Experience Thinking – The Next Evolution for Design Thinking

Experience Thinking - The Next Evolution for Design Thinking

GUEST POST from Anthony Mills


Design Thinking is an incredibly powerful way to approach the design of just about anything that involves an interaction with people (or other intelligent creatures). Its underlying philosophy of Human Centered Design requires that we develop a comprehensive empathic understanding of the customer and their situation in a particular context. This can only happen when we dissect the situation – using the many different Design Methods available to us – to understand the customer’s underlying values, beliefs, motivations, priorities, expectations, and preferences. From this we understand their real needs and desires. This is what we are doing when we work through the divergence of hypothesis formation, the convergence of hypothesis testing, the arrival at a compelling Point of View, and from that the definition of relevant Design Principles. And it is what empowers us to thereafter work through the divergence of solution ideation and the convergence of solution testing – all to arrive at the most optimal solution to the right problem, reframed at the right level. This results in new innovations that resonate with real market needs. Powerful indeed!

But, there are limitations.

The limitations lie not so much in Design Thinking itself, but rather in how Design Thinking is typically used.

The manner in which Design Thinking is typically used is what we refer to as a “static approach.” That is, it is generally used to understand how a customer interacts with a product or service at one particular moment in time – typically the most critical moment in time – or in one particular mode of usage – typically the most critical mode of usage – as though everything were about this one particular “freeze frame”. It may examine, for example, how they sit in a chair, how they use a toothbrush, how they read a user interface, or how they comprehend a set of service instructions. This can work okay for very simple products and services, but not so much for complex ones. Sometimes the lens of focus is zoomed out to examine more moments and more modes, but rarely does it venture so far out as to truly understand the entire product or service experience in its entirety, as well as the overriding brand experience it must convey. To do this, we need a different approach.

A Different Approach

Fortunately, we have a different approach. We call it “Experience Thinking”, or XT. One can think of XT as a more “dynamic” approach to Design Thinking, in that it seeks to examine the entire product / service / brand experience in its totality. By combining the tools of Design Thinking (the Design Methods) with the tools of Customer Experience Design and Customer Experience Management (CX Journey Maps, Stakeholder Analysis, NPS, etc.), it takes the practitioner through the Design Thinking journey for each and every touchpoint in the entire customer experience – or through whichever touchpoints are of interest. This ends up being far more powerful than the narrow-lens focus of static Design Thinking, albeit at the price of additional work.

Experience Thinking is, in fact, what has allowed companies like Apple, Uber, Mercedes, Tesla, Harley Davidson, Patagonia, and Amazon to all produce such highly differentiated offerings that each deliver a coherent and compelling brand experience. In most cases, this brand experience extends well beyond the product or service itself to encompass a far broader value proposition focused on lifestyle or workstyle enhancement. Experience Thinking understands this, and it understands that the emotional and social outcomes involved are just as important (and in some cases more important) than are the functional outcomes. And so offerings get designed that deliver compelling experiences that satisfy those emotional and social outcomes.

Understanding the essence of Experience Thinking then, the next logical question is always, “Okay… so how does one use Experience Thinking? How do they go about carrying it out?” That is a great question.

A Simple Four Step Approach to Using Experience Thinking

In our work with clients, we have a very specific and defined approach to how we do this. It involves four steps.

Step 1 — Foundation: The Brand Experience

We always begin with the brand:

  1. What is the brand persona or brand DNA that defines this brand?
  2. What is this brand’s relative positioning in the market (is it luxury, mid-tier, or value-line)?
  3. What brand promise is this brand making, and what expectations does this then create for its customers?
  4. What brand language (descriptive, visual, and experiential) is being used to convey this brand promise?

And finally, as a consequence of all of the above, what is the overall brand experience we are attempting to deliver, and what, therefore, is the brand experience lens through which we must design the associated product experience or service experience that is to follow-on from this?

These are all crucial questions. For existing brands, the answers are often already known, though they sometimes have to be polished and sharpened a bit. For new brands, we first must answer these questions before proceeding further. An important implication, however, is that this process does not depend on having an existing brand or even an existing product category; it can just as readily be applied to an entirely new brand and/or product category so long as we can define the above points that we intend to deliver for the brand.

Step 2 — Manifestation: The Customer Experience

Once we have defined all of the above, and thus our brand experience lens, we can then move on to the next step, which is to look at either the entire customer lifecycle (eight stages – four on the buy side and four on the own side), or some particular portion of the customer lifecycle that we are specifically interested in.

Using a relatively standard CX Journey Mapping process, we then design our intended customer experience, making sure that at each touchpoint we undertake careful Cognitive Task Analysis so that we fully understand the cognitive and emotional “dance” happening between our offering / brand / business and our customer, as well as capturing all of the on-stage and back-stage stakeholder actions required to stage this experience as designed (the latter can also be complemented with Swim Lane Analysis to help better visualize the timing of each action). Undertaking Cognitive Task Analysis requires a sound understanding of Experience Psychology. As an aid toward this, we recommend reading any of Don Norman’s books, but in particular The Design of Everyday Things.

Step 3 — Translation: The Product (Service) Experience

Next, having defined the intended customer experience, and in so doing understanding the intended attributes of each of its touchpoints (for example, are certain touchpoints to be fast or slow, simple or complex, what human factors or ergonomics concerns have to be considered, what emotional responses need to be evoked, and so on), we then use a tool that in our case we call the Product Experience Framework, or PX Framework (known generically as an alignment model) to map these experience attributes into corresponding product or service attributes. Such attributes might include, for example, size, weight, location, color, finish, actuation force, ease of interpretation, styling, craftsmanship, and so forth.

In using the PX Framework, we step through each and every “event” involved in using the product or receiving the service. Events represent the individual interactions the user has with the product or service, and as such any given touchpoint can include any number of different events. For each such event, we document all of the pertinent attribute details for the product or service. One can see the structure and content of the PX Framework at The Legacy Innovation Product Experience Framework.

Since highly complex products and services tend to involve lots of events (or potential events), this can end up being a very large document. In some cases, therefore, it is helpful to treat each major subsystem separately, with someone watching the overall product integration so as to ensure harmony between all of them.

Step 4 — Realization: The Design

Finally, having the PX Framework in hand, one is at last ready to sit down and actually design the product or service. They now have as an input to this design a clear prescription of what its attributes need to be in order that using the product, or receiving the service, will in fact result in the intended product or service experience, which will in turn convey the intended brand experience for the affected brand.

A New Design Philosophy — The “Designed Experience”

This approach – and Experience Thinking in general – is incredibly different from what so many designers and engineers are accustomed to doing, which is namely to just jump straight into designing a product or service without any idea whatsoever what its attributes need to be to deliver a particular experience. Indeed, they have not even attempted to define in the first place what its product or service experience needs to be, only that it needs to accomplish some outcome in the end; the assumption being that whatever happens along the way toward that outcome is not particularly important – usually an incredibly erroneous assumption!

We believe so strongly in this approach, in fact, that we have wrapped our entire design philosophy around it and have given that philosophy a name. We call it the Designed Experience Approach, and all of the information arising out of these four steps we refer to as the Designed Experience Model. A key tenet of this philosophy (and of Experience Thinking in general) is that the design of a product or service cannot be considered complete until we have first gone through this process of defining its intended product or service experience, together with its intended brand experience. This process must be done, and the resulting insights must be applied, so that we can design all of the product or service attributes accordingly, thus ensuring the final design is in fact capable of delivering its intended experience.

Recently we taught this design philosophy and its accompanying process to a major American automotive OEM in Detroit. The team we were working with there found this to be an incredibly eye-opening approach, because it finally allowed them to make the connection they were looking for between product attributes and the overall intended customer and brand experiences.

Why & Where?

The final two points that need to be made about Experience Thinking are why it is so important, and where it is most applicable. But these two points are best addressed in reverse order.

In terms of where Experience Thinking is most applicable therefore… it is most applicable anywhere we have a branded business and thus a branded line of offerings. Because they are branded, they have a specific brand promise that they must live up to, and ideally this is a brand promise that differentiates and distinguishes the brand from other brands. The need for differentiation is therefore incredibly strong. As a consequence, we must design the products and services associated with this brand in a highly intentional manner so that their attributes can in fact deliver on that brand promise and ensure the level of differentiation we are attempting to achieve. The contrast to this, of course, would be commodity products and services that are undifferentiated. Such products and services need only accomplish their intended outcomes; how they do so and what happens along the way is not overly critical in their case.

In terms of why Experience Thinking is so important then, it is precisely as described above. In those cases where we must espouse and then deliver on a specific brand promise – so that we can differentiate ourselves – our products and services no longer matter by themselves. What matters in these cases is the experience that those products and services are able to deliver. Thus how they go about achieving their intended outcomes, and everything that happens along the way, are all incredibly, incredibly important. They must be things that deliver on our brand promise and thereby reinforce our brand message, which in turn builds our brand value and allows us over time to capture increasing market shares.

The thing is, the vast majority of businesses and their offerings are – to one degree or another – branded. Those who are truly hungry for market leadership tend to be the ones who most readily recognize this and therefore put the most effort into building their brands. This in turn means they are the most eager to embrace Experience Thinking and to use this approach to design their products and services to deliver on their brand promises.


The questions to ask yourself, therefore, are:

  1. “Is our brand as differentiated as it needs to be?”
  2. “Does it have a compelling brand promise that lets us define a unique brand experience?”
  3. “Have we defined specific product and service experiences that are aligned to that brand promise and brand experience?”
  4. “Are we designing our products and services to have the attributes they need to deliver on those experiences?”
  5. “Should we – like perhaps some of our competitors are doing – be using Experience Thinking to design our next offerings?”

If the answers to these questions are “no”, “no”, “no”, “no”, and “yes”, then it’s probably time to get serious about shaking up your design process – time to start applying Experience Thinking. Though it does take more time and effort to do, it tends to pay back greatly in terms of commercial success and ongoing brand building.

Image credit: Pixabay

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