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.