Relational Experience Design

How to use experience design to build meaningful relationships

Andy Sontag
7 min readFeb 17, 2016

Experience designers needs to leave the pixel and play with people. The quality, purpose and intensity of the relationships that you develop with those that you work with, will largely determine the outcome of what ever you are up to creating. Yet there is shockingly little emphasis from the design community placed on the potential to use experience design in creating powerful and effective group processes.

Limiting experience design as something that is only applicable to website/app design is akin to limiting all artists to only do paintings. We need to pull the field from its 2 dimensional deathbed, and bring this craft vibrantly into the fields of: HR, Facilitation, Organizational Design, Cultural Design, Life Design and even Societal Design. We can use these tool so to create massive positive change, as Don Norman is calling for with his DesignX initiative.

The following principals are intended to help people who design group processes, collective actions, workshops and events — both digitally or in person, to create meaningful, effective and powerful relationship building experiences.

1. Human Centered Research

Being effective as a designer requires that you understand what is meaningful to those you are designing for. Designing for people means to listen for the deep, fundamental (root) issues underlying the surface needs that we all have - the need to be loved, and to create meaning for others... Human centered research means that you will be able to design experiences that move people forward, bringing them more meaning, self understanding, and personal agency. Designing for people means to understand the complex ecosystem of relationships and meaning making that an individual exist in, and understanding their unique stage of psychological development. Designing for people does not mean using advanced psychology and engagement loops so that people become addicted to screens. It does not mean manipulating their needs and values to serve your organizations interests.

How to do it:
Lifecycle Assessment: A human lifecycle describes the phases and stages of life and how peoples needs change depending on the where they are. For example, his can include major life transitions such as, leaving home, having a family or retiring. Building on the work of Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, William Perry, and others, psychologist Robert Kegan developed a theory of adult cognitive development that defines five stages of mental complexity or “orders of mind”. Understanding where your users are on in these stages, means understand how they make meaning, and thus how you can make a meaningful experience for them. Understanding the Developmental Phases of How Humans Make Meaning

Interview: Interviews are one of the best ways to get a deep dialogical understanding of those that you are designing for. One of my favorites interview techniques is using laddering, a simple technique to uncover Core Meanings. Another powerful interview technique that embraces complexity, is the generative/appreciative interview technique, by Carsten Hornstrup.

Systems Mapping: This is an effective tool to give designers an understanding of the wider picture that their design exists in, and the leverage points to create meaning for their subjects.

2. Experience Design = Attention Design

Our experience as human beings is truly expansive. While we are conscious, we are experiencing. In its simplest form consciousness is attention; as what we pay attention to is what we are conscious of. To design an experience means to focus the attention of those you are designing for. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has described focused attention as “psychic energy”. This psychic energy is the clay that we as experience designers mold. Leaders know how important it is for groups to have a collective focus that gives energy and purpose to their work. Over the millennia people have mastered the art of attention design, starting with master storytellers, with theater, films, games and for better or worse advertising. We can use these tools to design relationship building experiences.

How to do it:

High Concept — A simple, singular overarching goal that is easily understood and provides fuel for the imagination. This clear red thread will shines through everything you do, and allow your clients to derive the maximum meaning. This concept has been on large scale projects by Diane Nijs.
Use all five sense — Make the experience holistically coherent. If you are designing to give participants the feeling of ‘coming home’, welcome them as if they are family, have the space be filled with the smell of freshly baked buns, and cozy music…
Design for Flow — Give participants the gift of flow, through challenging them in a way that enables them to use their unique skills. See the work of Trevor van Gorp

3. Design for Meaning

To share a meaningful experience is the most powerful relationship building experience one can have. Meaningful experiences are hard thing to define, but we all know what is meaningful to us. The starting place of designing any relationship building experience should be understanding what is meaningful to all participants. You should aim to create experiences that not only give users meaning, but cultivate/evolve how they make meaning, create learning and personal and collective growth. Here are a few key ingredients in making a meaningful experience:

How to do it:

Use Human Development Frameworks — As we develop psychologically, how we make meaning develops. Understanding where your clients are in their stages of psychological development, means understanding how they make meaning. I mentioned Kegan before, but also recommend Richard Barrett’s Evolutionary Coaching theory and methods.

Good Experience Design is Good Storytelling — Bring the experience to life with an overall narrative or red-thread, that includes clarity of goals, obstacles and the ground rules for play. It is great to set the participants as the heroes of the story that you are designing for them.

Immersion — Creating an immersive experience is crucial and necessary for the creation of meaning. What brings peoples full attention into the room? A simple effective technique that I have often used is to start the experience with a bang, such as a flash mob, a surprise kidnapping of the group receiving the experience.

4. Experience Design is Cultural Design

If you are giving an experience to a group of people, you are also designing the cultural that this group exists in, either consciously or not. Every design choice that you make has implications for the culture that is uniquely created for this group of people. We know that the most effective societies and organizations are those where trust is high. The below how to section is about creating a culture with a high level of trust.

How to do it:
Break down status — Constructed status or power barriers between people is the death of real human connection.
Play — Play is amazing at breaking down status, as everyone looks equally silly and it can create flow.
Vulnerability — Lead by example and set a safe context for participants to be vulnerable. This creates openness, connection and will allow people to be their most full creative selves.
Space Design — The location and space should reflect the goals and core meaning that you want the experience to create for participants.

5. You Can’t Design Experiences

Ultimately you can’t design experiences, you need to co-create them with your user. Everyone will experience a room created by an interior designer differently. Interior designers create rooms, that lead to a wide range of interior experiences, some planned and others not. So give up trying to control how people experience your brand, and look for how your brand experiences can be a force of creative empowerment. This realization, that you can not control others experience, is what is behind a huge transformation of enterprise logic and mega-trend across sectors towards co-creation with the end users. See the Imagineering Network for more.

How to do it:
Feedback Loops — Prototyping is not only for the beginning of the process but should be built into the whole process, so that their are clear feedback loops to make the experience continually better.
Framing Emergence — To frame emergence, means to set overall frames for an experience and then let go over control. Many hackathons are good examples of this, where the purpose is clear and the participants are able to self organize to reach these goals. Good For Nothing does this amazingly, attending a weekend with them in London, opened my eyes to the potential for how a few clear frames can enable self organization in large group processes.
Make your participants shine — You are their to help them have a good experience, and if you put emphasis on what will bring out the strengths of the people you are designing for, they will have a better experience.

It is a part of our evolutionary journey as a human race to develop our ability and capacity to solve the challenges we have created collectively. This is the test that we have been put to, and one that our very survival may depend on. Will you join in designing the next level of collaboration?

Great Resources for Experience Design Tools:

Adaptive Path’s nonprofit knowledge bank of experience design tools.
Nathan Schedroff’s Design MBA open source library of experience design tools.

Kaospilot Experience Design
Since 1992, Kaospilot have worked systematically with the management of change and co-creation processes. We are a creative and experience design driven school with 100 inquisitive rule breakers from all over the world and a consultancy house that makes training programs in leadership, innovation, creativity and experience design. We teach experience design through giving participants of the course a carefully designed experience. We learn through applying theory to real word cases that the participants bring into the courses.

Learn more about our in-house and open sign up Kaospilot Experience Design Course

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Andy Sontag

Designing experience that enable people and relationships to grow ☀️ // Kaospilot Experience Design: