Note: Drafted on 3/19. Finalized Today.
This week I have been working on my process for developing programs. I have written many documents over the last few years on how to create programs, what to keep in mind, how to test them, etc, but still a lot of it is in my head and not even very conscious at times. I decided to open up all the documents and synthesize things down to a simpler process than I can follow.
I’m sure this will evolve over time, but here’s a good first shot at it.
I also want to say that many of these ideas are taken from The Art of Gathering and Designing Experiences, two great books I highly recommend.
The Experience Timeline Phases
The Invitation is when the visitor first hears about the program. When they arrive at the Eureka Room is when the Ushering begins.
The Ushering is the people, place, objects and actions from the parking lot until they are in the room. This includes the front door, lobby, checking in, restrooms, waiting, interactions with staff, etc. The Ushering for most Eureka Room programs is exactly the same.
The Program encompasses the entire time from when they go into the room until they exit.
The Afterglow starts from the moment they exit the room and includes whatever happens in the lobby, the parking lot, and all memories and followups from the Eureka Room. It eventually fades away until they reach the point they no longer even remember the Eureka Room (sad).
The Experience Timeline Characteristics
Plot points are the important turning points in the story.
Moments are the memorable or meaningful ask-rewards tradeoffs. It’s where you go from what part of reality to another, either under your own volition or by being pushed or pulled by outside forces. Dan and Chip Heath’s great book Moments say moments have one or more of these four elements: elevation, insight, pride, or connection.
Energy is how much energy the visitor has to expend physically, mentally, or emotionally. Very few people will enjoy a frantic and tense program without pauses or relief. Varying energy allows visitors to catch their breath so that they can fully enjoy the next energetic portion. In other words, you don’t want to wear them out and you don’t want to bore them.
Tone is harder to define and perhaps mood is a better word. Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes crazy, sometimes spooky, sometimes jokey, sometimes co-operative, etc. Using songwriting as an analogy, serious might be the verse and partying the chorus and co-operative the bridge. Tone is not content, it’s a modality. It’s hard to write a good song with all choruses or all verses. The Tone chart is what helps me know I’m delivering changes that will keep things interesting.
The Experience Timeline Chart
Plotting these out allows us to get a birds-eye view of the full experience. We can see where there are energy lulls, where the tone needs changed, where we could use some more moments, or where not much happens in the plot.
If I had used this when I created House of Psych, I might have seen that it was lacking in moments and that it was too high energy in places for too long. But instead I had a couple rounds of testers go in and suffer through so that I could figure that out the hard way.
The two main problems I look out for are boredom and overwhelm. These issues can manifest in any of the dimensions. For example: too many plot points to follow, energy requirements are too high for too long, the tone never changes, too many moments happen too quickly to savor any of them and visitors feel they are missing it or missing out.
What is the “ask-reward” pair and “mechanic” I refer to in the chart?
When you get someone to go from here to there (physically, emotionally, and/or mentally) you are always asking something of them: to change their focus, to physically move, to take some risk, to do something so that where they end up is not where they started.
If you ask them to do that there must always be a reward equal or greater to what you’ve asked them to give up. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to a “better” or “happier” or “more comfortable” place – sometimes the payoff is just a stronger emotion that they will appreciate being given. (For example, a scare in a haunted house is not a “happier” state but to many it is what they are rewarded with for going through the front door).
The “ask” is three parts: physical, mental, and emotional. The “mechanic”, for my purposes, is what the visitor is physically doing (or saying). Physicality is core to the experiences in The Eureka Room so I elevate it here in order to make sure I give it the attention it needs. If your project does not have much (or any) physicality you might choose to skip this closer examination.
A Few Other Notes
The majority of the work I do is in the “Program” part, but even a little work put into the other phases can have a great ROI for you – since most people aren’t expecting anything outside the Program phases, these areas are ripe for surprise and delight since visitors don’t expect much, if anything, outside the core experience.
You typically want the program to be much longer than the ushering. Otherwise it can feel like a lot of buildup and anticipation, but then not enough payoff on the promise.
You’ll see on the chart three things that I want each moment to have. Having these three things really heightens the moment and makes it more memorable or meaningful.
Just because I map things out doesn’t mean I’ve mapped out reality. This is just a model and a model is not reality. I’m doing my best guess of what I think will be experienced. My assessment is not going to be perfect but my hope is that I can reduce testing time and rework by examining the experience from a higher level before I start creating the assets of the experience.