Design meaning, not experience

Your friends love a restaurant, you think it’s pretentious and overpriced.

You can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than going to a baseball game. Your kids yell: “Booorrrrinnngg”!

While others rave about them, the idea of using a Blackberry makes you slightly nauseous.

I think about these things…every time I hear people talk about “designing” experiences. Because, the truth is, it can’t be done. Designers design occasions for experiences; experiences themselves are personal.

That’s why different people having different experiences in (what are supposed to be) the same situations.

Ah, but there’s the clue: the situation isn’t the same for all participants because each of us brings a unique set of perceptions – perceptions rooted in unique personal histories – to everything we experience.

Technically, most designers are attempting to design meaning, not experience.

…how can designers create opportunities for meaningful experiences for people they don’t know? By paying close attentions to patterns.

A designer wishing to create a Thanksgiving product, or an experience related to that quintessential American holiday, knows the relevant triggers, signals and indicators (e.g., Pilgrim hats, turkeys, cornstalks, the color orange.)

But those signals don’t determine the kind of experience that an individual will have. Ever seen the movie, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles?” It’s a perfect example of the complex personal experiences which surround a holiday, like Thanksgiving. One character looked forward to Thanksgiving with great anticipation of warmth and family contact; another foresaw nothing but loneliness.

It’s clear, then, that we can’t remove an experience from its context. Context is the unique history of the individual having the experience; it is context that gives experience meaning. “Yes,” you might be thinking, “but most people enjoy Thanksgiving.” Yes, but are you designing your experience for “most people…?”

…“who is the person who will be coming to this restaurant?” The answers to these questions tell the designer that the person who will be coming to this restaurant is someone who lives, works or is visiting New York (specifically, lower Manhattan), interested in authentic Mexican cuisine, willing to pay a moderately high price tag for dinner.

What is the impact of this information? The designer can now begin to imagine a person for whom s/he is designing the restaurant. Not necessarily a particular individual, but a person who has certain patterns of living which imply a set of experiential preferences.

…what the experience designer is doing is creating conditions that invite the participant to engage with the atmosphere from a particular perspective and therein experience this range of meaning.

Each question enables the “experience designer” to better understand the context into which customers will place this restaurant. Without understanding context, the designer can’t understand meaning, and, remember, it’s meaning that the designer is ultimately interested in.

- Tom Guarriello