Tuesday, 17 January 2012

On Experience

Although I’ve been quiet here (and elsewhere in social media) over the past six months, I’ve been thinking a lot about experience. Specifically it seems to me that those of us who sell goods – be they books, white goods, clothes or anything else – need to learn to think far more closely about the user experience. Designers of products habitually think about usage – and those of us who retail or are involved in the selling and supply of goods need to pay closer attention to design. But in our case it isn’t just the design of the product – but the design of the experience of purchasing and then interacting with that product (or service)  that we need to engage with, and do better at. My friend and sometime sounding board Brian O’Leary highlights these issues in his presentations Context First and The Opportunity in Abundance.

Of course this thought extends to selling services. And a group of people who are very smart about this are those involved at the high end of the entertainment industry. Last Thursday evening I took my daughter Hannah to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to see Federico Bonelli and Sarah Lamb dance in Romeo and Juliet. The ROH is an object lesson in purveying “experience”. (Whether it is a commercially viable one is a separate issue – let’s leave public funding for the arts for another day).

From the moment of greeting at the front door by the liveried doormen to the moment the last applause has ended – what one has purchased is an experience. Arguably in Hannah’s case it starts before that in that one has also purchased weeks of delicious anticipation – which certainly adds to the sense of value-for-money. Visitors to the Opera House enter a world where one is willing to suspend day-to-day life and enter the fantasy. Not just the narrative fantasy of the evening’s performance (and last Thursday that was a indeed lyrical narrative, powerfully but delicately performed) but the fantasy and drama of the opulent setting and the interaction with other audience members and the abundant staff. It's a truly immersive experience.

Imagine my horror – therefore – to find that though we had some of the best seats in the amphitheatre (that’s the gods to you and me) – we were directly behind a young lawyer who spent both of the intervals dealing with email on her blackberry. Walking out at the end I overheard her saying to another of her party “I just couldn’t stop thinking about work”.

It could just be that ballet is not her bag. Although given the intensity of the colour, light, costumes, music and the sheer breathtaking lightness of Lamb as Juliet, it’s hard to know how. Or could it be that – useful as it is – being constantly on line, and constantly available to a world outside our immediate locale is hardening us to something that most enhances life – human experience: direct, immediate experience of the visible, tactile, audible world around us?

Something in me is deeply disquieted – and somewhere in what my mother calls my "back brain” there’s a gnawing consciousness that as a society and in our businesses we need to prize experience. Not to do so will be to collaborate in a gradual deadening to what is physically immediate. I can't help wondering if the start of such a slow death is somehow bound up in the current woes of Western economies – whether it be in the retail sector where people simply aren’t parting with money on the high street (except – ironically – for the experience of drinking coffee in Costa, Starbucks and Café Nero) or in other struggling manufacturing and commercial sectors.

And the fact that it is lurking there in the background makes me think that experience is going to be my recurring theme for 2012. Let's hope I can be more than a Jeremiah on the subject - but somehow link together my thoughts and observations to some mutual use.

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