Can ‘experience’ be designed?

By Matt Judge

Experiences are our emotional responses to moments in our lives. They can be shared but are rarely identical. In fact, they are entirely personal — shaped by the nuances in our belief systems (which in turn, just to complicate matters, are shaped by our experiences) which means, at their most granular level, no two experiences are the same.

The term ‘Experience’ in relation to business and consumers isn’t new. In 1998 Joseph Pine and James Gilmore heralded the arrival of ‘The Experience Economy’ in their controversial HBR essay, recognising those businesses that connect with their audience on a more holistic, emotional level will foster more memorable, meaningful and rewarding relationships.

This perspective accompanied the emergence of a new generation. One whose needs and expectations of the world around them has been radically changed by the possibilities emerging technologies present. As a consumer they are more informed, less loyal, and with a desire to dictate the terms they engage with businesses upon. Dialogue not monologue. Fluidity not friction. Experiences not objects.

“78 percent of millennials would rather pay for an experience than material goods” -Harris Poll, 2015

Today these ‘Millennials’ represent the majority of both consumer and workforce in the US so unsurprising that, like the emergence of ‘brand’ before it, businesses are recognising the value of a considered, designed experience. One that delivers its values in authentic, human tone and understands that loyalty is earned by actions, not words. And just as ‘branding’ struggled to distance itself from ‘corporate identity’, the term ‘experience’ in a design context is also somewhat misunderstood.

The protagonist for me writing this was in response to a LinkedIn thought-piece denouncing ‘Experience Design’, articulately arguing that to claim responsibility for something defined by such personal, intrinsic values is incorrect. To an extent I agree. Experience is an outcome, not a discipline, and no one can design a single experience that is universally interpreted identically.

But perhaps it is also just a matter of perspective. We are all the creators of our own experience — the clothes we wear, the things we say, places we go and people we associate ourselves with — we don’t necessarily ‘design’ each constituent part, but we do curate and exhibit them which, when combined, creates an experience authentic to us. So why can’t a brand or business do the same? And why couldn’t ‘design’ help orchestrate this?

My experience of an organisation isn’t formed by any one of its functions, but rather the convergence of multiple dimensions that creates its experience ecosystem — touchpoints in the form of products and services, spaces, communications and behaviours, all enabled by systems and processes which originate from the values the organisational culture embodies.

A handful of progressive businesses are empowering groups or individuals within their ranks to champion a more human-centric experience ecosystem, corralling their many verticals to think and act holistically and with empathy to their employee and consumers needs. Others are turning to external thought partners (like Eight Inc.) to provide this function; blending business acumen with creativity to challenge ‘BAU’ and deliver a differentiated experience of themselves. So if our role in the creation of this ecosystem isn’t ‘Experience Design’, what it is?

Conventional rational prefers a role to describe its activity. Therefore, if experiences are shaped by the actions of others, should we call ourselves ‘Action designers’? I can hear the hysterics already. Perhaps ‘Experience Architecture’ is a more fitting, humble description? Creating the framework from which a desired emotional outcome is born as opposed to designing the outcome itself.

I’ve never been one for name calling though. Labels are boring and limiting. As ‘experience’ itself is defined by actions not words maybe those of us who consider themselves to be such architects should just call themselves ‘designers’ and let the fruits of our labours, and the imagination of others, create the boxes to place us.

Matt Judge is a Principal in Eight Inc.’s London studio

Originally published at

8 Design Human Experience. We design meaningful experiences with emotion and purpose that change the way people think, feel and do. | | @eightinc

8 Design Human Experience. We design meaningful experiences with emotion and purpose that change the way people think, feel and do. | | @eightinc