Note: This idea is work in progress.
It’s The Feelings, Stupid!
I’ve been simultaneously creating experiences and developing my process for creating experiences. In the last year it became apparent to me that when I create experiences I start with the feelings I want people to have when they are participating in the experience.
I don’t start with the tools, or the story, or what I want to see them to do. Instead, I get myself enveloped in a feeling that I want to transmit to other people. And I sit there reflecting on it and really understanding it. And then I have to figure out how to get other people there.
My favorite marketer and philosopher Seth Godin puts it this way:
Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said “people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit, they want a quarter-inch hole”. The lesson is that the drill bit is merely a feature, a means to an end, but what people truly want is the benefit, the hole it makes.
But that doesn’t nearly go far enough. No one wants a hole. What people want is the shelf that goes on the wall after they drill the hole. Actually, what they want is how they’ll feel once they see how uncluttered everything is, when they put their stuff on the shelf.
BUT… they also want the satisfaction of knowing they did it themselves. OR – perhaps the increase in status they’ll get when their spouse admires their work. OR – the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the bedroom isn’t a mess, and that it feels safe and clean. OR – they’ll stack books on the shelf to show off how smart they are when they invite friends over
People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want to feel safe and respected.
People don’t want what you make. They want what it will do for them.
They want how it will make them feel.Seth Godin
I read a lot of Godin and this is one of my favorite Godin pieces. It puts the commerce in a different light. Every single purchase is initiated for some end-goal feeling the purchaser is trying to get.
So if people are handing over their hard-earned money for feelings, why doesn’t design always start there every time?
I don’t know. Maybe because feelings are messy, personal, and a little too mushy and soft for the business world? Maybe because they are tricky to measure, tricky to manage, and in many cases, tricky to detect – even for those who are experiencing the feelings.
Even if you aren’t convinced that everything people are buying is because they want some feelings, hopefully in the case of experiences you can see that this is almost certainly the case. Experiences are by definition non-external. When you pay for an experience you are paying for what it does for you internally.
It’s not like you pay $20 and someone gives you a rock and says “there’s your experience”. The experience is not the rock (though perhaps the experience of being surprised at the supposition that the rock is an experience is an experience in and of itself.)
Feelings-First Design Forces a Customer-Focus
What I love about feelings-first design is that you are forced to think about the customer. If you want to design for creating feelings you have to think about them experiencing those feelings. I’m not thinking “oh let’s design a vehicle for my great acting/singing/voiceover” or “Oh man let’s show them these cool visuals we can do!” That is you thinking about your feelings.
Also, instead of focusing on what the customer says they want, you have to look deeper and ask what they’re hoping to feel when get this thing they say the want. Whatever this “thing” is they say they want, it’s just a means to a feeling and they might be mistaken that they can get the feeling from this means. If you deliver the “thing” in that case, they won’t get the feeling. But if you had uncovered the feeling you want you have a much better chance of pleasing the customer.
So Many Feelings!
But oh wow there are so many feelings, right? Well yes and no. There’s a few colors and infinite shades. When I think “feelings first”, I’m usually picturing the dominant feeling during the program and the one that they will take away and respond with when a friend asks, “So what was it like?” Here’s the next few lines of the Godin quote:
There actually aren’t that many feelings to choose from. Most marketers deliver the same feelings, we just do it in different ways, with different services, products, and stories, and we do it for different people in different moments.Seth Godin
Instead of thinking that I have a huge number of feelings I need to organize and deliver I can just focus on a couple. For me and The Eureka Room, my go-to is Joy. If Joy is the color then perhaps a feeling of charming absurdity is the shade.
That’s actually the mission of the Eureka Room. This is why the first step in designing a new experience for me is to repeat the mission. To start with the end in mind. To start with why. To set aside my tools and my own interests for a moment and ask what does the customer want to feel.
How I Do Feelings-First Design
I picture myself in the experiencers’ shoes as I brainstorm options, as I choose items to prototype, and as I make and refine prototypes. I’m constantly asking myself: Am I getting the feeling I want? How about now? Now? What about now? If I’m not feeling it, I ask: What AM I feeling? Does this other feeling somehow enhance the feeling I want (through juxtaposition, building anticipation, or other mechanism) when I DO finally get the emotion I want?
Start by asking “Which feeling(s) do my customers want and how do I design for that?” and as you go along in your development process keep that feeling in mind and use it as a litmus test.
Feelings-First Design versus Emotional Design
What I’ve been talking about is not the same as Emotional Design. “Emotional design is the concept of how to create designs that evoke emotions which result in positive user experiences. ” (citation needed.) Emotional design it’s treated as a part of the whole. As if the core thing you are designing helps them solve some problem external to themselves – but hey be sure to make it emotionally enjoyable to them because that matters, too, you know.
What if you flipped that around? What if the strategy was: First figure out how to give them the feelings they want – but hey be sure also consider the practical problem they are saying they want to make.
It’s Not About Story, Either
This is a bit of heresy, but I think it’s true. I hear a lot of talk about “story” when people speak about Immersive Design and IRL Experience Design. Story is a concept (buzzword?) that is all over the place in the last decade. The concepts of “user story” and “customer story” permeate nearly every business department from customer service to engineering.
Stories are just the vehicles that deliver the feelings. Stories are inert and people don’t really care about stories. They are just boring shipping containers filled with the goods we want.
Thought experiment: Would you want to listen to a story that evoked no emotion in you whatsoever? Probably not. We call those stories boring.
Another reason I believe stories are nothing more than a means to an end: we already know them all. It’s been argued that there’s only between 1-3 stories told. Ever. Sometimes it goes by the name “the hero’s journey” sometimes it’s shorthanded as “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back”. They follow the same routes and we usually know how they will end.
Think about the Star Wars fan who is settling into their couch to watch Return of the Jedi for the 250th time. Are they excited about the story? Hell no. They have the dang thing memorized front to back. They are there for the emotions.
There’s advice I read someone (possibly in Robert McKee’s awesome book, Story) that the story should be consistent but you’re allowed to break the rules of the universe sometimes if there’s a big enough payoff for the reader/viewer).
In my experience this is true. Sometimes a character will do something out of character but it’s just so funny or rewarding for me that I turn the other cheek on the transgression.
In essence, this is saying that emotion is paramount to story.
To Be Continued…
I don’t do comments on my blog, but if I did I’d love to hear what people thought of this post and to get feedback. My thoughts here are, I think, mostly coherent but there’s a lot of parts I would like to dig into and expand on.
I’m sure I’ll be reflecting on the idea of feelings-first design as I continue to develop my craft.
More evidence that design is feelings-first: The popular design book, The Design of Everyday Things, was originally called The Psychology of Design. Having read the contents, I don’t think calling it “The Feelings of Design” would have been an inaccurate title. I wonder what it says about the world that they have changed out “psychology” for “things” to increase sales.