Expectation and experience design

Experienceologist Stephanie Weaver gamely challenged me to write a few words about the extra "Anticipation" phase I suggested for her terrific 8 Step programme.

There is a time between knowing or deciding something will happen, and the time when the event actually starts. It is the time of expectation, or anticipation, and can take many powerful forms - the smell of my favourite coffee stand before I turn the streetcorner; the packages under the Christmas tree; the first sparkling view of the distant ocean.

Now, in her 8 Steps, Stephanie would probably add some of these to the "Invitation" and "Welcome" phases. In a way she would be right, but there is a fundamental qualitative difference. An invitation has not yet been accepted, and a welcome is participatory, but in the anticipation step I have already made my decision - yet I have no way to interact with the experience that I am anticipating.

Psychologically, this is crucial - as this inability to shape what will happen frees my imagination and makes both positive and negative emotions more powerful.

Let's look for an example on the unpleasant side of anticipation. What about the feelings of apprehension or dread that a dental appointment can cause in many of us? In reality, a visit to the ChopperDoc is seldom more than uncomfortable - yet in our imagination we expect the Spanish Inquisition. It is the absence of a reality check which lets us torture ourselves like this.

In experience design, the anticipation phase should not be left out of your thinking. Firstly, in an experience with a long positive anticipation phase (long drive to Wallyworld, anyone?) the first "Boom!" of your welcome will act not as an attention-getter, but as a kind of release. This is very noticeable in kid's experiences - thus the tears just after arrival at Disney - or highly emotional adult ones. In fact, that's why so many grooms burst into tears when their bride steps into the church. In such cases, you will need to offer a recovery opportunity (and restrooms!) sooner than you might think.

Secondly, a well managed anticipation phase will boost the start of the headline experience itself. Why else have warm-up acts or MCs at rock concerts, TV studios and stand-up gigs.? If they are good, the audience will be not just warmed up, but at fever pitch when the headliner explodes into the light.

Anticipatory aspects of experience design can take many shapes or forms. With a long lead-in time (perhaps for a holiday or cultural event), what about postcards, sound clips or videos sent in advance? For an educational experience, how about a quiz to complete at home? For a "walk-in" retail experience a great smell (see my last post) is very powerful, but a lot can be done with sound (especially music), signage or a "wienie", like Disney's towering castles. If your experience has a start time, consider a countdown of some kind. And at the simplest level, we should never underestimate the power of an ordinary entrance ticket presented in a truly beautiful package.

However you handle it - and whether you call it part of the welcome phase or not - don't forget the huge emotional potential that lies in the helplessness of anticipation.

(More on this subject and it's neurology here.)


Stephanie Weaver said...

I like this a lot. Clearly defined, great examples... too bad my book is already at the printer! :)

Stephanie Weaver

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