Experience design that combats the transactional.

Frankenstein AI at Sundance: two strangers connecting over sharing personal stories

Amanda Hess wrote a very smart piece in the NY Times that does a great job of teasing out many problematic aspects of the kinds of experiences (think: “museums”, “factories” and “mansions”) now common in NYC and other big cities. For me, there were many sections of Hess’s article that stuck out, but perhaps none more than the following:

The central disappointment of these spaces is not that they are so narcissistic, but rather that they seem to have such a low view of the people who visit them. Observing a work of art or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished.

As I walked around 29Rooms last week, I sincerely wondered if the people snapping endless selfies were *actually* enjoying themselves. Have we lost touch with what that even means? As a somewhat obsessive documenter of my own experience going back to early childhood, I can tell you it has always been a method of detachment for me, a way to hedge against taking the emotional risk of full participation. I have a very active meta mind. That’s what I call the part of my brain that analyzes things as I’m experiencing them, always watching, always cycling, always processing, placing an editorial layer over my entire experience. My meta mind is what makes me a good strategist, but also at times, a very distractible human.

Think of the photos one takes inside the selfie palaces Hess described in her piece versus those amusement park roller coasters photos most of us likely remember from our childhood. The concept underpinning the latter is clear… scare the shit out of people by dropping them from a height, and capture the moment as it happens. On the quality of those chance photos–sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. But, good news! In that case, the point isn’t the photo, it’s the experience. The photo is just another way to make money off the experience, and provide a visitor the option to bring home an artifact commemorating that moment, or not.

What happens when the photo has to bear the weight of being the entire experience? Rather than designing a space where people have experiences, the people behind the “experiences” Hess writes about have succeeded in designing backdrops, against which we’re meant to perform for likes from our friends, followers, and connections. Taking a photo for the sake of taking a photo does not an experience make — nor does manufacturing a set against which to stage an experience so you can capture (and, of course, share) a memory of a reality that did not exist.

Though there were some interactive rooms in 29Rooms, easily 20 of 29 existed purely to provide a backdrop for a photo, drive social sharing and push earned media ROI for sponsors and partners. It makes sense from a business perspective, but as a “mind expanding” experience, it fell short.

I’ve been thinking more and more lately about how often we speak about people as consumers — even when we don’t have to. The language we use belies our worldview, sometimes even betrays it. Late stage capitalism posits literally everything as a commodity, even our very lives.The kinds of experiences that Hess felt were so devoid of meaning are constructed to supply content for the feeds that we curate, which may or may not reflect the lives we’re actually living. It’s like the ultimate joke about meta-reality; the punchline is that it has replaced reality.

All of this points to the underpinnings of our design process at the Digital Storytelling Lab. Specifically, it calls to mind the core design principles that support all of the very collaborative work we do. At the Lab everything we make and all of the experiences we design adhere to four key design principles that arose out of Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things, our first global prototype.

Thematic Frame — Design the experience around a central narrative to give participants a clear understanding of its foundation

The Trace — Make participant contributions visible, so they see a trace of themselves within the story

Granting Agency — Leave enough white space in the experience for participants to construct aspects of the story individually, and as a group

Serendipity Management — Orchestrate micro-experiences that create moments of unexpected connection and collaboration between participants

Taken as a whole, the principles are important because they describe a series of interactions that promote collaboration and co-creation. Audience members are transformed into participants, making personal connections and often telling stories of their own, thus imbuing a collective experience with personal meaning, and helping to create meaning for others in the process.

A significant part of the reason the kind of pop-up spaces Hess visited feel so transactional is that participants have no hand in creating them. Stepping into an environment that serves no more purpose than that of a novel “set,” against which we’re meant to perform for the camera, eliminates any possible emotional investment in the story, because there is no story — at least not enough of one to write ourselves into it. In the immortal, and seemingly ever-present words of Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there.

The kinds of experiences that make me feel something, thus rendering the experience significant and memorable, usually require that I learn something about myself or another person, or create a memory in my physical body based on a sensory environment. This is why designing for interaction is so damn important — and irreplaceable. The rooms that really did make me feel something at 29Rooms were the ones in which I had the space to contemplate my own existence, or meet and connect with a person, or gain access to people’s musings on their past selves, or sit in semi-darkness listening to music being played by a machine, or even something as simple as draw a picture. This is the heart of experiential strategy. It’s really storytelling itself, designed to be emotional, immersive, and most importantly, participatory.

Late last month, I had the privilege of giving a talk at Mediamorfosis Buenos Aires among an incredibly talented group of speakers. One of them, a VR director named Ricardo Laganaro, said something that has been reverberating inside my brain ever since I heard it: “Yo no tengo un cuerpo; yo soy mi cuerpo,” which translates to “I do not have a body; I am my body.” In our ever more screen-saturated world, the drive to build environments that put people into their bodies is becoming increasingly important. Whether to connect with themselves or with others, to learn, to express themselves, seeking embodied experience is innately human, and is good for our souls and minds, too.

I genuinely applaud and respect the people and organizations willing to take early risks in building the kinds of experiences that Hess wrote about. The fact that they’re proving to be commercially successful is encouraging, and signals good things for makers and creators interested in producing immersive work. But rather than building these spaces just to fill them with content (whatever that means), let’s build spaces for the purpose of creating and sharing meaning. In this already overly-commodified world we live in, we could all use a little more of that.

strategist/experience designer, thinker, dreamer, Director of @CooperHewitt Interaction Lab, and co-conspirator @ColumbiaDSL