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How Do You Measure Human Experience? The Research Journey. 

Image © Gensler

This post is part of a series discussing the findings and implications of Gensler’s Experience Index. We interviewed Christine Barber, Gensler’s director of research, and Stephanie Krieger, a strategist in Gensler’s New York office, about the research methodology and journey.

What was the goal of this multi-year research effort, and how did it begin?

CB: We always begin our research projects by crafting a series of questions that we would like to answer. Some of the questions we asked to prepare for this research included: How do you study experience? Does design play a role in creating an experience? And, if so, can we quantify the impact design has on experience?

Our research began with a series of roundtable discussions among our clients in five markets: New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, San Francisco and Shanghai. We explored how our clients think about experience, the role that design plays in creating experience and whether clients currently measure the impact design has on experience. Importantly, we learned that experience means different things to different people, and, in order to study design and experience more broadly, we needed to develop a common language around experiential elements.

This led us to our next step, which was to conduct a telephone survey with 1,700 respondents across the U.S. to learn how people think about and talk about design and its role in creating an experience. We also used the demographic and psychographic results of this effort to develop a set of respondent personas ranging from the “design disinterested” to “design enthusiasts.” These profiles guided our recruiting efforts for the qualitative (ethnographic) phase of our work.

Why was it important to conduct both a quantitative study, as well as qualitative (ethnographic) research?

CB: Ethnographic research builds on the perspectives of people in a live research setting. This technique allowed us to discover what people actually do in a physical space, the reasons they give for going there and which factors influence experience most. We conducted on-site observations and interviews with 30 people in five markets—New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis and Raleigh—at a wide variety of locations chosen by each participant; from cultural institutions, to stores, to restaurants and train stations. This phase was critical for developing the common language that was sorely needed to design our survey with questions that could be clearly understood and answered by our survey respondents.

SK: When it comes to thinking about experience, people have a difficult time articulating their thoughts. The ethnographic study allowed us to see and probe, in real time, about how people understand and experience different spaces.

The two research approaches complement each other well, each providing different insights. The quantitative study reached a large number of people and identified trends and connections. Through the ethnographic study we were able to explore experiences with people in depth, so we could use the results to craft a survey that accurately reflected what people are feeling. The ethnographic effort also allowed us to see how people navigate and engage with places and services—we could witness their experience, instead of asking them to report on it. Combining these methods gave us a deep level of understanding about experience, which was supported by the data we uncovered in the survey.

How did the ethnographic research help you to develop a common language to talk about design?

SK: Most people think about design much differently than designers, and the language that designers use every day may have a different or no meaning for them. It was really important for us to understand how people talk about design in order to formulate survey questions they could answer.

The ethnographic study allowed us to learn the language people were naturally using. Walking through an experience and asking people to describe it helped us translate “design” language to everyday language. We were able to pull out the terms that people were using most consistently and use them in our survey.

How did the ethnographic research help inform and develop the framework, and the five ‘modes’ of experience?

SK: The initial goal of our ethnographic study was really to understand how people talk about design and experience. When we were in the field with people, we began to notice a lot of similarities in how people described why they went places, and how they talked about their experience differently depending on the reason they were there. This led to the understanding of the five experience modes - task, social, discovery, entertainment and aspiration.

It was really interesting to see how people described the same place differently, as they talked about different reasons they might visit. And even more interestingly, to see how much they preferred places that support multiple uses.

Throughout this research journey, what were some of the most surprising insights you uncovered—what did you learn that you didn’t expect?

CB: I was surprised to learn how great an impact design actually has on experience. In order to approach our research holistically, our survey included elements that have a proven track record in creating a great experience—things like product and service quality, or, when studying the workplace, innovation, engagement and social connections. As it turned out, design becomes a most important element when a company wants to move experience from good to great to exceeding expectations. While we anticipated that design would positively influence experience, our finding that design can be a lever to really raise the bar was very unexpected.

SK: It was astounding to learn how strongly memory and past experience can affect people’s perception of an experience. Strong positive memories or associations made it easy for people to not see unpleasant aspects of an experience. It was as if they were living in their memory, and connecting to that experience as much as in reality.

The role of technology in an experience was really interesting as well. We often see kiosks and interactives not being used to the extent we would have hoped, and it feels like they are not working. The data showed how important these technology features were in how people view an experience, even when they are not being used.

What’s next? What does this mean for the future of design?

CB: Truly understanding and meeting the needs of people—whether they are employees or consumers—improves experience and the bottom line. The connection between a great experience and business performance is well documented—multiple studies have connected the overall quality of a customer, visitor or employee experience to a company’s long-term stock performance and growth. What is new about our research is that we now have conclusive evidence that design and physical space play a major role in creating a great experience. As designers, our goal on every project is to have a positive impact on the human experience, and we now have measures, a framework and a tool that will help us achieve this goal.

SK: Next we keep going! Now that we have the insights and framework from this study we have already started to apply it to our work with clients. This can help us design experiences that truly connect and support the people engaging with them!

Want to know more? Read about Gensler’s Experience Index here.

Christine Barber is the director of the Gensler Research Institute, a collaborative network of practitioners, researchers and external partners exploring the connection between design, business and the human experience. She oversees the many global and local research initiatives funded by the Institute every year, and acts as Principal Investigator for the Institute’s signature research efforts, including the Global Workplace Surveys and the Gensler Experience Index. Contact her at christine_barber@gensler.com.
Stephanie Krieger is a strategist and service designer in the Gensler New York office. Always starting with understanding human behavior, Stephanie uses different research techniques to uncover opportunities to innovate how people engage in experiences, both digital and physical. Her experience ranges from retail, to healthcare, to transportation services. Contact her at Stephanie_Krieger@Gensler.com..