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Alex Genov

User Research and Innovation, SOFTWARE INDUSTRY

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Debate: You cannot design an experience.

When the pioneer of customer loyalty research writes about customer experience in the Harvard Business Review, you’d better listen. In 2005 Fred Reichheld co-authored the article “The Three D’s of Customer Experience.” In this insightful and visionary piece, the authors point out that “[e]ighty percent of companies believe they deliver a superior customer experience, but only 8 percent of their customers agree.” Then, the authors outline three ways to remedy the situation. According to them, the following behaviors set the companies that got it right apart from the rest: “1. design the right offers and experiences for the right customers. 2. deliver these propositions by focusing the entire company on them with an emphasis on cross-functional collaboration. 3. develop their capabilities to please customers again and again—by such means as revamping the planning process, training people in how to create new customer propositions, and establishing direct accountability for the customer experience.”

I agree with the spirit of those statements, but not with the phrasing of 1. I submit that no one can actually design a human “experience!” Experience is an emergent property of the interaction of people with products. If you take the definition of “customer experience” outlined here [http://wp.me/p1sLNl-2U] seriously, you will agree. “Experience” is a subjective state, the result of several conditions: 1. the person with his or her personality, dispositions, moods, needs, and so on; 2. the situation or context of use; 3. the product or service in question.

Companies can only control their products. The really consumer-centric companies also have gained knowledge about and empathy for their users (their personality, dispositions, moods, needs, and and so on). It is only when you develop products and services based on such knowledge and when you constantly track consumer feedback and adjust accordingly, can you HOPE to affect the consumer experience positively.

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  • Nov 2 2012: Disney would disagree with the idea that you can't design an experience :)
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      Nov 2 2012: Dan, the whole point of my argument is that Disney can design the physical space, the costumes, the rituals and so on. The "experience" is the subjective feelings of people as they interact with the physical space etc. And since one cannot design feelings, you cannot design the "experience" :)
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      Nov 2 2012: As would APPLE......this like any other question is a question of terminology as defined by the questioner. lol though!
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    Nov 2 2012: As a general concept experience comprises knowledge of or skill of some thing or some event gained through involvement in or exposure to that thing or event. The history of the word experience aligns it closely with the concept of experiment. For example, the word experience could be used in a statement like: "I have experience in fishing".

    In the spirit of the above defination: If I take you camping for the first time you gain knowledge of woodlore, some skills, and hopefully a appreciation for camping. I have indeed designed a experience for you. I can therefore advertise: Come and enjoy the experience of camping. OR Become a part of our high country program designed to experience nature at its finest. Whether you enjoy this adventure is up to you but the adventure, program, or experience was designed for you. Travel agents do this for you all the time.

    All the best. Bob.
  • Oct 25 2012: As any other social study UX works as an approach to certain statistical amount of people. I see it as ambiguous as that.
    I agree with You: people experience the same reality in many different ways. Since the amount of attention is variable in each person as are their senses' sharpness and personal preferences UX is closer to a matter of faith than to science.
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    Oct 21 2012: If everybody believed that, the Harvard study would have found 92% of companies creating good experiences and 8% bad ones. Obviously not the case.

    Also, having worked with product teams for many years, I wish I could say everybody believed that ...

    If I did not believe this was a topic worth debating, I would not have started this thread and you would not have responded :)
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      Oct 21 2012: I was looking for the issue.

      Thus far, wouldn't you say everyone in the "debate" seems to be on the side of designers' being able to influence the customer's experience but not control the reaction absolutely? I would guess the author to whom you refered would take that same stance.

      The variation will only be in how much someone believes the designer can influence the reaction of the customer.

      That people or businesses do not succeed in what they try to do does not to me suggest a problem of belief, or proof of belief, but rather a problem of implementation.
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        Oct 21 2012: "Thus far, wouldn't you say everyone in the "debate" seems to be on the side of designers' being able to influence the customer's experience but not control the reaction absolutely?"

        Hope you are not treating this as empirical evidence ... Seems more like confirmation bias to me :)
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    Oct 21 2012: Is there really a debate here? Is there anyone who would not believe that an experience is created at the interface of the person and the context that has been created for his/her reaction?
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    Oct 21 2012: To say that you can't design an experience is pretty much contradicting exactly what design is.

    Every design affords the end-user to do certain things. You're not going to use a mouse to use an iPad. You're not gonna use your toes to hold a gun and pull a trigger. You're not going to read a book upside down. Or are you going to use a mouse with your left or your right hand? By design, the mouse I'm using is for the right hand since the curves and grip fits perfectly for that hand and fits uncomfortably for the other.

    Companies make and design products, sure, but people will use the products depending on the way it's designed.
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      Oct 21 2012: James, I think you are missing my point :) People through around the term "experience" a lot because it sounds cool, but have not stopped to examine its meaning.

      Here I offer one definition: http://wp.me/p1sLNl-2G

      By that definition you cannot design an "experience" :)
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        Oct 21 2012: " 'Experience' is a subjective state, the result of several conditions: 1. the person with his or her personality, dispositions, moods, needs, and so on; 2. the situation or context of use; 3. the product or service in question."

        So how is it impossible to design "experience"? It still sounds like the same definition I'm referring to of Experience, so what makes this definition impossible to be designed?
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          Oct 21 2012: Can you make somebody like you? Not really. You can do various things - make compliments, do favors, tell them that you like them. At the end of the day, they may not end up liking you, and possibly they may even dislike you more. We do not have control over other people's experiences. I know it get a bit metaphysical, but I think it is an important discussion.
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        Oct 21 2012: So then our definitions of experience are the same. But from my understanding, your definition of "design" is a little different. You're making it sound like design is having full control over something, when design is really just having influence over something. At best, design (particularly aesthetic design) is really just an educated guess in hope that users will use the product the way you want them to.

        But the response "Can you make somebody like you? Not really." can be interpreted as "design has no influence at all," which sounds wrong to most people.
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          Oct 21 2012: James, I also think our positions are not very different :) I do not believe that design has no influence at all. It has a lot of influence, but it is only part of the story - the other part is the person you are trying to influence.
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        Oct 21 2012: "Can you make someone like you?"

        Maybe you can't make someone like every other person in the world, but the entertainment industry proves you most certainly CAN make someone like someone else. And is is done through design in almost all cases.

        Musicians and singers are "designed" in their personal appearance, and the concerts are designed based on the knowledge of the expectations of the "customer" the artist will draw to concerts and buy their music products outside of the concerts.

        Actresses and actors...same thing for their products...movies, TV shows, etc.

        Sports figures...same thing in just different venues.

        I'll guarantee you, the "customers" who spends millions (billions?) of dollars each year do it because they "like" the person (and the product) they are spending the money on. And those "celebrities" have a very designed public image they present to their customers.

        Even political candidates have designed public images they present when campaiging in order to get the voters to like them.
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        Oct 21 2012: "James, I also think our positions are not very different :) I do not believe that design has no influence at all. It has a lot of influence, but it is only part of the story - the other part is the person you are trying to influence."

        Except that you said "we cannot design experience" where I say we can. You're basically saying that because the ones designing the product cannot have full control over the subjective user, therefore they cannot design experience, making it sound like design has no influence.

        But you can say that we cannot design the experience for 100% of the masses, since everyone's different. That would be a more accurate statement.
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        Nov 2 2012: I do see your point here.......if the person doesn't have - the open state of mind to receive goodness - the best design is wasted on them.
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    Oct 20 2012: Rick, I would say that "visitors have great experiences when visiting Disneyland."

    Walt Disney had a vision and designed a physical place, the costumes, the processes, etc. I think my argument still stands :)
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      Oct 21 2012: I'm also sure that Disney wanted Disneyland to be a magical place for kids to ride amusement parks, not so much a place where people would scare themselves from watching horror movies and bloody gore, since it would frighten kids.
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      Oct 21 2012: I'm still trying to figure out whart your argument is, Alex.

      Your own topic narrative includes the sentence, "It is only when you develop PRODUCTS and SERVICES based on such knowledge and when you constantly track consumer feedback and adjust accordingly, can you HOPE to affect the consumer experience positively."

      Disneyland is a product and a service. So is every themed resort/casino out here is Las Vegas. I'm sure the owners of all of them DID design those complexes "based on knowledge" of consumer expectations, and I know for a fact they "track consumer feedback and adkust accordingly". Heck, I worked in the casino industry out here for 5 years after I retired from the Air Force. Seemed to me the customers were having a "positive consumer experience".

      A customer is a customer, whether they buy a product to "keep" from you or are just a "visitor" to your "business complex" that was designed to give them a "positive customer experience". And even though as James implied that Disneyland may have been designed for kids, I'll guarantee you the resort/casino complexes in the world are designed for the adult population.

      So I guess I'm lost. What Is your "argument" that you said you are "right" about? What are you trying to "change" or "implement" that isn't being used by numerous successfull businesses in different venues already? Is the crux of your topic aimed ONLY at "products" the consumer buys and then "owns" after they buy it, like a car? Or does the topic include "services" like theme parks, resort complexes, etc...places that people "just visit".

      Just trying to understand what I'm missing here.
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        Oct 21 2012: Rick, my argument is the following:
        - A lot of companies out there purport to "design great customer experiences" without knowing nothing about their customers - this, I would say, is the majority; it is also supported by the research of the Harvard guys - 92% of companies
        - The companies, whose products and services do result in great positive customer experiences (note the difference in phrasing), have the humility to say "we may not know our customers very well, so let's get to know them better through research and so on"
        - The term "to design an experience" has become so overused that people do not stop to think about what it means
        - My goals is to make people examine the meaning and, more importantly, ask themselves the question: How well do we really know our customers?
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    Oct 20 2012: I think it relates to the "product" the business is "designing" for the customer(s).

    I'm certain Walt Disney would not agree that Disneyland was a failure at "designing an experience" for the customers it was designed for.
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    Oct 20 2012: Fritzie, I cannot claim to know exactly what the authors meant. I can only interpret what they wrote. They could have written about "designing PRODUCTS which will evoke certain experiences in costumers."

    I am bringing up the issue not because I am a linguist, I am not. I am bringing it up because "designing experiences" has become a trendy but meaningless cliche - overused both by "gurus" and by designers, product managers, engineers, etc. alike.

    I believe that when we dig a bit below the surface of the language used, we can help companies design better products which will result in better experiences :)
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      Oct 21 2012: Okay, so you acknowledge that the authors may have meant precisely what you actually believe but lost an opportunity to emphasize that a design that unfolds positively depends on knowing the customer?

      I have never seen someone write about design or design thinking without beginning with the needs/wants/tastes of the target population.
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    Oct 20 2012: I think you may simply be interpreting the language more literally than the author intended. It would have been more awkward and confusing for the HBR authors to say something like "design the exogenous contexts for the human experience, taking into account continuously updated profiles of how individuals are likely to respond to those contexts."

    When people talk about designing an experience, I have never known them to mean that they expect to control every conceivable response and reaction of the person moving through. Rather, they try to anticipate in the process of design the way people will respond to the environments they are setting up.
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    Oct 20 2012: This is just another take on "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink". Another catch-phrase also applies: You can fool all of the people some of the time or some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

    Businesses have the power to control their own products and services. I have the power to control my thoughts and purchases (until that power is totally taken away by places such as Home Depot and Walmart, who come into a community and put all of the local businesses out of business.)
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    Oct 20 2012: we can divide people into two kinds one research on things second research on feelings ,

    just as a computer we need hardware and also we need software.if we want to succeed in doing something .

    so how can we do well ?what do we need .
  • Oct 20 2012: You have failed to convince me that it can't be done. You have not excluded targeting the particular person and other factors that might allo this to happen.