Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Deep Design: Human Factors in the Staging of Experience

“At the Sahara, the seats are banked and most of the audience is looking down at the stage.  Everybody in the business knows: Up for singers, down for comics.  The people want to idealize the singer. They want to feel superior to a comic. You’re trying to make them laugh. They can’t laugh at someone they’re looking up to."
 --Buddy Hackett

“I prefer the old theaters, because the audience is … trapped.”
  -- Jerry Seinfeld

What attracts and motivates people to experiences any and all 3D space?  Why is time spent on extensively designed ground so valued by visitors? 
Ever since the themed world invented by Walt Disney in mid-twentieth century these questions have been driving the field of public design—including virtually every public place on earth affected or created by the “Disney Effect.” The unprecedented success of thematics has created an entire new field of “experience design,” along with a host of questions about how to think about and execute successful “occupied space.”  

The answers discovered by Cultural Intelligence are very basic, while exercising a deep appreciation of human biology, the brain, and collective human expression--that is, culture.

Culture is the longest-running invention of mankind, the collective brain evolved through time that directs our decision making.  The shared mindset does this by defining basic values that direct those decisions.  The social and historical record reveals a deep logic of thinking and acting driven by a set of values that all groups, across the vastness of time and the breadth of geography, share in common. 
This shared thinking is the baseline of all successful environmental artworks—the houses, monuments, parks, malls, museums, restaurants, neighborhoods, towns, and cities we shape and in turn, shape us as we inhabit them.  All are built around our brains, bodies, and behaviors—the same forces, over time, that build culture as a self-perpetuating lifeform that powers and propagates itself through us.  They respond to our cultural beliefs about what life is for and how best to live it.  Those formats that perform best call upon human-based building, or “deep design.”   

Cultural Logic

Culture is not arbitrary or capricious.  It answers the opening question about how we direct our time, money, and energy by defining a set of values behind every decision we make—including how and where we will expend these in three-dimensional public or semi-public spaces.

Culture follows a set of rules that, once discovered, can be explained and predicted.  The process of cultural analysis is to understand, integrate, and apply these rules to issues of buying, believing, and behavior in all areas of life, as it is here, to "experience design"—the architecture of environments, and the design of people’s thought and behavior lived within them.
No design stands apart from its use and interpretation by the complexity of human behavior in cultural context. Some perform superbly, while many more force their users to work around them, adapting their needs to the design, rather than vice versa.

Human Factors

Design guideline number one: People come preloaded with their own thinking, behaviors, goals, and focal points.  The best you can do is to know what these are and how to work with them.  Your audience is never really a captive audience.  It is always the space designer who is captive to the dynamics of audience behavior.

Much of the proverbial “blank page,” the human factors style sheet, is already heavily filled in before anyone ever touches it with their own vision.  An example of this silent program of parameters is personal space.  How much we “need,” and feel is appropriate in any room, is a parameter built into our heads through cultural practice from birth.  Americans and Australians need a lot; Japanese and Dutch need far less.
Personal space demands vary across the globe.  But violate this basic human factor and your design faces a fatal flaw.  (A major component of the punishment of prison is in its restriction of free space.)  And people won’t be able to tell you precisely which cultural rule you’ve broken; they just feel intensely and intuitively uncomfortable--meaning that they are going to spend their time and money elsewhere.
This incoherent response may actually be the reason that, whatever the lip service given to the audience as boss, inside the place-design studio there is widespread contempt for the audience who is the end-user of everything built and decorated. 

When people seem too slow to understand and respond to a design or to fall into line with its proposed workings, the artist is tempted to dismiss this slowness as lack of intelligence, education, or breeding.  Design purpose and reception are separated by the gulf of the human factor.  And, like culture (or the minivan), it’s not something people can tell you they want—like all intuitive desires, they will know it when they see it.
There is a simple answer to “creator contempt.”  It is most likely your design that isn’t connecting on one or more levels, not the audience.  Designers don’t like to hear this, because in their mind, everything is perfectly clear and their ideas and brilliant—we’ve all had that moment.  But the question is, as in all consumer goods and experiences—how well do these ideas do, not just how good do they look, on the ground and in the marketplace?  As Imagineer John Hench used to counsel new hires at Disney, “You can’t do this cynically.”

Effective design—the good kind—fits naturally and seamlessly into the brain and works with the body of the user, in a lockstep program of sending and receiving. The built environment sends out cues and signals that the audience on the ground is already primed to receive and respond to: operating without any signage, verbal commands, orientation programming, or, the ultimate excuse, “educating.”

If there is a design problem on the ground, look to the failure to fit between what’s there (and what is not) and the human factors that design needs to satisfy and reward.  The human factors list comprises biology, the brain, behavior, and culture, which is the received intelligence of the group over time, the shared reality of expectations and needs common to all groups. 

Cultural Analysis

What cultural analysis of place design does is to clarify these factors and how they relate in space and time to predict how well places will work for their audiences—the people you want to attract and keep time after time; the secret of any successful place is that it attracts and continues to attract its users year after year in the holy grail, repeat visits.

Human beings are social primates.  We experience things together – or through language, share them, historically, around the campfire.  Our experiences are interactive and social, rarely solitary.  We travel together in order to maximize designed experiences, wherever they may be. This is why the entire travel industry is committed to this basic truth: we grow and develop through shared experiences, and rare ones are especially valued for this outcome.  Intimacy through sharing has in fact long been listed as the apex of a happy life. 
Public experience venues like to think of themselves as inviting and entertaining captive audiences.  In truth, however, these audiences are hardly captive hearts and minds.  They are acting out as social primates by occupying a special themed stage, and adapting it to their own set of needs and wants, the real dynamics of experience architecture.

However your space is designed to work, whatever your organization’s goals, it is the audience, not you, who will determine how or even whether those aims are met.  Experience space is always transformed by human use.



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