Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Environmental Press


Whatever our immediate environment, wherever we are, our surroundings make many demands on the mind and body—most of which we aren’t even aware of.  How we respond determines where we choose or choose not to spend time.  We spend our lives subconsciously adapting to sub-prime elements in the places we live, work, and travel.

Environmental press is a term used to describe the demands of the immediate context (physical and psychological environment) and their effects on thinking and behavior.  These factors include lighting, wayfinding, acoustics, mobility, and social sets like crowding, safety, risk-taking, and costs of planning, reciprocity (support), and expectations of costs versus reward.

In general, good design facilitates the usability and payback of a venue: workplace, airport, soccer field, resort, metropolis.  Poor design makes being there more difficult and less enjoyable, leading to scores of problems for the user and the group, and raising the chances that people will spend as little time as possible in less user-friendly venues. 

Good design is based on a solid appreciation of how and why people act within particular spaces, and what their goals are coming, going, and within.  Most of this intelligence operates under our conscious radar and can only be elicited indirectly: by watching how people’s behavior changes as they adapt to the environment, not by direct questions (“What is your ideal space like?”) in surveys and focus groups.  Cultural intelligence - awareness of the human values that drive regular use of space - is considerably more comprehensive, relying on thousands of years of consistent patterns of collective experience and behavior.

Groups in motion

At the start of any trek, visitors’ minds are especially mobile and unsettled, weighing uncertain expectations (and hopes) against what they are experiencing around them, and the way they see others responding.  Characters, props, staging, and especially music, are the cueing devices; there is little room for taking in the precision of print messages, or even verbal instructions.  The needed focus isn’t there yet. 

People are still working to figure out where they are and what is expected of them.  You have to create a break in the form of a platform to deliver messages when people are in fact most receptive to them.  That may not be when you want it to be, or when you would expect attention to be most active.

When people are seated, or standing in semi-darkness, that’s the cue for attention and quiet to attend to a stage or screen.  Which explains why the introductory film at the top of an exhibit or whole museum, like the “Briefing Room” film narrated by the voice of Linda Hunt at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. is an effective mind- and mood-setter (whether dark or light).  Film, of course, is easier for groups (the outfit) to focus on together, versus the divisive force of written language.


Over the past two decades, we’ve seen experience venues built with seemingly no idea of how guests take in and processes information into a coherent, compelling experience. We’ve seen exhibits built backwards – the big reveal is the first thing the guest encounters, followed by information support. Every guest intuitively understands that once you’ve seen the fireworks, it’s time to go home. Don’t expect them to hang around to hear the history of fireworks. Now reverse that order: history first, then fireworks = compelling experience.  Think of the crescendo in a music experience, as the finale.

We’ve also seen attractions that violate the implicit agreement of the switchback line (you maintain your place in the hierarchy, knowing you will be served after the people in front and before the people behind). It is the promise of fairness as a hard and fast rule that enables the line to function. Yet we have seen attractions where, after a long and patient wait, guests are dumped into an unstructured holding zone just outside the attraction doors, so that the resultant scramble for new positioning totally violates the sacred social contract of the line.

We’ve seen attractions where a guide-speaker was trying to deliver critical information at the line’s most chaotic point. We’ve seen exhibits that gave guests no critical information at all about where to go or what to expect. We’ve seen attractions that did all of these things in the same venue--all designed and built by top companies in the experience industry.

What we saw was the result of ignoring the social dynamic of experience, the “press” of place. Each guest is exchanging multiple experiences within the social group. The designer’s work is to know at what points the guest is seeking information, rather than trying to share reactions with others, to deliver just-in-time intelligence.   

Standing out

It’s the paradox of theme park communication design.  What’s needed next—just-in-time is preferable—has to stand out in the field of vision for eyes that are scanning a very rich visual landscape, balanced against the demands of the line or walkways.  And they need to be “here and clear” well before the fork in the road must be taken, not after investing a half-hour wait in a ride queue where you suddenly realize that coming up is a coaster or dark ride that you don’t want to hazard after lunch. 

Where, what, and how the main material or experience is surrounded by messages, and in what sequence, is a top challenge calling for a complex appreciation of how people use places on the ground or in the air.  In our experience as human dynamics advisors, too few designers and park executives actually walk the parks and ride the rides to see how everything plays out as a system of concepts in motion.  Again, it all happens in the mind—before and after the body behaves.  


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Getting Attention, Broad and Narrow

The goal of any attraction, exhibit, or any shared experience is simple: to max out the rewards of visitor time and focus to optimize the experience and the memory so important to return visits. 

For Americans, at least, who count and measure time as a form of currency, nothing is worse than the report that an attraction was a waste of time.  Which means money and energy were squandered, which could have been better spent elsewhere.  Part of the value of an experience is how easily it can be found, and then, how easy or difficult it is for people to engage with it.

How do you get and keep audience attention in an attraction / exhibit?  This is the basic question of where and when in the process guests are prepared to receive information.  Not all content is equal (the “what”), and context (the “where and when”) rules how or whether we pay attention.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.  A solitary experience is far different that a shared one – just ask any golfer who hits a hole-in-one with no one else there to see it. The social group is the validator of the experience. The group can be an emotional multiplier – enthusiasm is contagious – or exert a dampening effect. If you think you had a great experience but your companions don’t share your enthusiasm, you will soon start to rethink your own experience.


One notable example of this dampening effect occurred shortly after the stage version of Disney’s Lion King debuted on Broadway in 1997. At the time, there was a lot of hostility in the New York theater community to the very idea of Disney even coming to Broadway. We won’t mention the name of the theater critic, but his early review praised the show highly – an opinion not shared by his colleagues. After a few weeks of negative reviews by his peers, he saw the musical again and wrote a second review.  Basically he said that somehow he had been duped by the Disney magic and the play wasn’t nearly as good as he thought it was the first time. His memory of his first stellar experience was sabotaged—retroactively--by colleague negativity.

We are social primates.  So the experiences of the people around us shape our own expectations and experience, and we affect theirs. In order to entertain – and by entertain we mean in the original sense of the word – “to attract and hold attention” – you have to understand what else is going on.  Where is your audience mind being pulled, in which directions, while you are trying to show footage, deliver key information, or display science laws or live animals?

Attention Span

Years ago the Washington Zoo was studied to see how long people would look at the live exhibits in their enclosures.  The answer was an average of eight seconds.  And much of that tiny time slice went to reading the usual fence-mounted signage.  Museums didn’t do much better – under an hour is all that visitors will spend in a North American museum of any size.  In contrast, though, the average theme park stay was eight hours or more, with the highest repeat visits.  This is why the theme park is the gold standard for experience design.  What’s going on here?  How is it that attention is far better in a low-level or no-reading zone?


First off, the Disney Imagineers who designed the original park worked with images, not words.  They understood that the best designs are those that work with the way people already think and react to the world around them.  That is why there is was very little directional signage in the original Disneyland (aside from stylized “art” signs), and the reason that the park has always been high on the list for international visitors—you don’t have to speak English to understand what’s going on and what you should do.  It also adds to their exceptional export value.  They are essentially artworks that function as total immersive environments.   Immersive experiences don’t work like books (which demand close visual focus and control) – they invite the entire body and all the senses.  And reading divides attention away from the group, into the introversion of eyes and brain processing.

At the other end of the scale, take botanical gardens and arboretums.  These garden environments insist on Latin classification tags and even dense botany-textbook extracts, a kind of technical communication that for any visitor not already an expert, is especially fatiguing to read in public venues. 

Who is your real audience?

These places tend to be treated as research venues with signage by and for specialists. They project the way the people who work there want to be perceived by their colleagues.  But for the casual visitor who just wants to enjoy the majesty of a white oak or the exotic intrigue of orchids, it’s not helpful, and lends a touch of elite disdain to the experience.  The question is suddenly, “Do I know enough / am I educated enough to even be here?”  No such question occurs in a theme park, which deals with our shared history and archetypes, those icons and events we most treasure and identify with.

You may have to make a momentous decision about who your audience really is – who you want to attract, and why.  Expert audiences have quality attention to pay to your holdings or environment, and this is the attention that most curators, researchers, scholars, directors, and many designers actually identify with.  Art museums were originally galleries of painting and sculpture for sale, not improving institutions trying to educate the non-art-collecting public. The public-education impulse dates back to Carnegie and his crusade to lift American taste into the middle class, and continues in grants and evaluation programs for the widest possible audience

But the managerial class for public venues, especially art and history based, is most interested in expert-to-expert communication; that’s where their personal and career reward lies.  Hence the signage in Latin, footnoted exhibit labelling, expert treatises and lectures that need translation for any public understanding. 

The way the mind attends to, takes in, and understands any content is by broad themes, not scholarly documentation—that’s the genius of the themed environment.   


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The group journey agenda: social psychology in motion

The audience experience is a journey through your design project.  That journey can be understood in many ways, but it always happens through the human toolbar of needs and abilities, the human factors constraint list. Throughout this journey every guest is an adventurer with a different agenda, depending on age, gender, social networks, and their social group or travel “outfit” (to redeploy the old cowboy term), for the duration. 

Even the briefest of visits involves the following concerns, or themes, which your design must accommodate so that your audience can address them as a series of questions: 

·       Purpose:  Where am I going, and why?

·       Goal: What are the goals of my travel group (the “outfit”)?

·       Orientation:  Where am I at any point in the journey?

·       Context:  What is this place, and how do I act within it?

·       Expectations:  What expectations can I have, or take from it?  What am I supposed to do, and how should I feel about it?

·       Story:  What is the story of this experience; what are its leading themes, the affect—emotional tone—and what inner states does it evoke from my own personality, culture, and history, alone and as shared with others?

·       Outcomes: Exactly what am I supposed to learn from this trek, and how does it reward me and those important to me?  This has to be clear not just at journey’s end, but from the start, so that guests can attune their intellect and emotions to what they are going to learn, see, and experience.

·       Wayfinding:  As I proceed from the entry experience, how do I get around and through this space?  This question introduces loss aversion through disorientation, separation anxiety, and flexing time and space within the journey as the group splits up and reassembles for various purposes.

·       Focus:  What do I attend to while I’m here?  This is the big attention question: where does my attention go, when, and in response to what cues?

·       Measuring up:  Experience quality, during and after the journey:  Did I have the experience I was meant to have?  Did my outfit?  Were expectations met?

·       Meaning:  What is the larger story behind this experience, that is, the meaning? Where and how can I now carry forward the meaning of this experience as I fold it into my life?   

Believe it or not, the answers to all these questions can be found anywhere and everywhere; for example, in an everyday round of miniature golf.  This scaled-down game is one of the richest mini-experiences available within a small space footprint, within a period of just ninety minutes, for the price of a movie ticket.  So can walking a labyrinth, a mini-version in symbolic space of the religious pilgrimage.   And so can a shopping trip to the mall.  Or a wedding, a funeral, reunion, sporting event, vacation.  The experience agenda is the unifying mental map of any conscious design program.


What is the moving audience focused on?  The answer is not your design, but other audience members.  Few people go to events and experiences solo; that’s because the main value of group experience is in the bonding made possible by sharing events.  This is especially true of scary or horrifying negative experiences; surviving them shows what people are made of and what they mean to each other. 

Such is the power behind roller coasters, which are near-death journeys carefully engineered to be safe while giving the impression of extreme danger, all in the space of 90 seconds of sheer terror.  This is the reason that playing with gravity in whole-body total immersion will always be popular, and the reason that parks of all kinds look to include, update, ratchet up, and replace these key experience bases as bigger, faster, and scarier. 

Group dynamics

Much of the experience of places has to do with herding and shepherding the group, from couples to mom, dad, and kids to extended-generational outfits. While groups are walking toward a destination, exploring the territory and its assets, or slowing down to rest and regroup, they are in the process of doing a full list of activities:  Planning, coordinating, pre-planning, re-planning, checking-in, questioning, decision making, considering new ideas and projects, re-considering those ideas and projects in the light of new information, making dates ahead for lunch, the afternoon schedule, dinner, the evening program. 

Mom in particular is watching the clock, the budget, and the kids’ faces, as well as the husband’s body language, for signs of distress or dissatisfaction, in order to gauge how well or poorly things are going.  Each person is mentally comparing their private expectations against what is going on and has just happened.  How good are these experiences, and what will they mean in the future?  Is this a worthwhile use of my time, energy, money, and planning? 

And of course woven in and out of all this mental activity in reading the landscape of time and attention is the need for bathroom breaks, hydration, snacks, and interactive stock-taking in the form of verbal outputs and feedback. 

There is also another layer: the social media of texting, cell phoning, internet searching, and photo-taking, which must fit within and around the non-media activity.  No wonder it is difficult to get (and keep) anyone’s attention – it is already commandeered by dozens of other demands.

Altogether, group outings are loaded with competing agendas both social and internal.  These agendas require constant reading, calibrating, feedback, and monitoring.  Just to get included as part of this ornate communications network, the design of exhibits, signage, and oratory (live or recorded verbals) must be tailored to fit an incredibly complex sight-and-sound- scape.   

There is nothing simple about designing even the most basic exhibit, walk-through, or tour. We saw just the rudiments in the one-day charity tour of TV’s Downtown Abbey. Designing for optimal experiences is of course an even more sophisticated endeavor.  The question comes back to this:  How do you get people to pay attention to X or Y when you want them to?  The answer relies on deep knowledge of how people experience things together in motion.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

College Life as a Village

Recently we spent several weeks at a small liberal arts college to take a measure of their leading cultural values.  At the foot of a picturesque mountain and alongside its own mist-covered lake, we listened to students, staff, and faculty talk about what they believed made the school special and how that quality could be translated to the world in better ways—one of them through the ever-popular branding channel. 

We also watched –eavesdropped, actually—a lot. As Yogi Berra famously opined, “You can see a lot by just looking."

And we saw and heard a lot. Among our observations: 

Selling points

The campus is set in the woods between a lake and a mountain; no one is walking into town for a pizza from here. This school is not for everyone. Even its most ardent supporters use the word “isolated.” That isolation has been a workaround topic for decades.

You would think this would be a drawback, but we saw it as a unique selling point. Let me explain.

A college campus is an experience environment, just as a neighborhood is – and needs to be seen and planned around that reality.  This is where all the action happens (except for on-line remote degree-getting).  For 1500 resident students, and the day-to-day interactions with their teachers and college staff, this is home, the stage where everything takes place.

The faculty may go home in the evening, but for the students, this IS home. It’s the setting of the overnight stay, which has been identified by marketers as a leading factor in the student’s decision to enroll. It’s the very inability to cross a street and stroll into town that turns a college campus into what it really is – a village with its own close sense of community.   

As a selling point, that actually makes isolation important to incorporate into the brand.  The most successful students are those who spent their growing-up years camping and hiking and climbing in just such settings—the value of the place is, for them, already sold, because they are already home. The same goes for kids from small and mid-sized towns and communities. They already know how to maximize limited resources and make their own fun—and they do it by building strong social bonds.

Add to that the urban kids who want to get away from the distractions and negative side of big- city life. Altogether that’s a pretty good-sized pool of potential students who would thrive in that environment.

For urbanite types and kids with their sights set on the big state schools, this isn’t a place they would thrive in anyway.

So don’t sell to them; they aren’t appreciators, and will never be converted.  Target the 20% of the 80/20 mix who are already on board.  This logic follows our advice to clients who ask “How can we drive sales?” to ask the larger question, “What are people already prepared to buy?”  Good marketing is not about educating the consumer, or talking them into doing something they aren’t already predisposed to do.  This is key to good marketing. This shouldn’t be a secret, but judging by much of the marketing work we’ve seen over the years, apparently it is.

Identify the function

This campus is not, as had been traditionally thought, a university with student housing. It is a village with a university.  It supports all the fondest aspects of a small settlement –the cohesion, closeness, tolerance of differences, deep knowledge of its inhabitants and their personal business.  There is a price to all this snug close living, of course – in privacy, ability to separate oneself, autonomy, metropolitan lifestyle.  It’s about living within the boundaries of a small, and yes, isolated place, and making it your own – bringing it inside the circle of the personal.  There are plenty of faculty who wish they taught elsewhere, someplace with a wider purview, restaurants, the theater, more intellectual choices, and a few more subcultures. 

Yet, in the New England landscape, this was the original American settlement model, and living a college lifetime through its village strictures (or box) creates a toolbox of skills: the ability to work with and appreciate others at close quarters, to be entrepreneurial within a set of resource, space, and dollar limits; to be self-reliant outside city life, developing networks of relationships like those aboard ship, on the space station, or even in a research station like those in the Antarctic.  There are developmental advantages to contending with sub-prime dormitories, harsh winters, limited menus, classrooms and equipment that are a tic behind state of the art.  College X is the acid test to distinguish between what is fundamental to a great learning environment and what is window-dressing expendable luxury.

This is in fact the virtue of places we think about as “privileged” in livability because they are set apart from the mainstream, including gated communities, resorts, and exclusive residential enclaves within cities or in upscale suburbs. 

Linking In

But such places are also “un-linked-in,’ except by internet and the auto – and they need better infrastructure to provide those links, such as: 21st- century post office that takes Amazon deliveries, 24-hour cafeteria as the hearth of the campus, pool, track, and gym open late, places to have coffee (Starbucks islands), all-hours pizza (study groups and cramming sessions don’t respect the 9-to-5 clock). All these fixes are geared to promoting food, sociability, and the outreach we all crave as the highest-rank social primates.  The rule here is that campus design in general needs to assume very high values for whatever is social and collegial.

These are the same virtues we seek out in our after-college lifestyles.  As I walked the 60-year-old campus, bathed in the greenish light of a rainy June late afternoon, I noticed other things: facing benches and outdoor tables inviting dialogue. There is seating everywhere, providing venues for the original form of teaching and learning: the dialogues we spontaneously construct at unplanned moments of day or evening, those moments in which a community of two creates the true education, the kind wrapped in mutual respect of one mind for another.  It’s the way culture is forged across thousands of years, linking us through the generations through the mind-melding that happens most iconically at college. 

Beginning with preschool, this is the way people have always learned—far more than clocking classroom hours, which are more like check-in exercises to see how our book learning is progressing.  As one of our interview subjects put it, “Here I was, walking and talking with my professor about something I was reading when it suddenly hit me—this is what college was supposed to be about.”    

The faculty have another view, and it’s one they come by honestly—they want to be able to identify as sophisticates, whatever their discipline, and that calls for the traits of grading, filtering, and protecting their personal environment—consisting of faculty office,  meals, meetings, classroom, library, and yes, parking.  At more urban campus, my group was involved with design-upgrading a lab space into an art collection and faculty club.  At a busy medical school, this was the single space where collaboration across specialties could be eased into happening.  At this University, a club space would provide another kind of upgrade—to show status and support of leadership for colleagueship.  This is something praised in catalogues but barely acknowledged on the ground, in real facilities. 


We think that there are other tweaks and upgrades that can maximize the defined Village value – an operation outside athletics (for which the school is well recognized) – a mini-golf course right on campus.  Maybe themed to the state or the college namesake, it can provide outdoor recreation on a very accessible scale for the whole community—almost anyone, including kids, can play.  Eighteen holes provides about 90 minutes’ playing time, as a solid study-break for dating, collegial bonding, conversation (the primacy of dialog again), parents’ weekend, and even donor entertainment – Clemson University has discovered what a great investment their full-size golf course and club have been for fundraising.  Study-Break Mini-Golf can be run as a project by interns in the business school’s Sports and Recreation program. 

Just one more design question to be considered in the process of place-making.  First, find out what business you are in – then, as Walt Disney put it, “plus it,” or what the theme park ops call Enhancement.  But before you design, have a solid idea of what the design intention is, or decide what it could be.  That’s the cultural piece, and it’s the basis, conscious or not, of every place that performs to or even above expectations.