In a digital world, experience design is the key advantage

The pandemic made us hungry for physical experiences, but also fussy about them. Innovative experience design is the way our of this dilemma.

We sometimes fall under the idea that digital is “done” — we’ve reached a fairly stable state, with incremental device improvements as the background drumbeat of our technological life. Yet, one only needs to look at the struggles that virtual reality and the metaverse have had to get established to see that we still have plenty of distance to go.

Our experience of reality as embodied creatures is complex: we perceive it through sight, and sound, and touch, and taste and smell. Right now, digital technology can only really deliver us the first two of those experiences: sight and sound. There’s rapid development in the field of haptics, bringing a sense of touch into the equation, and we’ll have some examples on stage at NEXT23. But, until we bring the other sensations into play, virtual reality will only ever be a pale shadow of physical reality.

This leads one to think that maybe Apple is on to something with its focus on augmented reality: bringing digital ideas into the physical space. And perhaps it’s in this liminal zone where physical sensations meet digital facilitation that we still have plenty to do. Take, for example, food. Fundamental to our existence, and an understandable focus on much of human life as a result. We’ve been creating digital content about food from the very early days of the internet, from the explosive growth of recipe sites, to the rise of cooking influencers. Even the word “nom” making it from internet slang to mainstream usage was down to the internet. (Although, some speculate its true etymology is the noises Cookie Monster makes in Sesame Street…)

Why physical has to be better than digital

It’s become a cliché that people seek physical experiences post-lockdown, but with those months of isolation still haunting many of us, it’s strongly interwoven with the truth. But our sense of what it’s worth leaving the home for has changed. Cinema’s rebirth has struggled, as people grew content with their large-screen TVs and streaming services. It’s taken a dual cinematic experience to really reawaken interest. Barbieheimer has proven to be a real thing:

… it’s true that the same-day release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, two extremely different summer mega-movies, galvanized movie geeks to the tune of a legendary $300 million combined opening. The hype gave Barbie director Greta Gerwig a historic box office debut of $162 million, and contributed to the fourth-highest-grossing weekend in US cinema history. Not bad for two films that, by now, have become more meme than movie.

It’s more than just two exciting, interesting films. It’s the communal experience of coming together, the clear colour palette for each film, that makes the cinematic experience into a communal, dressing-up driven one. We still want these communal experiences, but now we demand more of them. The latest Marvel movie no longer feels like an event, but these movies did. And the profits are there, as a result.

Many years ago, we ran some service design conferences. Perhaps their natural successor would be a NEXT Experience Design conference. Certainly, on stage this year, we have someone who specialises in these sorts of compelling, unusual experiences. Sam Bompas is co-founder of Bompas and Parr, a consultancy that focuses on physical experiences.

Bringing the past and the future together

In an interview with Delicious magazine, Bompas summed up their working approach:

We look to the past a lot of the time, but are also always looking to future technologies – it’s the synergy of the two which helps to create our mad adventures in food.

It’s at the heart of their experience design, whether as brand activations or art projects. Fancy a night out drinking? Mundane. How about a night out, inhaling vaporised gin and tonic? That was their Alcoholic Architecture.

We know that a walk in the woods is good for our mental health. But how about a walk in a sentient forest? We know that trees communicate in a variety of ways, including through a mycelial network under our feet. Digital technology brought that to life:

Picking up the headphones at one of our forest listening stations, guests could hear a soundscape representing tree communication and bioacoustics, with specially curated room scents helping immerse them further in the installation.

Isn’t the idea of listening in to the gossip of the trees just a seductive idea?

Experience design: enhancing the physical with digital

Their work reflects all three roles digital plays in physical experiences:

  • Digital is competition: physical experiences need to be good enough to seduce us away from it.
  • Digital is facilitation: we can enhance physical experience by using emergent technologies to provide innovative sensory encounters
  • Digital is marketing: because these sorts of expensive, unique events need to capture a market

While we’re waiting for virtual reality to catch up, we still have plenty of work to do in taking physical experiences and augmenting them in creative ways with technology.

Photo by Axel Ruffini on Unsplash