customers.

Remember employees are always the contact point between your brand and your customers. Even pure technology companies had humans designing the user interface to help customers out. Don’t forget your people, invest in them helping customers and your customers will give you wide latitude for product transgressions.

Finally, as in all great design, keep it simple and true to the brand. People gravitate toward things that are simple and view the complicated as annoying or even scary. Occam’s razor applies just to customer experience as readily as UX. However, never make your aim to be just simple and “frictionless”, that the road to being forgettable. Injecting the “fun factor” into any experience makes it a differentiated one, and differentiated experiences generate dollars. Keep in mind; while good design is invisible, great experiences are memorable.


[1] Full disclosure, we eventually rented a room at the resort and utilized the “shed” as our workplace during the day and overflow for sleeping at night.

Dave Fish, Ph.D.

Dave is the founder of CuriosityCX, an insights and advisory consultancy for Customer Experience. Formerly he was CMO for MaritzCX, now an InMoment company. He has 25+ years of applied experience in understanding consumer behavior consulting with Global 50 companies. Dave has held several executive positions at the Mars Agency, Engine Group, J.D. Power and Associates, Toyota Motor North America, and American Savings Bank. He teaches at the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of "The Customer Experience Field Guide" available on Amazon and


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