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.


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