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  • Writer's pictureClair Whitmer

Are You Experienced?

Updated: Apr 17, 2021

I call myself an Experience Manager.

Sometimes people think that means I design websites. Well, no.

But I get why it's confusing: there are so many "Experiences" to be had these days and no single, recognized formula for creating them. Here's a short list of terms I've seen used in articles or job descriptions in the past few days alone:

  1. Brand Experience

  2. Content Experience

  3. User Experience

  4. Customer Experience

  5. Immersive Experience

When I encounter a topic with so much undefined vocabulary wafting around it, it generally sets my Bullshit radar abuzz.

And so it should...buzzwords suck the meaning out of a conversation. I don't want to be guilty of that but I do use this term "experience" and it does have meaning for me that I want to share with my clients and my colleagues. When I think about it: providing a common understanding of this term is pretty much my job.

In fact, it's a super simple framework.

All these "experiences" are rings on a tree that, together, add up to your emotional and intellectual perception of a company.

Venn diagram of content, user, customer and brand experiences
How the experiences stack up, literally

From the inside out:

  • The Content Experience is everything you browse and search and read including data like search results.

  • The User Experience includes all of the specific pathways and mechanism that you use to access content or a service; this is where design comes in.

  • The Customer Experience layers on how problems are resolved or how transactions are fulfilled. How do you know if your order is on the way or if your package is late or if your blog post is published? What's the refund policy? What does that company do with your personal data once you've given it? Are your emails answered promptly or are comments policed in a prompt and transparent way that protects the interests of all the users?

  • The Brand Experience is this whole enchilada plus the specific messaging (words+images) used in marketing campaigns across every channel that tell you how the company wants you to understand its service or product or purpose. Images may count as Content, such as on a news site, or they may be used to compel action in a User Experience, or they may convey a brand message.

These layers interact with each other in your brain in ways that you're not aware of most of the time.

Depending on the circumstance, that's a good or bad thing. The User Experience may be invisible because it's so easy intuitive...and that's good. Or a user experience may be totally unique so that you have to use mental cycles to figure out how to use it but it tells you that this brand is innovative and cutting edge and disruptive...and that's also maybe good.

We often talk about experiences being "immersive" because they compel users to stick around and engage for long periods of time with whatever is on offer.

Sometimes the phrase refers to a specific category of event e.g. a music festival or an Escape Room or an Ice Cream Pop-Up Museum.

But, generally, saying that an experience is "immersive" means it's designed to encourage people to spend a lot of time discovering the experience rather than making a transaction. This adjective is used a lot by companies that want to appeal to Generation Y/Z users raised on social media and addicted to social interaction on their phones. Other companies may want an "efficient" experience: getting people from the home page to the checkout page quickly and with as few customer questions or complaints as possible. (Amazon achieves both: that's why it's Amazon.)

Whatever the goal, all the experience layers must work together to result in a predictable Brand Experience that is defined in advance internally. If you the user/customer have an "off-brand" perception of the company, then something went wrong in one or more of these "experiences".

That's easy, right? Here's the part I think that trips people up.

"Design" is a pivotal component of each of these layers but design is not the totality of the experience. Here's a great way to think about it:

Photo illustrating the difference between UX and Design.
I'm not sure who to credit for this except Truth.

Design is probably the most powerful way to influence behavior: that person in the photo saw the sidewalk and knew without thinking about it where he was "supposed" to walk. The sidewalk designer and engineers were super clear about that.

But Human-Centered Experience Design involves more elements.

It means understanding Intention and Motivation (where is that person going and is he late for an appointment?); Access (would he climb over a fence to take that shortcut? how high does the fence need to be to keep him off the grass?); Feedback (does he get a ticket for walking on the grass? Do other park users give him a dirty look? or, as it appears in this photo, does everybody start doing the same thing?); and, most importantly, Outcome: how does that person and everybody else feel about that park with the worn-down grass but the fastest route across the block?

Somebody like me is the experience ringmaster: as the strategist, I work with designers and editors and engineers and marketing people to define and deliver a desired outcome.

Frequently, this means backwards-engineering a "bug".

For example:

the neighborhood says that park is getting shabby because too many people use it as a shortcut from one street to another and not enough people use it as a gathering place.

So my (hypothetical) team gets together to solve this problem. We start by figuring out: who is the park really for? What justifies the building and maintenance budget that keeps that park from being paved over and sold to developers? Is it the city? The neighbors? The businesses around it that need a place for workers to have lunch next to the office or that need to attract foot traffic to the area?

Second, we need to define the problem; this is frequently the hardest and most time-consuming part. Why is it a problem that people are taking shortcuts in the park? How much would it cost to rebuild the sidewalk and would that effort prevent pedestrians from cutting across the grass? Is this a big enough problem to justify the associated expenses of addressing it?

Then we make recommendations that relate the problem to the solutions to the resources available to fix the problem. The conclusion of the process may sound like this:

The short cuts are making the park look shabby and discouraging visitors to stay and sit on the park benches. The surrounding businesses will contribute $X to keep the park pristine so it will continue to attract shoppers to this area and motivate near-by office workers to eat lunch in the park and stay close to their desks during work hours. We recommend:

  • replanting the grass and building two-foot fences around the grassy areas to discourage pedestrians from taking shortcuts

  • planting flowers and posting a photo diorama about the historic significance of this park to make visitors feel good about the changes we're making

  • adding wayfaring signs to make sure people know how to get from one side of the park to the other

  • Etcetera.

Lastly, we test the outcome of our recommendations. Let's say in this scenario we take before and after photos and conduct foot traffic counts to see if the changes are sustainable and whether or not the park has more or fewer visitors in three months.

I work either as an individual contributor to the Content Experience and, frequently, as the ringmaster of the entire process; my job is to coordinate everyone else's best problem-solving efforts.

And that is what I mean when I call myself an Experience Manager. Simple, right?

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