The Power of Experience


There was an incredible pizza place nearby. New York style, by-the-slice, with a black menu board and little white crooked letters stuck to it. SLICE AND DRINK - $5. Customers were greeted with New York accents and hot slices behind the case. It was the kind of place you'd imagine finding in the Village at 2 am. Each day around noon, the line would grow through the door and spill out onto the patio.

The space was cramped and unattractive, but always full. A scene not only common in Manhattan, but expected. In the sprawling burbs where the restaurant resided, space was not as hard to find. Putting yourself in the shoes of the owner, it’s easy to see the opportunity at hand. If only there was more space? More space = more ovens = more pizza = more customers. The owners decided to seize the opportunity. They found an abandoned Mexican food restaurant nearby and moved in. In a few months, they went from hectic pizza joint to full service Italian restaurant.

I recently visited the new place - It feels slow and solemn.

The pizza tastes the same, but the space swallowed all the charm that once surrounded it. Gone is the glass case and checkered floor, replaced with another Western ubiquity: beige tile. Tuscan? Maybe. Renovated Mexican restaurant? Definitely. Gone too are the cheap picture frames and photos of the Brooklyn Bridge, replaced with more moderately priced decor from Costco.

I haven't seen their financials. On paper, this could be gangbusters. I’m guessing it’s not. Something is gone.

How is it possible that a place so overwhelmed with success could find a place with more room for those same customers, and miraculously they stop showing up?


Experience is the sum of little moments - and the stories we tell ourselves about them.

We weren’t just buying pizza, we were buying the experience and the pizza. The glass case, the ability to avoid table service, the old cash register with tape curling out of the top. All of it made us feel like we were visiting some other place. What was normal to them was novel to their customers. It was the postcard version of what eating pizza in Manhattan was like. Crowded, dated, delicious, efficient.

Most of us are aware of the power of experience, but even for designers, the inner workings of this kind of experience are hard to pin down. We know good design matters, until the lack of it proves interesting in some way. Aesthetic is important, until ugly means something more. Experiences are a moving target and there isn’t a single theory to unite them.

In your business, organization, or products, experience is at work whether you’re thinking about it or not. How do you avoid accidentally changing something that silently might be propping up the rest of your business?

First we have to acknowledge that it has a role in the decision making process. Cost, strategy, and skillsets are all important when making business decisions, but so is the experience for your customers and your teams. Starbucks once bet big on this idea and won. They knew that coffee wasn’t just about coffee and invested heavily in the experience surrounding coffee. An automatic espresso machine isn’t all that impressive by itself. One could fit easily on your kitchen counter beside a toaster and never garnish attention. But one the size of a backyard cooler, cased in copper and steel with an Italian sounding name? That’s more impressive. It’s this idea that drove them to custom make their own espresso Brazil. A change can’t just be about solving a problem - it must also consider the way it solves the problem. That’s where designers can help. They can smell when an experience is special or painful, even if they don’t yet know exactly how it works.

“If you go to the new space, we will lose the charm. How do we keep it?”

Not all decisions are design decisions, but more are than we give credit. Maybe it's time things like "vibe" and "feel" get more consideration on your next big decision.