The 5E Experience Design Model

A step-by-step guide to designing meaningful experiences

Andy Sontag
11 min readJan 26, 2018

This article will take you step-by-step through the 5E model. Which is an Experience Design model that can be used to design meaningful services, events, or learning experiences. It will help you design and orchestrate experiences that deliver meaningful outcomes.

The 5E model is really useful to help you align a team, access collective creativity and distributive leadership models that enable collaboration and design in complexity. It is an integrative model that can add coherence, elegance and excitement to your service or experience. It is simply a framework for building holistic and meaningful experiences.

Image from the talented Rasmus Stride

At Kaospilot we’ve put this model through extensive use. We have learned from working with executives from Volkswagen in Germany, with AR artists in Brazil, with Human Resource directors from Spain, and used the mindsets here to initiate the global social movement 100 in 1 day. The 5E model is building upon the amazing work of Larry Keeley in 1994 and Nathan Shedroff’s work with Core Meanings.

We are so excited to share what we’ve learned with you: in 3 simple steps for how to use this thoroughly versatile tool:

1. Define the Meaningful Outcomes

2. Define the Emotional Journey

3. Design What Happens — and learn through action

So, lets begin at the beginning, the top of the model. Which is where we’ll find the first step:

1. Define the Meaningful Outcomes

Step 1: Define the top 3 Meaningful Outcomes you wish to create.

The first step in designing the experience is to define the Meaningful Outcomes you wish your experience to create.

People seek meaning and experiences that positively enhance their lives. The 5E model has 5 phases, the “E’s”, which we’ll dive deeper into below. To start, we must have the end in mind: to create meaningful outcomes for our users.

“Today, 8 in 10 consumers say purpose is at least as important to them as Customer Experience.”

- Accenture Report: Growth it comes down to experience 2022

Define the top 3 Meaningful Outcomes you wish to create

Start designing the experience by selecting the Meaningful Outcomes you wish your experience to create and describe them.

To define the Meaningful Outcomes of your experience is to define the source of the positive impact you aim to create. It is the sun, that gives life and energy to you, your team and ultimately the people you are designing for. For a summit to gather designers in Holland the meaningful outcome was: Community. We designed an event that created this outcome through activating participants to be playful, creating strong culture frames for positive relationships, and focusing our activities on serving a bigger purpose together.

Focusing on creating Meaningful Outcomes enables you and your customers to take actions that support a more just and sustainable world. An incredible resource to check if you are creating Meaningful Outcomes is to work with the SDGs.

Thoughts on Meaningful Outcome inspired by Alberto Barreiro. Image from the talented Rasmus Stride

Meaning is Personal

The personalization of the experience around what is meaningful to the people you serve is an essential aspect of creating meaningful outcomes. This personalization can take the form of doing individual ‘caring’ actions, like hand writing cards for each participant, or in the form of allowing participants to personalize their own experience, through for example giving them choices, time to reflect and be in relationship. Always try to learn about those you are designing for, while you are designing, and in an ongoing way as the experience is delivered. What is important is to approach your users with curiosity and humbleness, and create as many contexts where you listen to what is meaningful to them throughout the design and delivery process.

Science Shows

Luckily for us there is a team of Nobel Prize winners, philosophers and researchers that have devoted their lives to answering the question of: what makes a human life meaningful? So though it is important to personalize, we can also create meaningful experiences by including the below elements of experience. To summarize these sources adding the below element of experience has been empirically shown to support the creation of more meaningful outcomes:

Experiences that support Meaningful Outcomes:

💃🏻 Flow — Fluid full presence in an experience
🧘🏾‍♀️ Mindfulness — Experiencing the ability to control ones attention
🏃🏽 Play — A state of exploration without an extrinsic purpose
☀️ Purpose — Experiencing being part of a cause that is bigger than oneself
👩🏾‍🤝‍👩🏼Positive Relationships — Generative ways of interacting
🪁 Autonomy — Freedom/intrinsic motivation
☺️ Positive Emotions — Feeling gooooood

🤓 Practitioner tip: to dive deeper in here we recommend the books: The Age of Experiences: Harnessing Happiness to Build a New Economy here and Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners here, which summarizes and gives exercises to bring the new science of happiness to your clients building on the science from the VIA Institute.

If you would like to dive even deep into these topics check out our learning immersions here.

For the summit to gather designers in Holland, where the meaningful outcome was: Community. Some experiences we design that where crucial to supporting this Meaningful Outcome was:

🏃🏽 Play: activating participants to be playful in the beginning of the first day, to set the tone for connection.

👩🏾‍🤝‍👩🏼Positive Relationships: Spending time each day to build a strong culture and frames for positive relationships.

☀️ Purpose: Focusing our activities on serving a bigger purpose, and co-creating this together.

“The meaningful outcomes come to life through each of the 5Es, building synergy and momentum.”

— Carola Verschoor

Below is a visual walk through of the 5 steps. Each is important and all are meaningful together:

The opportunities to iterate and layer experiences are endless. The secret of getting this “right” is in designing towards the Meaningful Outcomes: which means really looking at each 5Es in light of the experience you wish to create. Ultimately your desired outcomes, will manifest through how the experience makes them feel. We are now ready to move to the next step.

“If the Meaningful Outcome is the sunshine, the emotional journey is the fertile soil from which experience grows.”

— Carola Verschoor

2. Define the Emotional Journey

Work from left to right to fill in the ‘Feeling’ level of the 5E model.

The next step is to define the emotional journey you would like to take your users on. You want to really walk through the experience you are designing from your users perspective. What do you want users to feel in each stage of the experience?

Step into the users shoes

We suggest writing: “I feel…” statements for each stage of the 5E model. Make them specific, for example “I feel… special” is too general to help you make design decisions. But for the Entry phase of our designers summit in Holland: “I feel… special and seen, and relaxed with the other guests!” will guide you in designing your Entry experience. In this example, you know you need to design the Entry so that it truly make the person feel special and seen (no small job), but also have the right level informality to create a relaxed atmosphere.

Designing feelings = designing experience

The emotions someone feel as they go through your experience, will determine how and what they remember from it. The reason most design fails (and experience design is no exception) is that it too often it is designed a-contextually (removed from the actual situation) whereas it needs to work in context, in real life, in real experience. And that is the domain of subjective interpretation and what Daniel Kahneman calls the Narrating Self. Our emotions edit our experiences with a sharpy and a highlighter, scratching out large parts of our experiences, and highlighting the significant, emotionally intense moments in the experience.

“Experience like breathing is a rhythm of intakings and outgivings.”

— John Dewey

Take your users on a journey & keep it real

Not all emotional journeys are purely joyful. Meaningful experiences are sometime hard. The importance of acknowledging real emotions cannot be overstated. In order to move into the creation of a meaningful experience, you often have to push people out of their comfort zone.

If you are seeking a meaningful outcome of ‘Community’ from our designers summit in Holland, we had to build a container of trust, which enabled us to navigate the sometimes messy, and emotionally tense moments of defining a shared vision, where in order for the group to agree, some peoples idea needed to be let go. The most powerful experiences nudge users out of their comfort zone, and hold their hand as they take on issues they are afraid to tackle by themselves.

Of course, having a clarity of the Meaningful Outcomes and an understanding of your users emotional journey is not enough. For experiences to flourish they must be well structured and organized. In our analogy of the sun and the rich soil, design is like good gardening. With the design of experiences, it is pretty much like Sir Ken Robinson famously said “you can’t pull on grass to make it grow.” Experience design mastery is the result of tending to the ‘garden’ and iterating and improving with each season.

3. Finally, Design ‘What Happens’

Fill in the ‘what happens’ line, making all design decisions guided by the Meaningful Outcomes and Feelings you wish to create.

From abstract to concrete, from left to right

What happens at each stage of the users journey? Fill in this line of the 5E template with the main activities at each stage of the users journey. The experience design process is a movement from abstract to concrete. Starting with Meaningful Outcomes, moving to Feelings and finally to What Happens can be challenging and feel ‘abstract’ at first, but trust the process!

For an example of “What Happens” for the Extension phase of an intensive 2 hour kick-off of an online training experience, participants wrote each other a Haiku on our shared WhatsApp channel (full credit to this exercise to Jenny Sauer-Klein and her awesome library of exercise: Play on Purpose). This was an extension that tied together how we began the call with the shared space in-between the first and the second call.

Creating a journey map — adding detail to your design

You can use the 5E model as a high-level outline of an experience, or if you are ready to take the next step as an experience designer, you can add another level of detail by customizing the 5E Journey Map. The 5E model is not a template you fill, but a structure that you decide based on the needs of the specific experience you are designing. What additional themes for analysis are relevant for the experience you are designing? For Example: If you are designing an event with staff, you may add a layer of: Person Responsible — who is responsible for each step of the experience? Add the layers for analysis that are relevant for the specific experience you are designing. We frequently use: Challenges and Opportunities, Tasks, Storyline or Time to the 5E journey map.

Design with a learning mindset

A journey map is not a result, but a tool for planning, testing and evolving your user experience. A journey map helps you identify users’ key interactions with your workshop, event or service. Once you identify these key moments, you want to learn about them. Test them practically, does your system of delivery work? Is it replicable? You also want to test that you are on track to create the emotions you are aiming for. What is the simplest way you could test the most important moments of the experience? Have you tried it out on yourself or your friends? Let your Meaningful Outcomes guide your prototypes and co-design the experience with your team and users.

Each user is unique

Journey maps are flawed in that they inherently assumes a one size fits all model for designing. Each user is their own unique universe of strengths, challenges and meaning making and will have entirely different needs, and desires. However it does give you the ability to have a greater level of ‘control’ empathizing and understanding the emotional journey you want to create and find the moments that matter most to your users.

This third step brings us to the end of our exploration of the 5E model. Once you start using it, it becomes second nature and will see examples of it everywhere in your own life. To be a master experience designer requires you to work deeply with emotions, and reverse engineer meaningful moments come from, but also have a learning mindset, and iterate and improve your experiences with each round.

So let’s zoom out and look at how to use this tool:

1. You can simply sketch it by hand and fill it in with post-its

2. 👉 Use our free 5E Experience Design template in Mural 👈

Or below is as an image, you can take a screen shot and drag it into your favorite design program (Miro, Jam Board, Powerpoint…):

You can simply sketch your 5E on a big piece of paper design using post-its!

This tool is truly versatile. We hope that you apply it to your professional work, and also to personal life. We love to hear about the experiences you are designing!

HUGE thank you to Carola Verschoor, who has been invaluable in the rewriting of this piece 🙏

Want to learn more about experience design? Check out the trainings and resources we have at Kaospilot Experience Design
Since 1991, Kaospilot have worked systematically with the management of change and co-creation processes. We are a creative and experience design driven school that makes professional training programs in leadership, innovation, creativity and experience design. Our professional programs are not create simply to prepare leaders for the future, but to help them design it.

An artists reminder to keep experiences you design simple.

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Andy Sontag

Designing experience that enable people and relationships to grow ☀️ // Kaospilot Experience Design: https://www.kaospilot.dk/product/experience-design/