In today’s digital age and influencer-driven culture, we often make major decisions about the experiences we seek out based on the opinions of others.
While COVID-19 has temporarily kept us at home, we’ve watched friends on social media revisit their most Instagrammable moments: from last year’s Caribbean vacation to a Harry Styles concert they attended. And with our interest piqued, we can’t help but feel an urge to have those same experiences—to feel the sand in our toes or finally hear Harry live under the stars at an iconic venue, when things return to whatever our new normal is. These experiences have become longed-for memories that speak to our need for human connection.
From the moment we’re born, these sensory experiences play an important role in our development. While genetics determine how our brains are wired, our experiences influence how they develop. Experiences, big and small, shape who we are.
But what is the anatomy of a memorable experience? Do positive and negative experiences have any common elements? As designers, what can we learn from studying people’s most memorable moments to help us create spaces that are truly unforgettable?
By better understanding the specific attributes of memorable experiences, we can design spaces that enhance the sensory experiences of the people who use them. To help our teams do this, we conducted an online survey that gathered quantitative and qualitative data from nearly 500 participants. The survey asked respondents to define the attributes of positive and negative experiences, to identify the senses influencing their perception of these experiences and to share their defining memories.
Seven findings stand out:
1. Positive Experiences: Stimulating, Exciting and Familiar
The survey revealed that respondents across all demographics seek experiences that are stimulating and exciting. Yet they also crave the consistency and security that come with familiarity.
Lesson for designers: We can facilitate intrigue, surprise and wonder by incorporating elements that encourage users to discover elements of a space on their own terms. When supported by intuitive wayfinding elements, embedded technology and practical amenities, surprise can coexist with comfort and security in a space.
2. Negative Experiences: Unstructured and Disorganized
Respondents told us that negative experiences are unstructured, playful, chaotic and disorganized.
From this we can deduct that we are creatures of habit, craving familiarity. We want to know how to move from one area to another and what to expect before we ever step foot into a new space. In the design process, this means we need to critically examine spaces that force design elements or technologies on users. Should visitors really be abruptly greeted with a massive video board, activated by motion?
Lesson for designers: Are there visual cues we can give a user about what to expect as they approach an office building or corporate headquarters? As free address and activity-based workplaces gain popularity, how can we proactively avoid employees negatively associating these more progressive work options with being unstructured and unorganized? Before making any major physical changes to the workplace, staff should be educated as part of a change management process. Incorporating consistent design elements across workstations can help people feel safe and secure.
3. Where Are You From?
Where we grew up affects what we want from an experience. Respondents classified their places of origin as urban, suburban or rural. Those who grew up in urban or suburban environments are more likely to prefer experiences that are warm, soothing and that help them disconnect from their normal routines. Respondents who hail from rural locales are more likely to associate stimulating or exiting environments with positive experiences.
Lesson for designers: Understanding this discrepancy could cause designers to rethink some of the questions we ask early in the design process. While we frequently ask where future users of a space live to evaluate commute times and inform decisions about site selection, we rarely inquire about their places of origin. Yet our research shows that knowing this can help us truly understand the experiences that will inspire them.
In the post-COVID-19 world, our survey respondents’ preferences may become more solidified. Warm, soothing environments could become increasingly longed for after the uncertainty of the past several months. Respondents who value exciting, stimulating experiences may be counting down the days to their first live event after this long period of solitude. Regardless, designers should account for the diverse users within a space and the influence of their place of origin and then balance their needs.
At this stage of my life, I gravitate toward secluded spaces. Life in London is quite chaotic, so I need to find places where I can decompress and reset. — Janet T.
4. Generational Identity
The survey told us that people’s generational identity informs the experiences they desire. Surprisingly, Gen Z and Millennial respondents report being most likely to seek out consistent, reliable experiences that are warm and soothing. Boomers, on the other hand, are drawn to experiences that are stimulating and exciting.
Lesson for designers: In today’s multigenerational workforce, this information reinforces the importance of creating balanced design solutions that offer spaces for every demographic. While the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the value of technology in facilitating connections, people’s generational identity might impact their experience and takeaways from using that technology. We need to critically evaluate the generational identities of the workforce we’re designing for and avoid making assumptions about what different age groups might want from their experiences.
5. Let There Be Light
Though all senses influence a person’s feelings about an experience, respondents deemed sight—and specifically light—most important. Respondents across all demographic groups also identified inspiring or interesting views as vital elements of a positive experience. Sensory elements like textures, materials and temperature were minimally important.
Lesson for designers: Our findings echo research by Future Workplace that identified the top workplace amenity for employees as access to natural light and views of the outdoors. And as many have adjusted to working from home during the pandemic, taking walks over lunch and spending more time outdoors with their families, we expect that this desire for access to nature will only grow. As designers, this can inform how we program spaces to facilitate views and draw in natural light, as well as integrate outdoor amenities like walking paths, exercise stations and outdoor meeting rooms.
One of my favorite places in the world is Arlington National Cemetery. From the highest point, you can overlook all of D.C.: the river, Arlington Memorial Bridge and the city. It makes me feel both big and small, reminded that we’re not alone. — Amber J.
6. Put Down the Phone
Though we have constant access to technology especially now, user groups of all ages prefer experiences that enable them to disconnect from their devices and build personal connections.
Lesson for designers: As employees rely on technology to connect with colleagues, digital fatigue is a real thing. With multiple meetings a day and an increasing number of video calls, which demand more focus than face-to-face meetings, employees will be seeking opportunities for connection that don’t involve screens when they return to the office after the COVID-19 lockdown. Before embedding technology into every area of a workplace, designers should remember that people occasionally are looking for respite—now more than ever. In this digital age, informal meeting spaces and outdoor areas that facilitate in-person conversations and relationship building are vital.
7. Data-Driven Design—for People
The qualitative data that nearly 200 respondents provided via written essays about their most notable memories were fascinating. Respondents often recalled experiences that had taken them away from their normal routines via travel, relationships or a combination of the two. This confirmed what the quantitative data told us: Stimulating and exciting experiences are the most-desired.
Sitting on the porch each year with my grandparents while on vacation in Hawaii is so memorable. Warm sun, lawn chairs, wind, mist and my grandpa’s advice. — Rachel W.
Lesson for designers: While the data provided important insights into the experiences that shape people, these essay responses reminded us about the intangibles of memorable experiences. Many of the survey responses referenced nature, disconnection from routine and the joy of being surrounded by those we love. The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the importance of these values and our overwhelming desire for human connection. If we allow workplace design to be purely data-driven, we risk losing the humanity that inspires people. When working with a client fixated on data, designers should gently ask questions and facilitate conversations with staff through town hall meetings, focus groups and one-on-one discussions. Blended with the data, this understanding of the people behind the organization allows designers to create the most thoughtful, responsive environments.
The survey findings help us understand how to design a well-executed experience. We speculate that proper communication with employees will give people confidence upon returning to the office to enjoy deep, rich experiences rather than focusing on basic functional needs, as many have in the face of COVID-19. As designers, our highest calling is to objectively assess the needs of each client and then design choreographed spaces that respond to those unique needs. We can only achieve a well-executed experience when we are tuned into the end user. But we can only create a truly memorable environment when our data-driven designs are inspired by real people and their stories.