Much is written about design thinking and the customer experience innovation process. We hear about journey maps, hassle maps and finding unmet needs. All of this is true and important in designing or aligning your customer experience with brand and business goals. What isn’t much discussed is the craft of creating an amazing experience that is holistic, consistent and tells a meaningful story.
I believe there are two dimensions in every amazing experience. The first dimension is about understanding and optimizing the journey, the foundation of which the brand builds upon. The second dimension is the narrative emotional layer that drives engagement and connects with the customer or guest. I often see clients preoccupied with only one dimension of experience design; they spend much needed time and energy focused on a single moment in time or perceived customer hassle, obsessing over doing it differently but for no real reason. They identify, reconstruct, pilot, test and implement new customer moments only to see minimal lift or recognition from the customer, and often far too overshadowed by the unaddressed moment yet to be tackled. Don’t get me wrong, this is a valuable part of the process and an essential ingredient to disruption and delight. But it can’t stop there.
An example from my past life as an architect springs to mind. In architecture, the iterative design process looks at precedence, philosophy, and a vast spectrum of aesthetics which combine with the programmatic, engineering, and sociological requirements of space making. Looking at both of these dimensions in tandem creates environments that transcend functionality. When such edifices are memorable they are actually more of an experience than a mere structure. Remember the last time you were in a space that incited awe, delighted the senses and even comforted your soul? This only occurs when the overarching emotional story and the discrete (fully optimized) moments worked together fluidly.
This is true for experience innovation, too. A memorable customer experience needs to be diligent, thoughtful, and in-depth. But it also needs to aggregate to something more. It needs to tell a complete story and bring the experience to life in themes and ideas that can play out across the customer journey. And it needs to support goals – whether for the customer, the brand or both – in order to drive toward tangible impact that justifies the effort and expense.
Many companies have grown or are created by a different path and struggle with the need for experience as equal to product and operations. Today, all brands have some level of engagement and having a memorable customer experience is vital to their success. Therefore, we need to understand the 2nddimension of experience design: creating the narrative.
Who gets it right?
Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney Co. has long championed this which has made them the hallmark of experience design. They grew out of storytelling and film, so it is built into their brand and DNA. The list is endless in their pursuit of making magic. But their newest experience, Star War Galaxy’s Edge, is a perfect example. In this experience, visitors immerse in the story we know so well. But themes of discovery and individuality will play out in this epic franchise versus a mere visitation to a recreated place we’ve seen on screen. A sense of discovery from the land itself is new to the Star Wars story, Batuu, a once prominent trading port at the edge of sub-light speed down to the toy stall filled with unique products run by Toydarians. In addition, the planet is inhabited by “the smugglers, the bounty hunters, the rogue adventurers looking to crew up, the people who don’t want to be found — basically all the interesting people,” says Scott Trowbridge of Walt Disney Imagineering. And this includes your individuality, an essential character in the new story. Depending on what entrance you arrive through will influence your story; one controlled by the First Order and another controlled by the Resistance. Throughout, your experience will be based on your individual choices, whether you’re “literally” recruited by the Resistance or go join the First Order forces. How you perform on the Millennium Falcon will influence your interactions in the Cantina as hero or hunted. This will all be underpinned by the first dimension of experience: the efficiency, safety, and hospitality of any Disney guest experience along with state of the art technology. It is the second dimension of discovery and participation, that emotional self-directed component, that make the experience unique and magical.
Ikea. If we look at a brand like Ikea, we see a company that delivers its customer experience in a unique and differentiated way. Its brand is “to create a better life for many people.” But this story is told through themes like urban adventure and design discovery, replete with a meandering path through the store and a diverse and constantly evolving product mix. A delight of accomplishment; the pick it off the shelf, to assemble yourself, DIY to the fullest, and the richness and vitality of Swedish culture seen in the product names and design, the rich food offering, and the iconic brand identity. Simply creating a warehouse shopping environment that’s fast, efficient, and offers an array of products wouldn’t be enough.
Ace Hotels. The Ace Hotel Group has dominated the boutique hotel scene with unique and distinctive experiences. With their nod to modern day rebellion and disruptive ideas of comfort and cool, each property is built on its own backstory that enables the customer experience to be memorable, authentic, and truly differentiated. At the most mundane level, their delivery of a consistent hotel experience addresses modern unmet needs, and optimizing each moment is all part of delivering a consistent, quality experience. But is that enough to stand above the masses of the boutique? Look at Ace Palm Springs, overlaid with their themes like a “summer camp for adults” with tent-like drapery and travel trunks as end tables creating an ambiance of camping. Or a revived reinterpretation of the mid-century past as former Howard Johnsons, or the hippie-chic attitude incorporating dog-friendly amenities, laid-back staff resembling the customer base, and communal outdoor gathering. Ace Hotels has chosen to tell many stories for each property but always laddering up to the one brand idea.
Today it is imperative for brands to rise above the fray and differentiate themselves. But more importantly, they must be relevant and contribute meaningfully to customers, guests, and even employees. The first dimension is the role of design thinking, understanding your audience, being empathetic, and disrupting things often taken for granted. The 2nddimension is experience design, looking above the mechanics and telling the stories that will excite consumers, inspire audiences, and form bonds and loyalty. This aspect must come from within and be the secret sauce that makes you stand out or glue that holds your experience together. It is this look from above, the story you tell, and how you are telling it which will make your amazing experience.