Realizing The Emotional Potential of Experiential Design

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Immersive spaces and experiential design are nothing new. Throughout history, civilizations have erected monuments like the Egyptian Pyramids and Angkor Wat, created art, and leveraged other media to influence perception and greatly change the way their people feel. So, history has already demonstrated the influence of environmental design. What’s been forgotten, I think, is the emotional potential of that influence.

I’m reminded of a project created some years ago for the Center for Human and Civil Rights called the Lunch Counter Experience. This exhibit was transformational; one of the most impactful uses of digital technology I have ever witnessed. It transports participants back to February 1960 during the Civil Rights Movement, using audio and haptic digital interfaces to allow visitors to experience just a slice of what four black American college students endured when they sat at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC.  It was both frightening and moving, focused more on surfacing emotions and changing perceptions than showing off using the latest tech or becoming an Instagramable moment.

That’s what immersive space and experiential design should do: tell a story that uses multi-sensory technologies — display technology, sound, light, touch (haptics), or even smell — to really connect emotionally with audiences. When executed correctly, these experiences can profoundly shape the way people perceive an idea or brand and how organizations collaborate with their audiences.

The missing ingredient

A pioneer in experience, Walt Disney understood the capability, function, and inherent power in space design. Even now, his vision, executed through his team at Disneyland Parks and Resorts, continues to emotionally transport visitors to powerful places. New additions like the upcoming Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge are interactive, technical and visual spectacles. But more importantly, much of what is occurring is clever, intentional space design that immerses visitors in branded experiences that evoke a range of emotions and captivate one’s imagination. When your hearts starts racing as you fly the Millennium Falcon and become a part of the resistance, know that it’s entirely by design.

Another older experience example, the College Football Hall of Fame, is impactful in a different way. While the technology was implemented several years ago, the strategy and execution remains exemplary, leveraging fandom to create an experience revolving around fun. Every visitor gets a customized fan experience based on their alma mater – from social gaming trivia to media rich interactive walls. It is a powerful use of digital technology integration, immersive content design, and digital sensor technology working cohesively to create a personalized experience for the visitor that is still exciting despite its age and smaller scale.

A space that cares

As technology advances, so do the possibilities for more emotion-driven experiences in brand environments. Those interested in experiential storytelling should keep a sharp eye on sensor technologies fueled by IoT that enable spaces to be more intelligent; reacting to the presence of the individual and presenting content based on user interaction, preference, gender, proximity, and other factors.  Currently a motion sensor can detect movement in a room and turn the light on for you. But imagine how it would influence your emotional connection to a brand if those sensors could allow you to feel as if the space is reacting to your unique moods, wants, needs and preferences.

Of course, like all things, overusing or misusing such technology can have an adverse effect where these moments of engagement feel more like a gimmick. New technologies also tend to lack the precision that their manufacturers promise.

However, so long as an experience is anchored to an emotional intent, it’s on the right track.  First and foremost, all truly engaging and effective experiences must begin with strategy — not only identifying the biggest problem you are trying to solve for users but also deciding what you want them to feel.  All ideation, digital content concepts, design, development, and technology decisions, to be truly effective, require that an experience does more than show off. Experiences must inspire, and for that, you need emotion.

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