Experience Design is a bit of a buzzword these days. Organizations are becoming increasingly aware that their design communication strategies affect the overall brand awareness of their product or service. When a company’s various communication vehicles are “on brand”, the consistency of the message makes it easier for people to have a relevant experience with that brand.

Hypothesis: Strategically designed touch points define an experience.

This hypothesis is actually a commonly held belief of many design and experience-design firms. To ponder its validity we can consider some real-world examples.

Retail Therapy?

Imagine that you walk into a store like David’s Tea. Everything from the friendly employees’ greetings, to the display of products, and even the temperature of the lighting has been designed by a team of people who determine that this combination of sensory inputs will best reflect the David’s Tea experience.

But what if you walk into David’s Tea directly from an argument with a colleague? Are the friendly employees soothing or annoying? Are the scents from the table display welcoming or nauseating? Is the bright lighting indoors and the meticulously organized shelves disorienting and too sterile in your emotional state?  Experience changes with context.


Experience Design Encounters of a Complex Kind

A recent encounter with a car company provides another example of the complexity of an “experience”. My friend was driving home with her child when her car broke down. Being nearby, I drove over to give her a hand. We sat on the side of the highway for two hours trying to get a hold of someone on roadside assistance. That was tough enough but she was also thinking about the fact that this 6-month old Dodge had already been to the shop on two previous occasions.


After finally getting through to someone at the U.S.-based call center (we were in Toronto, Canada), she was towed to a nearby Mazda dealership to get the car checked out. At the Mazda dealership, they didn’t have the right tools to fix a Dodge vehicle, so we had to relocate to a Dodge dealership closer to my friend’s home. Unfortunately, the saga did not end there. Though we were now at the correct dealership, there was no rental car available, and the service manager suggested that we walk over to a nearby rental car dealership and figure out our own rental arrangement.  Experience design can fail.

A car is one of the biggest purchases a person will make in life, so it stands to reason that car companies want to make it a great experience. Surely Dodge does make efforts around customer experience, but an experience can easily go off the rails when not all scenarios and interaction touch points have not been thought through. A more knowledgeable call centre rep and an arrangement between Dodge and a rental car company was really all that was needed to make my friend’s experience better. Those are relatively simple steps in the process to make a customer feel secure and taken care of in a time of need.

Refined hypothesis: Strategically designed touch points can influence experience.

If we acknowledge that experiences like the two examples above happen every day, then we must agree that experience design cannot live merely within the confines of carefully constructed nodes of communication.

User experiences are intimate and personal things. The way you or I or the next person experiences a brand, product or service is entirely subjective and based on any number of variables. Given this fact, you can’t really design an experience because once a brand, product or service out there in the real world, even a carefully designed experience enters the wild.

As organizations and as designers, we can put ourselves in the shoes of our intended audiences and plan for the diversity of experiences they will have, both intentional and unintentional. We can consider the needs, wants and limitations of a product or service from a customer’s point of view. We can try to feel through their perspectives in order to design better experiences. But most importantly, we must be prepared to continue this process indefinitely even after we have released an experience design into the wild.


We must be ready to evolve and constantly improve what we are offering by being open to learning about real users, contexts, and scenarios of use. Experience stretches beyond the traditional realms of design and into every aspect of human life. The more time that organizations spend to discover and understand, the better we can plan and influence more successful experiences.

What do you think?

Can experience ever truly be “designed”? We’d love to hear what you think, so leave us a note!



  • I would broadly agree with this perspective. When you’re trying to deliver a particular experience that aligns with a brand’s core values, inherent in that process are some intelligent generalisations about the customer and the circumstances of the experience. You simply can’t consider and design for every possible scenario. Research, role-play and simulation tools help us to make better informed generalisations e.g. customer personas and usage scenarios. Even if we consider extreme users/usage scenarios, we can’t predict and respond to all eventualities. As you conclude, I think the only practical approach is to accept that designed experiences are imperfect and must evolve.

    There is a lot of interesting discussion about the use of designed experiences to directly influence behaviour. I guess this same caveat remains true: depending on specific circumstances, you will have more of less success in influencing behaviour. Unless of course your influence was so powerful that it could override circumstance e.g. a coffee shop so delightful it cheers you up regardless of your previous mood!

    • Agreed!
      It’s so important for organizations to understand that a design is never finished. There should always be a cycle of gathering feedback in order to evolve and improve the experience. As you say, scenario development and role playing and other design research methods are hugely important in understanding how to position the product or service, but then the moment of reflection and observation after launch is just as important to the success of a project because it allows us to continue to understand context of use and of course EVOLVE the design to better suit the needs of the audience.
      Experience Design Evolution ftw!

  • Of course you are right. It is impossible to plan for every eventuality, every customer. But there is one very powerful tool – giving the frontline staff the permission and tools to address situations as they arise. Often, great people are trapped within rigid systems and procedures. The best ones have workarounds, pull in favours, bend the rules to make things happen. Talk to these people and work with them to create the new procedures – and remember to leave space for yet unforseen problems. Give them the opportunity to learn and practice judgement, and to be human.

    Adam Lawrence
    Co-initiator, Global Service Jam

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