Opinion

The forgotten language of experience design

A child laying down the rules of a new playground game to his peers, a restaurateur planning the theatrics of plate delivery in a new high class restaurant and a parent planning the annual holiday all have something in common. They're all experience designers, writes Nicolas Roope, founder of Poke.

If it goes well the opportunity to scale is limitless. If you fail - meh

They all have to carefully manage structural and operational consideration being careful to pre-empt cause and effect relationships to make sure outcomes are as positive as possible.

The child wants a good game experience so players will return. The restaurateur wants that shining review that takes note of nuanced innovation in presentation and favourable, charged word of mouth.

The parent creating the ideal holiday wants collective happiness and contentment but with the looming reality that weaknesses exist at every juncture of their plans, should reviews, contracts, deposits etc break down at any point.

Everyone is an experience designer

A "good" game, restaurant and holiday are all dependent on layer upon layer of consideration and design.

Put too much emphasis on the operational side and it all gets too predictable, not enough and the tiny cracks that appear turn into disasters.

Being too creative and progressive may equally lead to problems. Will these innovations add icing to the cake or provide focal points for criticism and ridicule?

We know these scenarios all too well and we know when done well, they lead to memories that will last our lifetime and when done badly, ideally as-soon-as-they're-forgotten-the-better.

You see we're all experience designers. We're always engaged in processes that are trying to reconcile all the realities of a situation with the ambition to make things work the best they can for those involved, to inspire them and in turn to raise our own reputations, whether that's as individuals or as brands.

Brands wake up to open experience design

In the old days you were either cool and a bit flakey or on it and a nerd

So if "experience design" is everywhere, then why does it feel like such a new phenomenon?

The answer comes from the legacy of what has preceded this moment in the communications industry.

The dominance of linear, closed experiences such as printed images and films has stopped brands from understanding and planning brand experience, other than in 'brand activations' with their necessary limit on reach and access.

Also, of course, not only has communication been largely closed, the underlying services and products have been static and not subject to open criticism and the transparency the network now provides.

Brands have lost that intuition for how to bring all the layers together in creating continuous experiences, because they’ve lived for so long with severed, separate ties. If a lot of brands tried to plan the annual holiday, they’d stop at making a poster for it and subsequently face the family backlash!

The onset of digital media as a mass-market medium is challenging all that. Brands as we all well know have moved, or are in the process of moving to more conversational models ("digital-first" some call it).

The smartphone shift

Brand activations in digital aren't limited to those you can squeeze into a festival tent - the potential audience is as large as the internet has connections.

And as services and products have become more subject to the structures and whims of the network, the importance of addressing how brands exist in the digital realm has grown from an auxiliary concern to a central tenet of corporate strategy.

Why spend so much time telling everyone what you believe in when you can demonstrate it at scale right in front of their eyes? Why obsess with messaging when you can take them on a ride and sell them the momento, there and then? If they like you more, remember you more and then buy more, why would you do anything else?

More than anything else, the smartphone has prompted this shift in perceptions of the role and importance of digital media; not just for the management operational considerations, but to exude brand in every facet of user journeys.

The smartphone's meteoric rise has caused shockwaves through business because the numbers are so huge and un-ignorable.

And unlike desktop digital experience, everyone with a smartphone gets what makes those experiences work, unlike the old desktop era where whole generations would be caught saying things like "I use the internet for booking tickets (and porn) but never play games or do this social media stuff".

That's changed wholesale because every smartphone user accesses the useful parts as well as the playful bits.

Design defines the conduit of a brand to its user, community, market

They've all played Candy Crush and Angry Birds, dropped an Uber pin and uploaded party pics and watched the likes rolling in.

Everyone gets it, because everyone has a smartphone. Everyone gets the power of Uber because they made it important enough to the business to sort out the architecture and integration in the back, so the app could be seamless and intuitive at the front.

But while the smartphone has been the trojan horse that has finally let out the marauding experience warriors to run riot over Troy, the implications for digital media more generally are profound.

It is now broadly accepted that brands live in every element of digital experience, so rather than leaving advertising to establish it, you need to breathe it into every part of your digital existence, the digital ecosystem as it's often called.

If you can do good business and build brand equity, that's better than doing them both separately and comparably inefficiently. And of course we all now know that great experiences leads to great advocacy, which we also know works very well in a networked environment when shared enthusiasm flows a long way.

Realising is one thing; doing something about it is another. We have to acknowledge that every client business and agency is build around linear communications models.

Building brands from scratch

If we want to start responding seriously to the new environment, we have acknowledge the serious problems that need fixing. And the first, most important problem is not one of design, (that comes much later.)

The first problem to solve is how to shape organisations around a new understanding of brand. Learning that a brand isn't a stamp or a message but a set of values, belief and aspirations that sweat through every pore, that are displayed in action as well as a more dynamic expression.

When you have that fixed, then you can start on the architecture and the personality. When we know who we are, how should we carry those beliefs out into the world and make it mean something, make it resonate with markets?How do we innovate our model to answer these questions and fold new commercial opportunities and strategic advantages into this shift? As this internal dialogue gathers momentum, experience design becomes key.

Understanding how a commercial offering can be shaped to fit this new world is as much a design consideration as it is commercial. Did Uber succeed because it was a clever idea or a highly evolved, seemless experience to use?

The answer of course is both, but the design, to be really resolved, needs to happen early in the chain as it has implications back onto structures, legals, critical development paths, commercial factors etc.

The consummation of brand promise

We've watched design becoming an ever more central facet of the digital revolution and this is the reason why. Design defines the conduit of a brand to its user, community, market. It is the consummation of brand promise. If it goes well the opportunity to scale is limitless. If you fail - meh.

In our industry that is polarised into logicians and rock'n'roll culture makers, there are few credible hands to manage the complexities of experience design.

Agencies and cultures that can on the one hand can navigate convoluted systems and very abstract architectural problems (i.e. how to create a system architecture that can continue to adapt) whilst at the same time blending in culture, attitude and personality.

In the old days you were either cool and a bit flakey or on it and a nerd. What we need today is cool nerds. People and agencies that can fathom the deep jumbled soup of networked technologies and surf the rich broth of culture. And help their clients to do the same.

Experience design is on the frontline of this reconciliation of left and right brain for organisations. The smartphone was the catalyst, yet is only one piece in the puzzle. What is certainly true is we're no longer looking back and instead start to shape our industry to better serve our  clients and customers in this new world.

It seems like a lot of effort to move industry back towards that seemless experience design that everyone finds so intuitive in their natural lives. But sometimes unlearning provides the only route forward.