Experiential Products

Alison Kidd, The Prospectory, April 2002

What is an `Experiential Product’?

A film, a concert, a live rugby game, a balloon flight, a night in a hotel, a restaurant meal, a museum visit, a sailing holiday, an artwork or even an educational course – these are all `experience products’. The consumer pays for an intangible experience – sometimes this is embodied within a tangible product (a bottle of wine or an artwork) but other times the consumer is buying `pure’ experience.
The proportion of consumer spending on `experiences’, as distinct from tangible goods and services, is rising but companies don’t always realise that they are primarily in the experience business.

How do Experiential products work?

Some years ago, we conducted a research study into how consumers experienced the hands-on technology exhibits in the at-Bristol Discovery Centre. We observed the way children and adults interacted with a range of exhibits and we discussed with them their reactions to and feelings about the different exhibits. We recorded and analysed the language people used to describe the exhibits and how they experienced them.

From this analysis, we found that experience products engage people to a greater or lesser extent along 3 interacting dimensions and the most powerful experiences engage us on all 3 dimensions at once!

The 3 dimensions are:-

  • Stimulation
  • Individual expression
  • Social bonding

We have since tested and refined this model against consumer experiences in the following domains: sailing, rugby, art, motor biking and boarding school education. The model has helped us understand why certain experiences work and where others may be lacking.

This describes the degree to which an experience stimulates either:-
our physical senses (our sight, sound, touch, taste and smell), or
our intellects, imaginations, emotions or dreams.
The `buzz’ we get in this case is either physical, emotional or intellectual.
Experiences along this dimension tend to be the most likely to become addictive or compulsive – we repeatedly seek out more of the same stimulation e.g. drinking wine skydiving, sex, playing computer games or jogging.
This dimension is also the one over which a product designer has the most degrees of control in delivering the experience.

Individual expression
This describes the degree to which an experience is shaped via dynamic interaction with an individual consumer. Some experiences are delivered to us as passive consumers (e.g. a film), i.e. regardless of who we are or what we do, we have no power to affect them. Other experiences offer us ways to exercise or express our individual skills, creativity, views or personality (e.g. a pottery course or an Internet chat room). The `buzz’, in this case, comes from achieving something we didn’t know we could do or from expressing something original about ourselves. The emphasis here is on individuality, uniqueness and self-development.
In all the domains we have studied, we’ve found that this dimension creates the most deeply satisfying experiences which last long after the stimulating event is over because the consumer themselves has uniquely shaped the experience they receive. For example, talking to customers who have bought self-build wooden boat kits, we found their greatest lasting pleasure was in ways they had been able to influence and adapt the boat designs to incorporate their own ideas.
This dimension is possibly the most challenging for product designers to achieve because it is partly architected by them but at the same time has to provide the right `hooks’ for the consumer to engage and shape the experience themselves. Success lies in finding the right balance between structure and individual freedom of expression. For example, we have found that consumers prefer the atmosphere at rugby matches where the entertainment is not wholly choreographed but is created by the supporters singing or generating their own idiosyncratic chants.

Social bonding
This describes the degree to which an experience triggers a sense of bonding or intimacy with those around us. The `buzz’, in this case, may come from sharing the exhilaration of achieving a challenge together or from sharing a moment of intense emotion, be that fear, suspense or joy. Sometimes the buzz is competitive, rather than collaborative where we feel a rush of adrenalin from pitching our wits, skills or strengths against another person in order to win.
This dimension is the one over which designers have the least control. The most important aspects of design in this case may be in wider aspects of the environmental design which either enable or inhibit people sharing the experience with others. For example, restaurants, however excellent their food (taste and appearance wise) can have layouts and acoustics which dampen or inhibit the sense of social intimacy which would enhance the overall experience. Similarly, modern sports stadiums which lack standing terraces have damaged, for many people, the social buzz of attending a sports match. In contrast, we worked with a boarding school which had successfully created a unique community experience by organising both accommodation and activities in ways which deliberately cut across roles and age groups.

Why the `buzz’?
Experiencing any of the 3 kinds of engagement above triggers the release of powerful chemicals (e.g. serotonin, testosterone, etc) into the bloodstream causing a direct physiological reaction to the experience. For example, after a goal is scored in a football match, committed supporters witnessing the drama have been found to have similar levels of testosterone in their bloodstream to the players themselves. Neuroscientists are starting to use MRI scanning techniques to explore how pleasure centres in the brain respond to both physical and emotional or intellectual stimuli.
The dominance of the `individual’ dimension is consistent with the findings of Csikzentmihalyi (1990) in his studies on `optimal experiences’. Csikzentmihalyi interviewed hundreds of people about the moments in life which they most enjoyed. He found that people reported some characteristic experiential states which distinguished that moment from the rest of their life. Most importantly, Csikzentmihalyi found that exactly the same characteristics were reported regardless of the context, e.g. playing chess, climbing mountains, playing with babies, reading a book, painting a picture, writing a poem or doing one’s daily work. They were also the same across all ages, genders, nationalities and classes. When all the characteristics were present, Csikzentmihalyi called this state of consciousness a `flow experience’ because many of the respondents reported that when they were engaged on these activities, it felt like being carried along by a flow or current with one moment melding into the next. Contrary to expectation, `flow’ rarely happened during relaxing moments of leisure, for example reading a book or watching TV but rather when people were actively involved in a difficult enterprise which stretched their mental and physical abilities to the limit. So, people often experienced more flow from what they did on their jobs than from their leisure activities in their free time.

Some Design Recommendations
Based on the model we have developed so far, we would offer the following recommendations to designers of experience products:-
1.     Recognise which is the primary dimension of any intended product experience (i.e. sensory or cognitive stimulation, individual expression or social bonding) and seek to maximise that dimension whilst exploring possible ways to enhance its impact along the other dimensions.
2.     A stimulus in one physical sense (e.g. visual) will appear intensified if presented with a congruent stimulus in another sense (e.g. auditory or olfactory). For example, subjects report a higher intensity response to a painting where they are simultaneously exposed to auditory or olfactory stimuli which match the subject or mood of the picture. Where the two cross-sensory stimuli are not congruent, then there is a dampening affect on the perceived intensity of the stimuli.
3.     Our more primitive senses (e.g. smell and touch) have the most direct (and arguably the most powerful) effect on people.
4.     The experiences which deliver the longest lasting satisfaction are ones where the consumer has been able to express something of themselves through the experience – i.e. part of the experience is created by them. It is tempting for designers to over-architect experiences in order to assure their quality and, maybe, consistency, but it may be more compelling to leave space/opportunity for individuals to express something of their own creativity or shape the experience for themselves.
5.     Where an experience appeals to the intellectual or emotional dimensions, again the most engaging ones are those which are not over prescribed. People are mentally and emotionally more powerfully engaged by experiences which offer subtlety of interpretation, paradox, surprise and ambiguity. Paradox, for example, is often the basis for humorous experiences.
6.     People find experiences most compelling when they can completely lose themselves in them. Designers need to find ways to reduce extraneous stimuli or potential distractions in the surrounding environment in order to allow this level of absorption.
7.     To enhance the social dimension, designers need to be aware of the impact of the wider environmental structure within which their product is consumed, e.g. the layout of tables in a restaurant, the architecture of a sports stadium or the ability of 2 people to operate a hands-on technical exhibit together.

Related reading
Bernhardt, P. et al (1998), Testosterone changes during vicarious experiences of winning and losing among fans at sporting events. Physiology and Behaviour, 65, 59-62.
Blythe, M. et al, eds. (2003), Funology: from usability to user enjoyment, Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1990), Flow, the psychology of optimal experience, Harper Collins.
Herz, R. and Cupchick, G. (1993), The effect of hedonic context on evaluations and experience of paintings, Empirical Study of the Arts, 11(2), 147-166.
Kidd, A. (2001), Technology experiences: what makes them compelling?, HPLabs Technical Report.
Kidd, A. (2002), “I was there!”, The psychology of Welsh rugby supporters, Prospectory Research Report.
Limbert, W. and Polzella, D. (1998), Effects of music on the perception of paintings, Empirical Study of the Arts, 16 (1).
Mobbs, D. et al (2003), Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers, Neuron, 40, 1041-1048.
Pine, J. and Gilmore, J. (1999), The experience economy: work is theatre and every business a stage, Harvard Business School Press, Mass.
Zuckerman, M. (1984), Sensation seeking: beyond the optimal level of arousal
Zuckerman, M. (1994), Behavioral expression and biosocial bases of sensation seeking, Cambridge University Press

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