Three ways to create an experience

Three ways to create an experience

In my last post, I said we’re moving from the Information Age into the Experiential Age in everything from the way we learn and interact with ideas, to the way we create and collaborate, to the way we make decisions about products and services.

So it might be useful to talk about what makes an experience different from receiving information, and how to create better experiences for learning, working, and living.

What makes up an experience?

  • Experiences are sensory. Right now, in my experience of this moment, I can feel my chair against my legs and my back, I can feel my fingers on the smooth, matte keys of my keyboard. If I look out the window I see the blue sky of a Sydney autumn afternoon and a gum tree moving in the gentle breeze. I can hear birds, some distant construction work, and a door closing in another part of the building. I’ve just eaten a mint, so I have a slightly sweet taste and a cool sensation in my mouth.
  • Experiences engage spatial and motor awareness. I’m aware that I am sitting at my desk and I have a sense of where I am in relation to the walls, doors, windows, and objects in the room. I have a sense of sitting in one place rather than moving. If I were to remember this moment at some point in the future, I would have that sense of spatial awareness of where I was and what I was doing as part of the memory.
  • Experiences engage emotions. Experiences that make us feel something are ones we’re more likely to remember and that are more likely to have an impact on us. The stronger the emotion, the greater the impact.
  • Experiences both become and trigger memories. While we’re experiencing something, we’re reminded of other occasions when we’ve felt the same way, been in the same place, or smelled the same smell. The new experience then becomes part of our memory, along with all of the memories it triggered.

An experience that is highly sensory, or kinetic, or emotional is one that sticks with you, for good or for bad. It changes you and becomes part of your memory and your life. Abstract information on its own does none of these things. If you want someone to really learn something, understand something, feel something, or do something, the best way is to help them experience it, not to give them a document or a slide deck.

So how do you create an experience?

Basically, you have three options.

  1. Reality. Everything that happens to you in real life becomes part of your experience. Your first day of work at a new job, your morning coffee, the project meeting, your trip home on the bus, eating dinner with your family, booking your next holiday. Given how much impact an experience can have, it’s a little surprising we don’t think more about shaping our environments and interactions to create better and more compelling experiences for ourselves and for the people around us.
  2. Stories. We only have time and opportunity to experience a limited number of things ourselves. What if we want to experience something that happened when we weren’t there? Or that hasn’t happened yet? Or that’s not possible to experience in real life? What if we want to learn from someone else’s experience, without having to go through what they went through?

    Around 70,000 years ago, humans came up with a solution to this problem: stories. Stories let us greatly expand our range of experiences. A story creates a virtual experience, activating the same sensory, motor, emotional, and memory networks in our brains that a real experience does. This is true whether we hear it face-to-face, read it, or watch it on the big screen. But it has to be a story to have the impact of an experience. The informational video explaining your new service, even if it has cute animations, won’t do the same thing.
  3. Virtual Reality. VR offers the same potential as stories for expanding our range of experiences, but in a more immersive way. In VR we’re not just told about another time and place, we hear and see it for ourselves. We also have the spatial awareness of being there, and the sense of movement as we interact in the virtual environment. We feel as if we’re there ourselves, and our virtual experience becomes part of our memory in the same way a real experience does.

Of course these can be used in combination. For example, you can tell a story using the medium of VR. Or you can create a real experience that includes storytelling.

When you’re looking to create an experience--to help someone learn something, understand a different perspective, feel something, or change what they do--think first about what’s possible to do with a real life experience. Reality will have the greatest impact. But if an experience in real life isn’t possible or practical, you can still provide that experience. Just do it through stories or VR.

The Experiential Age

The Experiential Age

If the last hundred years represented a shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, we’re seeing a new shift now: a shift to the Experiential Age. Here are four ways this is taking shape.

1. Quality of experience gives competitive advantage

In the Information Age, companies gained a competitive edge through information: how much you knew, whether anyone else knew it too, how connected it was, how well you could analyse it. There was scarcity around this because not everyone had the same information and not everyone had the tools to use it well. That’s changed. Even state secrets aren’t secret anymore, and powerful analytics platforms and tools are affordable and widely available. Instead, competitive edge now comes from the quality of experience we’re able to offer our customers. It means going beyond analytics to empathy. Provide customers with an experience they love and that makes them feel valued from start to finish, and they’ll never want to leave. And for the love of all that’s good, don’t have airport security beat them up and drag them off the plane

2. Show, don’t tell

Show, don’t tell is the first rule of good storytelling, and it’s also the first rule of the Experiential Age. We don’t want to know things just because we’ve been told, we want to know them because we have experienced them for ourselves. In everything from the way we learn, to the way we create and collaborate, to the way we shop, we’re moving from information to immersion, from abstract to concrete, from learning by telling to learning by doing, from pondering to making. 

3. The screen disappears

Pages, screens, and keyboards have become the way we interact with the world of information, but in the Experiential Age, the screen will disappear to give us more direct, natural ways of interacting. We’re already seeing this with the move to voice interfaces. Virtual and augmented reality will soon give us interfaces that let us use much more of our bodies--eyes, expressions, voice, hands, and other movements. The distinctions between how we interact with the physical world and how we interact with the digital world will blur.

4. Humans get their mojo back

In the Information Age, humans had to learn to think like machines and make our bodies do unnatural things like sit all day staring at a computer monitor in a sterile office environment. It’s taken a huge toll on our collective health, mentally and physically. In the Experiential Age, we turn this around to get our mojo back. Machines will be designed to work with us while we interact with each other doing what we do naturally--moving around, using conversational language, working with objects with our hands, using facial, voice and body expressions. Built environments will be designed as enjoyable spaces for humans to live and work in. We’ll have more and more opportunities to exercise our creative and intuitive faculties as well as our analytical ones.

How will you and your organisation fare in the Experiential Age?

Five ways VR will transform education

Five ways VR will transform education

Virtual reality is giving educators powerful tools to shape new kinds of learning experiences for students, from school children to postgraduates and beyond.

The immersive quality of VR is perfect for education. It gives learners an interactive rather a passive learning experience. It minimises distractions, creates engagement, helps with retention, and aids in learning and mastering complex subjects.

Here are five ways virtual reality is already beginning to transform education.

  1. Engaging with subjects in ways not possible in real life
    VR makes it possible to go places you can’t go and do things you can’t do in real life, allowing learners to engage with almost any subject in new ways. School children in Washington, DC, have been able to take a virtual tour of the Mars landscape on a real school bus driving around the streets of Washington.  The World of Comenius educational infoverse allows students to move atoms around to see how they interact and take a swim in a cell. Through virtual reality, we can make history come alive by visiting the past, tour difficult to access and endangered heritage sites, and travel through the human body or through outer space.
  2. Learning from remote locations
    VR can equalise opportunities for learners in remote locations by allowing them to have comparable learning experiences to those in urban areas. Recently, two School of the Air children in the Flinders Ranges were able to go on a guided dive in the Great Barrier Reef via videoconference. With virtual reality, this kind of experience will become even more immersive.
  3. Enhancing interest in STEM subjects
    VR brings a sense of wonder, immediacy, and confidence to subjects which some students otherwise find dry or overly complex. A group of Irish primary school students visited the monastery of Clonmacnoise and then spent two weeks creating a 3D model virtual model of the site. John Mcgregor and his friends use a VR tool called the Tilt Brush to work their way through their calculus homework. I remember when I studied advanced calculus, differential equations, classical analysis, and other maths subjects at university. There were chalk boards lining three walls of the classroom. The lecturer would start at the top left of one chalkboard and work his way around the room, covering it with equations, proofs, and poorly drawn 2D representations of 3D figures. By the end of class we were completely surrounded. Now you can do this yourself in VR, but instead of a classroom you have black space around you, and instead of chalk you can paint your equations and draw your models with light, in beautiful colours. And you can stream it to your classmates on YouTube. Definitely a more fun way to do your maths homework. The VR version of the wildly popular game Fantastic Contraption lets you experiment with building machines with your own hands and get a feel for physics and engineering while you see if your contraption will work the way it’s intended to.
  4. Training in complex procedures
    VR offers an exceptional and low cost way to learn complex procedures. Medical Realities offers surgical trainees the ability to experience and learn from real operations through virtual reality.
  5. Training for difficult environments
    VR offers a safe, low cost training environment to simulate difficult or dangerous conditions where it’s hard to train on the job. ADMS-Fire uses augmented reality to help firefighters learn and practice nozzle tactics, ventilation techniques, recognition of hazardous situations, and wayfinding.  Army medics are using virtual reality to practice bandaging a wound while under enemy fire, or to administer an injection when the air is filled with smoke.  

These examples are just a small sample. As collaboration becomes easier in VR and as the cost and usability of the hardware improves, VR and mixed reality will truly be game changers for learning and education.

Human Future

Human Future

In a previous post, I wrote about different ways we can choose to respond to the crazy, unsettling rate of change that is our new reality.

We can ignore or reject change, but we do this at the peril of becoming irrelevant and increasingly isolated. Irrelevance might be a fine choice if you can afford it. But for those of us who still need to earn a living or who plan on living and interacting in the world for a good, long while, it’s not a smart option.

The other danger is that we flow unthinkingly with the current of change, and find ourselves caught in a rip that carries us so far from the shore of what’s best about life that we can never return. We can already see signs of this in the way our devices and social media control our behaviour and thinking if we let them, and in increasing rates of anxiety, stress and depression.

This is why our stories are so important. Our stories let us define who we are and who we want to be. They let us appreciate and make sense of our past and chart an intentional course into our future. They let us understand our values and what’s most important to us, so that we can make good decisions about the way we use technology as individuals, organisations, and societies. They help us learn from the experiences of others and see the world through their eyes. Our stories connect us to our cultures, to our communities, and to ourselves.

We need our stories to help us create a flourishing future for humanity.

VR Odyssey - Part I

VR Odyssey - Part I

There have been two times in my life when an experience with technology has rocked me so much it has changed the direction of my work.

The first time was in 1994 when I was working at Carnegie Mellon University and I published my very first web page. Just by sitting at my desk, writing a few lines of HTML, and uploading it to a server, something I had to say could immediately be seen by people all over the world. I hadn’t needed to go through any intermediary: no publishing house, no newspaper, no television or radio station, no film studio. Just me and a web server, and my content was out there.

It wasn’t long before people at other universities around the world started to contact me with questions and comments, and I started building global connections.

We all do this every day now by posting on social media, so it’s hard to remember what an astounding, world-changing concept that was. It blew my mind. I decided that’s what I wanted to learn about. That’s what I wanted to work with and where I wanted to put my energy. That’s the day I became a web developer and kicked off a career in information technology.

The second time my world has been changed by an experience with technology was a few weeks ago, when I tried out a virtual reality demo in the exhibition at a conference where I was a keynote speaker.

Petras from Academy Xi was running the demo, and he asked me if I’d like to try the Star Wars game or the immersive storytelling experience. Of course I chose the storytelling. He helped me put on the HTC Vive headset and showed me how to use the controllers.  And suddenly the exhibition was gone and I was walking around in an enchanted forest.

I knew then the same way I knew in 1994 that this was going to change what I do.

So now I’ve begun an odyssey to learn everything I can about VR and designing VR experiences. And I invite you to come along as I share what I’m learning through these posts.

Consider this for starters.

The global virtual and augmented reality market is forecast to grow from $5 billion in 2016 to over $160 billion in 2020 according to the IDC.

It’s not just for gamers. VR and AR applications are already being used in healthcare and medicine, education and training, research, art, architecture, urban design, and more.

It’s hard to explain how compelling a really good virtual reality experience is if you’ve never tried it, so I encourage you to find a demo and give it a go. Since that day at the conference, I’ve tried quite a few others--games, stories, ads, tools--using a variety of hardware. A lot of them are not that great. But with rapid technology advances and greater understanding of design in a virtual world, they’ll be getting a whole lot better, and that’s something I want to be part of.

Creating a story worth telling

Creating a story worth telling

Try this short thought experiment.

Imagine some benefactor has given you an unlimited budget to go on the holiday of your dreams. You can go anywhere you want, do anything you want. You start planning. Where would you go and what would you do?

But there's a catch to this holiday. You are not allowed to take any photos or videos. No posting to social media. No journal. No souvenirs. And you and everyone who went with you on the holiday will take a pill at the end that will wipe it from your memory. Afterwards, it will be for you as if the holiday never happened.

How does this change the way you feel about planning and going on the holiday? Does it change what you would do? Would you even bother to go at all?

Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman poses this thought experiment in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He uses it to illustrate the difference between two selves each of us has: our experiencing self and our remembering self.

The experiencing self goes on the holiday and has a good time while it’s happening. The remembering self looks back on it, creating memories and stories about it. The remembering self gets to enjoy it over and over again, which is why we feel cheated by the idea that we wouldn’t be able to keep any memories of our dream holiday. We would lose the greatest part of its value.

Kahneman says, ‘Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.’

It’s the remembering self that maintains the narrative of our lives and the remembering self that makes our decisions. 

Because I want to give my remembering self some good stuff to work with, sometimes this means my experiencing self has to do some things it doesn’t feel like doing just at the moment, or some difficult or scary things it doesn’t want to do at all. That’s the price of having a good story to tell later.

What kind of stories do you want to be able to remember from your life and work?
As a leader, what kind of stories do you want your team to remember about their work?

What do you need to do now to start creating those stories, or to remember the ones you’ve already made?

Balance in a time of paradox

Balance in a time of paradox

The world has gotten a little surreal lately as everything gets faster, faster, and there are a few ways we can choose to respond.

1) Do nothing
Ignore it and try to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. Be paralysed -- like a deer in the headlights of an approaching car after dusk in rural Pennsylvania where I come from. This goes very badly for the deer.

2) Fight it
Join the counter-revolution. Fight with all your energy to put things back the way they were. Find a tribe of like-minded reactionaries, fuel the collective anger, and blow things up.

3) Be assimilated
Go along with it. Be seduced by the latest gadget and convenience and the pretty, blinking lights. Go on, see what’s just landed in your inbox. Check your Twitter feed. You know you want to. In the meantime you have a vague sense that life isn’t as satisfying as it used to be, but who has time to worry about that? What’s on Netflix?

4) Dance with it
I discovered the transcendent joy of swing dancing a few years ago, after spending the first part of my life being so miserably self-conscious that I refused to dance on any occasion. Not even at my own wedding. The secret to dancing is that you have to hold onto your core and your frame, while at the same time responding in a playful, fluid way to the music, your partner and what’s happening around you. It takes some practice to master this skill but once you do, it’s a whole lot of fun

Charles Handy says, ‘The secret to balance in a time of paradox is to allow the past and the future coexist in the present.’ Can we learn to hold onto our core, the things that makes us us, while we dance playfully with change?

The gift of reflection

The gift of reflection

At this time of year, it’s easy to be so busy tidying up loose ends that we don’t take time to reflect on the year that’s finishing. Instead, we move straight into anticipating and planning for the year ahead.

But if we don’t take some time to reflect, we miss out on the opportunity to celebrate what we’ve achieved, absorb what we’ve learned, and understand how we’ve changed.

This year, why not give yourself a gift of thirty minutes of quiet reflection? Take longer if you can. Find a nice spot with good coffee, or your drink of choice. Bring your notebook and pen. I favour a soft cover Moleskine with dot grid pages, and a Staedtler fine liner.

List some of the things that have happened this year in your work and your life. Draw it as a river if you like a visual metaphor.

Which of those things would you like to quietly celebrate?
Which have helped you learn something?
Which are moments to savour for their juiciness?

How have you changed this year? What kind of chapter has it been in the bigger story of your life and work?

Wishing you a safe, joyful, and reflective holiday.

Why tell your own stories?

Why tell your own stories?

In working with leadership teams, I find they’re usually quite ready to embrace the need to tell THE story of the thing they’re doing--the strategy, the proposal, the services they offer. But they’re less comfortable about the idea of telling THEIR stories at work--events from their personal experiences.

I think there are several reasons for this. First, the idea might not have occurred to them. They want to communicate something about the strategic plan. Why would an anecdote about their kids be relevant? Second, it takes more time to prepare because they have to think of a relevant story and work it into the message. And third, revealing something personal to the people who work for/with them makes them feel a bit exposed.

But telling a short, personal story that’s relevant to your message is one of the most powerful ways you can communicate. Here are five reasons to get over yourself and give it a try:

1) Make messages stick
Now that science is using MRIs to watch how we think, a number of studies (like one published in Nature recently) have shown that what happens in our brains when we listen to a story is a lot like what would happen if we were experiencing those events ourselves. The story activates many more parts of the brain than abstract information, including emotional, sensory and memory networks. The result is that stories stick with us in the same way that experiences stick with us, so a relevant story makes your message memorable and gives it more impact.

2) Create rapid rapport
Listening to stories causes our brain to release dopamine and oxytocin into our bloodstreams, which makes us feel more relaxed and makes us feel empathy towards the person in the story. So telling a personal story makes you more relatable and likeable to your audience, which means they’re much more likely to listen to all the other very sensible things you have to say.

3) Be more human (and inspiring) as a leader
People want to follow leaders who are real people, not jargon machines. The more you you bring to your work, the more people want to work with you.

4) Give something of yourself to others
Sharing experiences that have meant something to you is an act of generosity. It lets other people learn some things you’ve learned, and it lets them know they’re not alone in what they’re experiencing.  Sometimes it makes them smile or laugh, and that’s a gift too.

5) Make meaning from your experiences
This one is my favourite reason for storytelling, and it’s something you only discover the value of after you’ve done a bit of it. In an age where we constantly move from one distraction or one urgent task to the next, taking the time to reflect on and share your own experiences is one of the best ways of bringing meaning into your life.

Things you know to be true

Things you know to be true

Okay, so it’s important to Start With Why. But where do you find Why so you can start there?

Finding a purpose that feels right and real to you as an individual, as a team, or as an organisation is not an easy thing to do. It takes some experimentation and usually some fumbling inarticulateness along the way.

In his latest Museletter, the always delightful Dr Jason Fox explores the Perils of a Neatly Defined Purpose. Words, he says, can get in the way of meaning.

Yes, they can.

If Why is making your brain hurt, another way in is to think about some things you know to be true.  More of a philosophy than a purpose.  A set of core beliefs.

Google does this in lieu of vision, mission or values with their Ten Things We Know To Be True. To give you a quick idea of what they are for Google, here’s their list. But go to the website and read them if you’re curious because each one isn’t just a statement; it has an explanation behind it that gives it more meaning.

  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.

  2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.

  3. Fast is better than slow.

  4. Democracy on the web works.

  5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.

  6. You can make money without doing evil.

  7. There’s always more information out there.

  8. You can be serious without a suit.

  9. The need for information crosses all borders.

  10. Great just isn’t good enough.

Pretty good for guiding decisions and letting people know what you’re about, even if it’s not a purpose or a vision. So if you’re not getting a good GPS signal on your Why, give this a try instead.

What are some things you know to be true that relate to you or to your business?
How did you come to know these to be true?

Making Values Real

Making Values Real

Your organisation’s values say what kind of people you are and what you stand for. They reflect how you do your work when you’re at your best.

If there’s something real behind them, your values make you stand out. They help you attract and keep staff who will bring their best to the work. They help you become a leader people want to follow. They are the ultimate differentiator and driver of long-term customer loyalty.

But usually values statements are just some nice words somebody stuck in the strategy document and put on posters around the office. They are abstract, empty and meaningless. And if they don’t match what people see happening around them, they breed shadow stories and cynicism.

To be real, values need to reflect who you are when you’re at your best, and they need to have examples behind them to make them concrete.

Here are three questions to help you find your values. Answering these will also give you some stories that show what they mean in action. 

  1. Think of a time when you were particularly proud of your work or your team’s work. What happened? What values or characteristics were important in this example?

  2. Think of a time you felt you or your team missed an opportunity or missed the mark. What happened? What important values or characteristics could have made a difference?

  3. Think of a time you saw someone demonstrate a characteristic your organisation needs, whether it was here or somewhere else. What happened?

Another great thing about values is that they can be translated into behaviours, which means they can be measured. And these will be measures that matter. Once you’ve identified your values, think about ways they can be turned into actions.

Go Engage Yourself

Go Engage Yourself

Companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share, according to Gallup research. That is extraordinary. But the same research shows that 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged at work.

So you may be asking, how do I find these few, marvellous, possibly mythical, engaged people, or how can I wave a magic wand to engage the ones I already have?

A good place to start -- really the only place you can start -- is with yourself.

How long has it been since you’ve reminded yourself what’s important about the work you’re doing, and why it matters to you? My friend and colleague Simon Dowling, in his wonderful new book Work With Me, calls this kind of reflection ‘romancing your purpose’.

Take your business case out for a candlelit dinner and have a nice, long conversation with it. Look into its eyes and let yourself remember what spark attracted you to it in the first place. What hidden qualities and depth are covered up by the numbers and pie charts? Are you willing to tell other people what you love about it?

This will do wonders for your own engagement and conviction. People will hear the difference in your voice and see it in your eyes when you talk about the work, and it will have an impact on everyone around you.