Originally published in the Playbook of the American Management Associations (July 2016)
What is your organization’s strategic goal? Should your organization generate solutions, provide meaningful experiences, or even “customer delight”? Why?
Imagine you check into an exclusive hotel at a breathtaking beach resort. You spot an attractive person whom you’d like to meet during your stay. When you open the door to your room, you see it has a devastatingly beautiful and vast ocean view. You are relaxed, and deeply happy. After a pleasant dinner, you turn in early, as you plan to watch the sun rise and do some exploring. Then it starts. You hadn’t realized it at first, but there are mosquitoes in the room. You hate mosquitoes, having been traumatized by them in the past. So you can’t sleep. Every time you think you’ve caught them all, more appear.
Overbooked, the hotel can’t help by moving you to another room. With no other choice, you give up and try to sleep. Exhausted, you finally fall asleep at 3 a.m., and wake up too late to go through with your original plans. Your arms and legs are covered in bites. To cleanse your mind, you open the terrace doors to see the ocean. You feel calm once more. You watch as a cab approaches the hotel entrance, and the person you’d wanted to meet gets in, luggage in hand. You realize you’ve lost the opportunity to get to know the person. The hotel staff can’t give you a name, and you didn’t take a photo to post on social media. “Worst vacation ever,” you say to yourself. “A terrible experience.”
The story illustrates the challenge we face in designing meaning and perception. Could we reduce the possibility of mosquitoes? For sure. Can we design for better matchmaking? Possibly. Can we design a certain meaningful experience, or even delight? Most likely not.
Meaning is about perception, the context, and the prior individual story — it is complex and unpredictable. We might explore a more holistic, yet incomplete, perspective, imagine the possible actions the guest could take, collaborate and generate a set of new ideas. Yet still we would prioritize.
There is no certainty in design; no “equation of the word.” Too many unknown variables exist, and besides, it would make living in the present much more difficult — and boring.
Meaning results from the emotional and cognitive moment in a specific setting and time. Value perception is illustrated in the story as both complex and singular — one small detail can change everything. The moment of consumption fades fast, so it’s our emotional and cognitive load — the total amount of mental effort and emotional balance necessary — which defines our patience with and tolerance for not-so-perfect experiences.
So the question isn’t if we can design meaningful experiences or even customer delight, but if we can design for it (with many options).
As we cannot offer certainty, we offer alternatives that might create surprises, reward interactions, and engage different behaviors. This also means that we design not just the interaction, but also an ecosystem that in the perfect sense incorporates relationship, product/service/brand, and experiences — and if we are lucky, we generate meaning.