10 Principles of Physical Experience Design
By Ripon DeLeon
At their core, physical experiences are about elevating spaces into places. Spaces are defined by their edges (think walls or boundaries). Places are defined by the activities and engagements happening within them. This evolution affords tremendous opportunity to transform real-world spaces to create meaningful experiences. Places that communicate feeling, create impressions and impart a sense of ‘wow’ to build memorable connections with their visitors.
Physical Experience Design (PXD) combines and leverages an array of traditional design disciplines (such as UX/UI, industrial design, architecture, interior design, behavioral design and more) to build places in new, unique, innovative, and impactful ways. Through layering interaction with physical and digital content, PXD works to transform previously banal everyday spaces into impactful and memorable places.
In our world of ever increasing digital noise, one of the few spaces left to stand apart is in the “real world.” As companies devote more and more resources to online and digital experiences, the relative scarcity of their physical touchpoints only increases their significance and the importance of getting them right.
I’ve spent the better part of the last ten years designing and building Physical Experiences, most recently at Capital One. What follows are 10 principles of PXD I’ve learned through the successes and failures of numerous projects—my own and others—collected with the help of my Physical Experience Design team at Capital One. These principles are lenses we use in designing our experiences; they help us understand and unpack what makes a successful physical experience.
#1: Nothing Exists in a Vacuum
Meet People Where They Are
Before trying to understand a physical experience, the first thing I think about is where it is. An experience’s site (location) is its context: where it is, what was there before, and what else is around it. People interpret the world based on their context, a physical experience is no different. It’s important to take into account the spaces and environments that bookend an experience. What you perceive immediately before or after affects how you view that experience. That context informs what a visitor brings to an experience, be it expectations, frame of mind, behaviors, etc.
A project’s site also includes the naturally occurring behaviors people exhibit within that space (e.g. movement patterns across a lobby or sitting patterns in a waiting room). An experience can take advantage of this by incorporating natural behaviors into an experience. This allows visitors to casually engage and interact with an experience effortlessly. Additionally, visitors enjoy a moment of discovery when they realize they’re already part of an experience.
Zagat’s Tiny Cafe by Deeplocal elegantly integrated into its context. By repurposing the stereotypical sidewalk cafe, Zagat was able to create a highly impactful experience. For this to be successful, it required the project to have an understanding of its context in order to seem natural and attract the casual passerby. Further, by using recipes from the best Zagat rated local restaurants to create the menu of tiny food, the Tiny Cafe demonstrated a knowledge and foundation within the community.
Engage All The Senses
I mean, “physical” is the first word in Physical Experience Design… literally. People are physical beings with multiple senses, and this is sadly often overlooked in our digital-first world. This creates opportunities for a physical experience to engage people in multiple ways. Experience can engage any or all of our senses, and the more senses engaged the more memorable an experience. Engagements can occupy space (3D), they can move (kinetic), they can change overtime (4D); the possibilities are nearly limitless. Physical experiences which take advantage of these opportunities engage in a visceral way, building stronger, more impactful connections to the visitor.
When most people describe a space, they do so in terms of how it “feels.” For example, a space might feel crowded, open, quiet, or welcoming. These characteristics affect how someone experiences that space. Even if only subconscious, these characteristics influence the perception of that space. Crafting and calibrating the “feel” of a space will make the experience more environmental and immersive, and the easier it is for a visitor to buy into the experience.
The Rain Room by Random International creates an experience defined entirely by feel.. The experience layers multi-sensory elements to re-create what it feels like to be in rainstorm. It blends the humid atmospheric air and soundscape of a downpour to build an immersive environment, allowing you to occupy the space of a rainstorm without getting wet. The experience artfully creates a world of its own based solely on the feel of the space, effectively transporting visitors into a place that is both familiar and unreal.
#3: Build a Community
A sense of community is the most unique and powerful attribute of a physical experience, especially when compared to web and mobile apps. Every physical experience I’ve appreciated was in large part due to the people I shared it with. The power of a physical experience lies in its ability to instantaneously create community through their shared experiences. The people participating in a physical experience are the central part of it—they influence your perception of the experience.
Think of it this way; if you see a group of people having a good time, you naturally want to find out what’s going on and join in. The most effective way to encourage visitors to engage in an experience is to show them people engaging in the experience. This communicates both that you can interact and it is socially acceptable for you to do so. I frequently find myself acting as the first participant in an experience, cuing the next person to join in. You can’t have an experience if there is no one there to experience it.
The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson sought to recreate the experience of the sun and the sky in the artificial environment of a gallery space. Rooted in the idea that weather is a common shared experience, and one that often acts as icebreaker in a conversation between strangers. This was reinforced in several ways. Mono-frequency LEDs removed all color from the space leaving a duotone of only yellow and black. The mirrored ceiling above made visitors a part of the experience by literally reflecting them in the work. The project distilled the essential human experience of the weather to effectively build a new spontaneous community as those present shared in the immersive environmental experience.
#4: Give & Take
Reward the Relationship
I like to correlate an interactive experience to a contract with each visitor. If a visitor provides something to an experience—even something as simple as their attention—the experience needs to give something back in return. This return can take many forms, from material takeaways to beautiful animations. However, if there is no proportional reward in exchange for the effort contributed, the experience will inevitably feel like a let down or a waste of time.
Participation is a big ask — more than you might think. This is even more true of a physical experience that competes with other real-world distractions. The reward for participation must outpace the request in order to hold someone’s attention. Many successful experiences magnify a participant’s actions to the level of superpowers. This empowers visitors to customize and control their environment.
The Dancing Traffic Light Manikin by Smart created a fun and playful interactive experience. Participation was encouraged through the real time display of participant’s dancing abstraction and real time video showing the reactions of passersby. By clearly communicating the results of their interactions, people overcame the unusual nature of the interaction to feel comfortable enough to dance and playfully engage.
#5: A Trail of Breadcrumbs
Think Near, Far and Inbetween
People don’t magically teleport from one place to the next; they move continuously walking from one place to the next place. This means people don’t magically appear in an experience, they have to make a choice—even if it’s subconscious—to engage. By curating a path (both literally and figuratively) to follow, you can lead a visitor into the experience.
People perceive different levels of detail at various distances. An experience can take advantage of the levels of detail to communicate specific information at each distance. What is perceptible at 40 feet from an experience is different from what is perceptible at 10 feet or at 2 feet. A physical experience must work across all these scales in order to draw a visitor in. Each scale has key distinguishing criteria that maps to a visitor’s journey as they engage in the experience.
From afar, at a 40-foot level of detail, an experience is viewed holistically. Any content tends to be low resolution, open-ended, and interactions are passive. This scale is where a visitor’s first impression is made, effectively asking a them to get closer and learn more. The basic goal for this scale is to make the experience intriguing so that a visitor wants to come closer and engage in the experience.
Inbetween, at 10 feet, a visitor is in a spectator or transition zone. Their immediate attention has been grabbed, however they haven’t yet committed to fully engaging the experience. Interactions can be both passive or active. Any active interactions are typically low resolution, with sensory inputs at the detail level of the visitor’s body. Content is designed to be shared among a group of visitors; it is not customized to individual visitors.
Near, at two feet, a visitor is now full engaged and immersed in the experience. Content is provided in its highest resolution via video, images, text, etc. Interactions are typically active with medium to high resolution inputs like gestures such as touch or swipe. Active interaction at this level helps maintain a visitor’s engagement by empowering them to explore and discover for themselves.
The Project Elements Pop-up by Capital One strikes a strong balance across all scales of the experience. From 40 feet away, the experience creates an area of activity around a large projection screen where people are gathering, drawing other visitors in. As visitors move closer to 10 feet from the experience, they begin to understand the content on the projection screens as filtered video of themselves and are encouraged to continue into the experience to further discover. Up close at two feet, visitors are able to actively interact with the experience by picking up different cards and changing the video filters accordingly. Following this pathway visitors were able to easily navigate the experience, fully engage, and discover deeper levels of content.
Keep It Simple Stupid
I can’t stand experiences that waste my time and don’t get to the point! Did you know the typical attention span is only four seconds? Think about that. It is in this four-second window that a physical experience must compete against the rest of the world to grab a visitor’s attention. It must then sustain that attention to engage people in a more in-depth experience.
Think of it this way; you have to ask someone out on a date before you can start a relationship. Physical experiences build relationships by targeting multiple levels of engagement from first a four-second pick-up line while someone is walking by. Next, a 10-second flirtation while they stop for a look. Then a long term relationship of 30 seconds to a few minutes as a sustained interaction. An experience builds off this courtship of quicker interactions to draw visitors into complex longer engagements.
An underlying goal of experiences is to shepherd a visitor to their core content and close-up engagement. The path of a visitor’s journey through a physical experience can be mapped through the different levels of engagement (or relationship status). Providing clarity along this path is critical to the success of an experience. It is all too common to get lost in an experience and miss what the underlying message due to the amount of extraneous content and interactions, or other noise. To create a cohesive and navigable experience, it is critical that every element and layer of an experience reinforces the core message and journey.
It is important to acknowledge that not every experience needs to last minutes. Many great experiences deliver a quick hit and are done. They acknowledge it might be all they have time for. Equally important, don’t expect everyone to give a shit; not every visitor wants to engage in the full depth of an experience. A great experience can create a memorable impression even in four seconds if it’s concise and compelling.
Graffiti Nature by teamLab is a perfect example of an experience that is simple but not simplistic. The compelling virtual environment grab visitors’ attention within the first four seconds and leads them through a journey to discover the experience. Visitors are given coloring-book-style drawings of creatures to color as they choose. These drawings are immediately converted into graphic textures for the virtual creatures in the projected environment. Visitors can then interact in real-time with their own custom creations. This simple yet novel interaction gives the visitors control over the experience while creating an immersive, complex, and rich environment.
#7: Choose Your Own Adventure
Create a Platform
Physical experiences are a journey, not a destination. Specifically, the journey a visitor takes through the experience — both physically (movement) and emotionally (state of mind). This journey can be thought of as storytelling but where the stories are self-guided. I like to relate the chapters in a book to the rooms in building. The chapter structure the stories that unfold with characters journeys or the same way rooms structure a occupants experience. The rooms set stages activities(sit, lounge, eat, sleep, etc) structuring your experiences, but still allow you to navigate them as you chose. Taken in series the rooms tell the story a building communicates to its occupants.
We’re not really used to the idea of our environment telling us stories, but that’s exactly what physical experiences do. They create environments or frameworks that you can explore. Physical experiences build narrative through discoveries, feelings and snapshots. The affordance is made so that a visitor can learn, discover, wander, interpret and reinterpret an experience at their own pace and choosing. A well-designed experience will provide clues and encouragement to help guide a visitor through the experience, but these should be thought of more as suggestions. A contrast is the storytelling style in film. Films are told in a single linear authorial perspective (the cameras). Physical experience don’t have this single perspective, instead they are non-directed and the unique story you experience is directed by you (the visitor) not me (the designer).
The Last Shot by AKQA created an interactive basketball court where visitors can relive key moments from the career of Michael Jordan. The experience treats these moments as chapters in a story that visitors can recreate, where the visitor is free to explore and play. Think of each chapter as a micro experience in 3D space that a visitor can explore. There is no need to follow a specific story arc; each room is an independent experience and stands on it’s own.
#8: Failure is not an Option
End on a High Note
Everybody hates to fail or feel like they don’t “get it”; this is only amplified in a physical experience. A visitor must always feel like they had a successful experience, period. I don’t care if it’s not the intended experience, it should still feel like a win. If a visitor leaves feeling like they failed or didn’t understand, that creates a negative experience and poor impressions.
To prevent perceived failure, experiences need to be flexible, responsive, and forgiving in their interactions. They should be designed for edge cases and be able to accommodate the unexpected and unpredictable. Just because a user doesn’t follow the journey or interaction intended, it doesn’t mean the experience is a failure. This applies across all layers that make up an overall experience. It is critical that all layers provide the opportunity for a visitor to succeed since that may be the only part they experience.
The #PayWithAPhoto Food Truck by Google was centered around a game where visitors had 20 seconds to find a photo with a random object. If a participant found the photo they were give a reward such as a cupcake. However, when a participant “failed” they were still awarded a prize, a miniature cupcake. Every participant left the experience feeling like they succeeded.
#9: Find the ‘!’
Elicit an “AH HA!”
This my favorite part of any experience and the most challenging to create. It is the magic moment where an experience clicks and the visitor gets the big idea. There are few things more disappointing than experiences that fizzle out instead of ending on a high note — you want people walking away thinking the experience was amazing. Experiences should build as the visitor engages more and more until they arrive at that ‘!’ moment.
For an experience to connect and make a lasting impression, it needs that ‘!’ moment. This moment is when an experience comes into focus. The previous principles set the stage for the ‘!’ moment. A few examples of ‘!’ moments include: thrill, discovery, connection to a community, validation of oneself, and wonder. Think of the ‘!’ moment as the punchline of an experience.
Quantum of Peace by panGenerator presents a series of facts related to WWII and the Warsaw Uprising. The ‘!’ moment comes when a visitor realizes that the changing numbers are actually made of real bullet shells. This drives home the significance and impact of the information being displayed. By taking advantage of the loaded emotional context of the materials, the installation creates a memorable experience.
#10: Think big… no… bigger
Made to #Share
This is the #1 dirty little secret I’ve learned over the years; how well an experience photographs is the biggest factor in it having a lasting impact. More people — by many orders of magnitude — will see images of an experience than will see it in person. To be a truly successful physical experience it must consider how it will reach this larger audience. The ability for a visitor to photograph and share their experience will easily increase its audience by a multiplier of 100 and I’ve never met a designer who wanted less people to see their work. How else would you tell the story of an experience?
The ability to document and share an experience entirely depends on how well it photographs, whether through social media, design blogs, whatever. It is through these images that an experience can scale creating an impact beyond its physical footprint. Photography is the only real record of these experiences, therefore the better the photographs the more impactful the experience will be, period. So when you create your next (or first) physical experience, get a photographer — they’re worth their weight in gold and I’d be happy to recommend one.
Infinity Mirrored Room by Yayoi Kusama created a unique recognizable place that put the visitor at the center of the experience. The experience encourages visitors to take and share photographs, thereby allowing the installation to reach an outsized audience. It has been seen by countless more people through social and other media than those who will ever experience it in person.
At this point you’re hopefully excited to go run out and find a physical experience to unpack or create one. My hope here is that you can take these principles out into the world and better understand the physical experiences you visit. Admittedly, I prescribe to the theory that you can’t fully appreciate a design until you understand how it works and how to evaluate it. Not every experience will exemplify all of these principles nor should they. But, I’m confident the most memorable, impactful or just simply enjoyable physical experiences will be the ones that incorporate most of these principles.
This article was developed in collaboration with the Physical Experience Design team @ Capital One: Jess Kessin, Lisa Whitsitt, Matthew Wilson, Janak Dadhaniya, Cheng Xu, and Celina Liao
Illustrations by Celina Liao