EXPERIENCES ARE MADE IN THE MOMENTS

So, how do we actually create or change an experience? 

We begin with the realisation that an experience isn’t some enormous intangible. It’s simply a series of smaller moments — touchpoints between individuals and the organisation. 

What are the moments that make up some of the typical aspects of work? How do our people experience a day, a week, a month, a year… a career? What’s the onboarding experience? How do employees experience programs? How do they experience events? How do they experience health and safety? What’s the retirement or resignation experience? All these big events are just moments strung together. 

This shift in thinking makes it the process simple. Simpler, anyway. Every interaction, every touchpoint, can be mapped. It can be assessed on whether it’s positive, negative, or somewhere in between. Some touchpoints are shared by everyone, some are specific to segments. These are the details that need to be sweated, and when they’ve been sweated adequately, the result is a journey map — a visual overview of the employee experience. 

This is where things get exciting. The journey map reveals the opportunities for change — for improvement. What do we want people to feel at each touchpoint? What do we want them to do? How can we weave them all into a compelling narrative that our people remember fondly? 

 

SOME MOMENTS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN OTHERS

Of all the moments that make up an experience, not all of them are equal. That’s good news, because trying to make every touchpoint perfect would probably send us mad. Yes — forget that impossibility. Perfection is not our objective, nor is removing every negative moment. It’s simply the overall experience that matters — and specifically, the way in which we remember it. 

It would be reasonable to assume we rate an experience based on a tally of all the positive versus negative moments. A pros and cons list of sorts. Reasonable certainly, but also — wrong. Research by psychologist Daniel Kahneman shows that the way we remember an experience is simply an average of the most intense moment (the peak) and the final moment (the end). This discovery came to be known by the very literal, quite memorable, but not very exciting: peak-end rule. 

 

ANATOMY OF AN EXPERIENCE

Just because peaks and ends are important, doesn’t make them the only considerations when shaping experiences. Oh no — there’s a lot more to it than that. Let’s hurl headlong and intrepid to examine at each stage of an experience chronologically.

01. THE PROLOGUE

It makes sense to begin at the beginning, but… what happens before an experience begins? While peak and end moments dominate our memory, further studies by Kahneman and a group of happiness researchers (seriously — people actually do this) revealed that in many cases we delight as much — or more — in the anticipation and reflection of the event as we do in the experience itself. 

Marketing professor Marsha Richins confirmed this bias in her research on purchasing behaviour. She found that even the most materialistic consumers took more pleasure in the anticipation of a purchase than in the purchase itself. Definitive evidence that we’re still primal beast with a thrill for the chase — dopamine lathering us into jittery anticipation. It’s just as well too. Without the desire for the hunt or harvest, our species probably would’ve starved itself into extinction a long time ago.

So, what does this mean? Well, it means that we should consider how to enhance an experience before the experience typically begins. If our thrills come from the anticipation, how can we use that to our advantage? What additional touchpoints can be added before an event to amplify anticipation? This is the perfect time to build excitement and curiosity, and frame expectations for the experience ahead. 

02. THE BEGINNING

The old adage about first impressions also holds true for experiences. The beginning has a powerful anchoring effect, with the first touchpoints forming our first real connection. It’s an opportunity to establish the tone. A chance to deliver on all the anticipation, curiosity, and the promises teased in the prologue. 

03. THE MIDDLE

The middle of the experience is where the real business happens. Here, we should be removing unnecessary friction and frustrations, and ensuring at least one peak moment. 

Time is also an important consideration at this stage. Our days are busier and our attention spans shorter than ever. We should certainly aim for attention and action from our people, but we don’t necessarily need them to be fully immersed. Touchpoints at this stage should allow for different levels of engagement. Ideally — short, impactful moments that reward longer interactions, but don’t rely on them. 

04. THE PEAK(S)

These are the moments we remember over all others. It’s the hilarious one-liner in a movie. It’s an unexpected meal in an unfamiliar town. It’s reaching the peak of a mountain in time for sunrise. These are the moments that stay in our minds as all the unenjoyables fade. A weak plot and poorly developed characters. The six laps around the block and argument about where to park. The six hour pre-dawn hike through sleet with a heavy pack to reach the summit.

The thing that most peak moments share is a strong emotional hook. Joy; anticipation; surprise — our memory is biased to remember emotion. Surprise — particularly. Unexpected moments grab our attention, pique our curiosity, motivate us to learn, and make us remember. It’s all in the way we’re wired. Unpredictability actually elicits a physiological response — building new neural pathways, stimulating dopamine, and giving the hippocampus the signal to send those moments straight to long-term memory. These reasons all make surprise an emotion worth employing with reasonable regularity.

It’s surprisingly easy to surprise people. We’re not talking whoopee cushions or hiding in the hallways for a sneaky evening ambush. We can surprise people simply by guiding them to make a discovery. We can take a typical touchpoint and deliver it in a whole new way. But the biggest surprises come from transforming moments that are usually the most mundane. These moments — the ones no one expects to be memorable — have the greatest opportunity to delight. 

Peak moments have the power to make otherwise forgettable or flawed experiences wonderful. One emotional high point can be all it takes to elevate our memory of an event. These moments are the difference between an experience that’s pleasant enough but entirely forgettable, and one that’s flawed — but absolutely amazing.

05. THE END

The end, by definition, is the last chance we have to make an impression. It’s also the most recent moment in an experience, which gives it extra weight in our memory. This is why we need to finish strong.

Where our endings vary from customer experiences is that instead of one ending (or several at best), most employee experiences have multiple endings. Every day; week; Christmas party; annual summit — repeated. Each previous ending is replaced, becoming just another moment in the overall experience. 

There’s also — obviously — not much good in coming up with an amazing ending if no-one makes it to the end. This is why we need to ensure there’s no friction along the way that might end the experience before intended.

06. THE EPILOGUE

Did we say the end was the last touchpoint with out people? Well, that’s not entirely true.

Peak-end theory shows us that the way we feel in the moment is quite different to how we feel thinking back on the experience later. During an experience, we assess it moment to moment: joy; boredom; fear; frustration. However, when we think back on the experience later, we average only the peak and the end. This means that although we’re designing experiences to be enjoyed at the time, it’s even more important that they’re remembered positively after they end. 

As Kahneman and pals discovered, reflection (along with anticipation) often gives us just as much pleasure as the experience itself. So, just like building anticipation before an experience begins, we should also be engineering moments of reflection after it ends. This is particularly valuable in educational or awareness campaigns where we want people to remember content. Even a few simple touchpoints after the ending can ensue an experience is remembered positively, and the learning continues. 

This is traditionally the time used to seek feedback. While surveys can certainly help us improve the experience in in the future, they can also impact the experience of the person being surveyed at present. Studies by Iowa State University found that while venting feels great, it rarely provides catharsis — often the opposite. Giving feedback forces us to remember it with a far more critical mindset, and if the experience wasn’t great, the process of venting can heighten the negative emotions. 

The best (worst) example is the exit survey. Few things send a clearer message to an ex-employee that you really care about their opinion… now that they’re gone. This process does nothing to improve their memory of the experience, and even less to ensure they speak positively about it to others. All this isn’t to say we shouldn’t seek feedback, but we need to be sensitive around timing, execution, and even incorporating it into a more rounded set of touchpoints designed to leave people with a positive impression.

* THERE’S MAGIC IN THE IN-BETWEENS

Experiences aren’t only about the touchpoints though, they’re also made in the moments in between. 

Transitions between touchpoints are the times we can use to pause and reflect, reset, or frame a change in mindset. They’re opportunities to prime people for new experiences, and prevent them dragging undesirable emotions in between.

Performance researcher Dr Adam Fraser calls these in-betweens The Third Space. His study with Deakin University found that carrying mindsets and emotional states between activities can drastically impact happiness and performance. By building transitions into our experiences, we provide an opportunity to reset between moments. We can avoid the risk of carrying negative feelings or disappointment from setbacks into subsequent touchpoints. 

Transitions can also be physical. Disneyland incorporates a transition for customers entering the park. They call it a portal — a dark tunnel that promotes a psychological transition between real and magical. Disney view this as one of the most important parts of the experience, allowing people to leave any negative feelings behind, reset, and enter the park with wonder. This same principle can also be used in our workplaces. Are there physical transitions or triggers that allow a change in mindset when moving from one space to the next — home to work, work to home, or office to meeting room?