Nathan Shedroff: futures, experiences & design

Futures, experiences, design … three core ingredients of what Pantopicon is all about. Three topics, each situated on a crossroads of disciplines. It is in this context that we are pleased to share with you our latest interview: an inspiring chat with Nathan Shedroff, chair of the Design Strategy MBA programme at CCA, information designer, experience strategist, author of Experience Design and Making meaning, and many more things. What do futures studies & design have in common? How does he look at the power of experiences as catalysts for communication and learning? What are his views on the role of design in our current and possible future societies? 

N(ik – Pantopicon) As you know, at Pantopicon we spend considerable time and effort to render futures tangible, to make them ‘experiencable’. As such we aim to enhance the quality of reflection by stakeholders by allowing them ‘to feel their way around’ possible new contexts in which they might end up. We have learnt that both as a means to inspire future thinking and to communicate and discuss alternative futures, experiences add significant value to the process of participatory futures exploration and envisioning. In our opinion, powerful transformative strength lies in the various layers of meaning conveyed and perceived through an immersive experience. As such one could say that experiences are ‘created’ as ‘what if?’ tools. How do you look at using experiences as tools, as a means to an end (e.g. gaining insight, anticipating & preparing for change)?

N(athan) S(hedroff) Building experience as an educational tool isn’t so different than for any other purpose though it’s, perhaps, a little more important to consider the audience’s context since the material may be more unfamiliar and challenging. Everything we perceive is an experience so, fundamentally, it’s impossible not to create an experience. The difference between what you’re suggesting and much of futures work is done is simply about considering more of the dimensions of experience in the delivery. For example, reading a white paper or watching a video are still experiences. They’re just not as immersive as immersing audiences in scenes or environments in realtime. All have their place, however.
I find that different audiences have different reactions to different media and attributes of experiences. Some are reading to “jump in” and others aren’t willing to “play along”. So, multiple artifacts or deliverables can be important and powerful in communicating differently to various audiences. Many people in the business world have trouble truly visualizing opportunities or even any sense of an alternate future. To help transform their perspectives, it’s important to immerse them in an appropriate way–sometimes widely and sometimes deeply. Usually, the more that the experience models how people live and work in their present lives, the easier it is for them to accept changes that transform their perspectives. This is why immersive experiences like environments and even workshops can be so much more powerful than reading a report.
NB This brings back a lot of McLuhan memories. Indeed, knowing thy audience is a major issue when an experience fits in a broader process, has a higher purpose. I guess one could draw a link to ‘cultural differences’ as well here, by which I do not only mean the difference between the way one’s ‘story’ is received in Japan, Europe or the Middle-East, but also in terms of organizational cultures. We notice major differences, for example, in terms of this willingness to dive in, to ‘try on’ different possible tomorrows, to get to the drawing board of dreams and nightmares etc. between policy-related organizations and companies for example. Their perspectives on tomorrow in general and their inclinations to change in particular can be extremely different. The context, i.e. a recipe of changes & uncertainties is essentially the same though, yet a market and a society do differ on various points.
I often tell people less familiar with a broader view on design (i.e. beyond the folk notion of ‘mere aesthetical shapemaking for stuff’), to look at design as a process of communication: between man and material, between people with different/alternative viewpoints, between the mind’s eye and the world out there, between the idea in your head and the one in your hands, in front of everyone, jointly accessible and assessable.  
Public service design and transformation design etc. are growing areas of interest since several years now. Could you tell us something more about the way design in your opinion can benefit policymakers ?
NS Design is a terrific set of processes that can help policymakers examine, imagine, and test potential policies in order to improve them before they’re made. This might include testing the acceptability of policy to constituents and I’m sure that it could be used simply to test how the policies should be “sold” to the markets. However, the real power of design processes is in engaging myriad stakeholders in a productive activity to appropriate levels in order to create new policies that solve problems in better ways.
Most policymakers are under the misunderstanding that they’re supposed to solve the problems – as are business leaders. Executives don’t have to be responsible for coming-up with the solution – indeed, they’re probably not the best people to do so for a variety of reasons. What we truly require of these leaders is their leadership in gathering others into the problem-finding/solution-devising process and their informed judgements in helping to choose the best solutions to transform into strategy, policy, and tactics.
NB The fields of foresight, visioning, scenario planning etc. are not unknown to you. You have dealt with future scenarios a few times as well. Could you tell us something about your own experiences? How did you feel design could add to foresight? Furthermore, now as a chair of the design strategy programme, do you see also value in foresight/scenario thinking etc. for design?
NS Scenario Planning is an incredible tool. It’s a part of our curriculum (in our 4th term Strategic Management class). However, it can be tricky in business because, often, executives “get” the new vision but they’re still left with no way to implement it and alternate scenarios are often purposefully provocative extremes. Taking these visions and weaving them back into present strategy is often too confusing or difficult for managers and leaders to do. Design thinking and processes can be important contributors to the scenario-creating process but just as helpful for this implementation phase. In fact, alternate scenarios that build environments and artifacts can really help executives “see” how these scenarios might affect their business. Design processes bring a culture of brainstorming, critique, prototyping, and testing to the product and service development process. 

Therefore, design and development teams can usually take the results of a future vision and, when given the opportunity and authority, begin integrating it into an organization’s near-term development processes immediately. Of course, this has to be a commitment of the organization in its strategy if it’s to be successful. That takes a lot of courage – something that many organizations lack.

Artifacts from the future that relate directly to an organization’s business (whether part of the original future studies or completed in a second phase) can help support courage and commitment to innovation since the tangible attributes of prototypes helps leaders “see” examples of offerings and not merely imagine details between the organization’s current and potential strategies. It’s extra work but usually well worth it.

 NB Indeed, what you describe is something we experience day in day out.
In my personal humble opinion design and futures studies are intimately linked. Both basically deal with the yet-non-existent, both look for creative solutions to challenges, both are about changes of perspective, both are about thinking in terms of alternatives … Being involved in the business as well as design teaching, it also becomes clear how crucial ‘ideas’ and flexible minds are to both communities.
How important are dreampower and imagination to you in terms of value with respect to the creation of meaningful experiences, of designing meaningful futures?
NS They’re critical, necessary, and irreplaceable. You’re absolutely right. Whether the design process is being applied to future studies or current offerings doesn’t really matter. It’s still, mostly, the same process. That’s a powerful situation because it means that the same development teams that produce an organization’s solutions can usually turn to future studies with little change to their process (thought they could always use a chance to change their own expectations to the new context) and vice versa. The same teams that work on future artifacts can turn their same skills to integrating what they’ve learned to real products and services. Of course, they need to be given permission to actually do this, something that takes a special kind of management. They will need support for the results (so no one is unexpectedly surprised, threatened, or disappointed) and they should be brought into the strategic process so they truly understand the shifts the organization needs and wants to make. Too often, development teams are just handed new criteria without any context for an organization’s strategy – especially when that strategy has changed. This sets development teams up for failure and no one benefits in this case.
NB Again the element of ‘culture’, of context pops up. Many people within organizations seem to suffer from a mental lock-in syndrome, i.e. to them change follows a fixed pattern, which they often relate to their personal experience, often following the traditional company hierarchy, i.e. along the lines leading from the top to the bottom of the organization and back. Many successful changeovers however follow much more distributed patterns. This is one of the reasons for us to involve various stakeholders from in- and outside the organizations we work with, from the management to the work-floor, in order to build capacity for change. Sometimes in this respect we resort to roleplays to stimulate people to get a first-person feeling for the perspectives of others, to enhance mutual understanding and learning; which brings me to the participatory approach.
One could say that an experience is always co-designed, in the sense that it emerges from the interplay between creation and beholder. It is because of this that a good storyteller leaves enough openings for his/her listeners to add their 2cts to breathe life into the story from their point of experience. Yet, co-designing experiences together with a whole bunch of people for a whole bunch of others is something else. There are different perspectives, skillsets and ways of ‘storytelling’ and transferring meaning to take into account. They all need to find their place in the final constellation. Co-creation, co-design, participatory design … how do you connect those to the design of experiences?
NS There is no one, right way to design or develop anything. To a large degree, it needs to reflect the culture – especially the innovation culture – of a company. What works for Phillips isn’t necessarily going to work for Carrefour and certainly isn’t going to work for Dyson. Future scenarios are often used as a way of confronting an organization’s leadership, purposely jarring their thinking. That works for some organizations and not for others. When it comes to integrating new strategies, different approaches are required, however. My colleagues at Cheskin found that there are five prototypical innovation cultures (see figure on the left) for organizations and some just aren’t ever going to innovate internally. This doesn’t mean that they can’t make use of alternate futures work or that they can’t deliver innovative offerings to the market, it just means they have to go about these in different ways. For example, in the case of the Innovation Outsourcers, the resulting strategies from appropriate scenarios might lead them to look for specific technology or companies to acquire in order to enact those strategies in the market.
You’re absolutely correct that design and development is a co-creative process. It’s best when there are multi-disciplinary teams that represent al of the key areas of development, production, distribution, messaging, and service. These teams can be difficult to manage because there may be so many people and many may not be comfortable suspending their disbelief in order to explore new options.
When this is the case, project leaders need to manage the process in a way that keeps development moving while being inclusive of key contributors but keeping them out of the way enough to proceed. Different stages of the process require different behaviors and temperaments. Participatory Design (which brings representative customers into the process) works in some places but not everywhere throughout the design process. In fact, that’s a good comment about the design process itself. No one technique is going to sustain the entire process. There definitely needs to be representation from a variety of areas and users throughout the process, but not continuously.
NB  I guess part of why I mention this is also because involving people in creating something together, also brings about experience of design. I feel that involving stakeholders in futures exploration or envisioning, in field research, in prototyping, in storyboarding/storytelling, etc. brings about a certain click, facilitating the opening up of minds and other, richer channels of communication. How do you look at the relationship between the design of experiences and the experience of design?
NS Stakeholder involvement is almost always critical to creating sustainable, successful and meaningful experiences. The trick is to engage each appropriately. There’s a front-end and a back-end here. The front-end is the design of the experience for the audience (or user or customer). In order to do this effectively, those involved must engage customers and stakeholders in order to learn what the need (and, for many reasons, we can’t just ask them) and what’s possible to make. Once we understand what we want to create, we can begin to build and deliver it (the back-end that customers never see but always experience). This too requires stakeholder engagement, such as suppliers, vendors, partners, industries, and communities.
NB How do you look at the role of prototyping in this respect? As a communicative tool, a co-creation tool, or perhaps even more than that?
NS Prototypes are definitely a communications tool at their heart, even if it’s just communication within the development team. But, you’re right that they are more than this. You can’t have a co-creation tool without communication because you can’t have effective co- anything without communication. Different prototypes can be used to communicate for different purposes (within the team, to users, to managers, to partners, to manufacturers, to media, etc.). Each requires different resolution and focus. But, none are the solution themselves. They’re all just approximations of the final offering and only show a piece of the whole. So, to refer to an overused metaphor, we build the elephant in the room through many prototypes that create a portion of the whole from a particular perspective. The trick is in keeping the whole in mind as we do because, if the prototypes get out of sync, we don’t end-up with an elephant but something that likely will feel disjointed, unsuccessful, and confusing.
NB Something I notice when involving people in a futures-related ‘prototyping activity’ is that the connotation many people have with prototyping is that it is something for which you need years of studying, fully equipped labs with nifty materials, workbenches, computers etc. Yet in essence, one could say it is ‘thinking with your hands and your senses’ instead of ‘only’ your head. Sketching, storyboarding, taping two pens and a piece of cardboard together to show that thing in your mind, videotaping a roleplay, fooling around with clay or foam … there are so many ‘spontaneous’ ways in which one can engage a multidisciplinary group of people into shaping one’s own thoughts and the future in a hands-on way. The threshold for engaging people not accustomed to prototyping as an activity (fidelities etc. left aside for the moment since the goal is different) becomes much lower like this. In our own experience, making something ‘experiencable’, tangible, adds tremendous value to future-oriented discussions. It is also part of the empowerment to motivate people from the inside-out and move them from a state of ‘deep thought’ to that of ‘impactful action’.
In your conceptualization of experience design you mention the tremendous – and often underestimated – value of ‘stories’, of ‘storytelling’. Wouldn’t you say that they are part of the magic glue to frame a holistic approach, to keep the whole and the parts interconnected?
NS Yes. Stories can hold a tremendous amount and varied types of information. Everybody regularly uses stories to communicate complex ideas so it’s an effective mechanism at the disposal of everybody. A story line can organize and make coherent details that would otherwise create dissonance.
NB  Coming back to the nature of experiences, Mikhail Cszikszentmihalyi uses the term flow to denote a mental state of optimal experience. Do you believe in a set of archetypical experiences?
NS I believe that there are certain recurring formats for experiences that are familiar and I believe that there are at least 6 dimensions of experience in which all experiences lie. Together, they create a very big space for different experiences. I built a taxonomy of experience many years ago, with help from some of my students, as a tool to explore the attributes of experience. I haven’t worked on it in almost 8 years, however. Cszikszentmihalyi has done an excellent job describing one state that people can move through an experience and I’m sure there are many more but I haven’t explored that.
NB Are there dimensions which you feel are lacking in that model or which you would assess in different ways now?
NS Oh yes, given the time, I think I’d take an entirely fresh approach to this taxonomy. I would start by integrating the 6 dimensions of experience we defined in the book, Making Meaning. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in the taxonomy, but it lacks the context we’ve uncovered in the last 10 years. There’s just so much more to weave into it to enrich it.
NB Hollywood and theme parks definitely influenced our concept of a (crafted) experience. Do you see a certain evolution in the types of experiences we expose ourselves to and why? Where do you see it going? In which ways do you expect the values underlying tomorrow’s ‘top experiences’ differ from today’s? Are we like adrenaline junkies constantly looking for new highs or is there a new hunger for intimacy, meaningfulness etc.?
NS We definitely hunger of meaning in our lives. That’s the most important aspect of any experience. Whether we look for that meaning through “top experiences” or adrenaline-laden ones or not isn’t so important to me. I think we do sometimes and we don’t other times. I don’t think we’re accelerating the pace or strength of experiences in any way, other than to recognize them and build them more deeply and more thoughtfully. In terms of storytelling, entertainment, and information, we are getting back to more interactive forms of experience than we have in the recent past simply because interactive media have become so prevalent in our lives. But, we can’t be running at 100% continuously so there will always be times we want active, engaging experiences and some times where we prefer passive or habit experiences.
In terms of business, however, we still have a long way to go toward making truly compelling experiences part of the way we learn within organizations, collaborate, share understanding, and build strategies. PowerPoint has become such a popular tool because it makes the experience of explaining things a little more visual. However, it’s still a terribly passive tool, which is why it’s so boring and destructive to most conversations and learning. So, there’s a lot of room for improvement still.
NB The visionary genius Buckminster Fuller believed the most powerful way to change people and their behaviour was by changing the world around them. As such, design – in the broadest sense of the word – can be regarded an extremely powerful catalyst for change. One can “design” the option of a better choice, of ‘better’ alternatives to existing ways of fulfilling a human need or “design” new solutions to new challenges. In times in which the planet and societal systems are about to fall apart, crumble under the weight of our collective behaviours, sustainability sets the agendas. In view of the future, to some “better design” is a huge responsibility, to others designers remain designers just like before. How do you look at this?
NS Designers are, inherently, optimistic people. They’re almost completely focused on creating things that will make the future better in some ways. Traditionally, much of design was merely focused on making the future prettier. That’s not a terrible thing but there is so much more to do as well. There are many functional requirements as those involving more sustainable use of natural, human, and financial capital are becoming high priorities – quickly. This is a very good thing as designers are used to working within constraints and with myriad, often contradictory, requirements.
However, we should be careful. Simply creating new, “better” solutions for people and expecting these to change peoples’ behavior is probably naive at best and draconian at worst. We can definitely help people see new behaviors and influence their choices a little. However, the best solutions are those that fit naturally in peoples’ current understandings and activities and don’t require them to become experts in sustainability (or any other field). In addition, people normally change fairly slowly. There are few cases in history where rapid change in culture or society resulted in new behaviors, attitudes, or expectation quickly. Our better solutions, then, have to make it easy and clear for people to adopt gradually if they’re going to be at all successful.
NB Mid-nineties Pine & Gillmore described the shift from economies based on commodities to those based on products & services, to experiences. Now the notion of ‘transformation’ is added to the list. Transformation design, design for social innovation, … how do you look at design aimed at transforming society instead of companies (and their product/services)? Where do you see similarities and differences?
NS One of the things I never quite understood in The Experience Economy is what they meant by “transformation.” As I remember, they were up-front about the fact that it was still hazily defined. There’s also an inherent flaw in that model because products and services are experiences. In addition, there’s no clear place in their taxonomy for events and environments. All of these are experiences and the different dimensions and attributes of these experiences have different impacts. A product, service, event, or environment can all be transforming–or not at all. There’s nothing exclusive within the categories.
To me, a more helpful way to approach this is to acknowledge that all are experiences and, therefore, all of the dimensions of experience are acting on them at all times. The dimension of significance – particularly it’s deepest point, meaning – may be similar to what Pine & Gilmore were describing as transformation, but I don’t know.
Social and cultural attributes of experience are like every other – they can be addressed or not, designed and created, or not. Most organizations that successfully create meaningful product, service, and event experiences usually do so intuitively or accidentally. What we found in researching our book, Making Meaning, was a process we could follow to do this more deliberately – and heighten the chances for success. Everything an organization does has a social impact, whether intended or not. Creating people social impacts, as well as better environmental ones, is simply a matter of addressing and valuing these issues at the strategic level of the organization as well as the tactical level of product and service development and implementation.
A strange conversion is taking place in the business and NGO worlds. Not only are business people learning that they can address social and environmental issues through their work – profitably – but, also, leaders of NGOs are waking-up to the fact that just because they have a social mission to their organization doesn’t mean they can’t learn to be a more successfully managed group using leadership and management techniques from the corporate world.
NB On a more personal note … Where do you see the spiralling double helix of design & future thinking heading? Where do you see design heading in the future? What are your dream- and nightmarescenarios?
NS The nightmare scenario is easy: we don’t fix the damage to our home, The Earth, quick enough to continue to lead the lives we envision. The dreams aren’t so easy: how can we tell what the world might be like and then choose between the options? That’s why futurism/scenario tools are so powerful.
I really like the fact that the business and design worlds are intersecting in more meaningful ways now. We still have a long way to go and there are going to be a lot of failures along the way. Most businesspeople aren’t really prepared to innovate. They’re genuinely interested but when they encounter the processes they either loose interest, try to short-out them, or freak out and turn away. Too often, “managers” try to manage the innovation process as they would other activities. Six Sigma, for example, is a fantastic process for improving quality in some organizations for activities like manufacturing, distribution, etc. It works well where we can easily measure what we mean by “quality.” However, trying to employ it for the purposes of innovation is the quickest way to destroy any attempt to innovate. It’s just a different process – and one that’s difficult to define, let alone measure.
So, designers and non-designer businesspeople need to learn more about each others’ domains, processes, vocabularies, and perspectives. That’s why we created the MBA in Design Strategy. Our aim is to equip the next generation of business leaders with the tools, processes, and understandings to better innovate across industries, domains, cultures, and stakeholders. We hope our graduates tackle really big problems and, with others, find really great solutions.
NB In your personal opinion, what is changing design more: new technological means/opportunities/challenges or the new contexts in which it is being employed/deployed (e.g. societal problems, public services, …) ?
NS Absolutely, the latter: applying design to new, bigger, and wider challenges (in business, society, government, etc.). Technology is always fascinating and engaging but it’s also often distracting. So many solutions have been developed around technological changes only to fail in the market because they weren’t needed by people. Technology gives us new options in responding to opportunities we see but these responses are ALWAYS secondary to what people do (or need to) in their lives. Silicon Valley’s history is awash in examples of failed solutions based on new technologies so this is clearly not a failsafe approach to innovation.
NB If you could design anything at all (no need for it to be a product/service, it can even be a political system) that would positively influence the world of design and the world in general, what would it be?
NS I got to do that, to some extent, in my thesis project at business school. I designed a solution that allows people to buy anything according to their values by making product and service social, environmental, and governance performance visible to customers at the point of decision. Inserting this capability into the market in a trusted way would absolutely change almost every purchase and move them closer to what each customer values. The solution isn’t just the label and rating system but the system behind it that is needed to support it as well as the business model needed in order to make it viable.
I haven’t been able to make it real because while I found a LOT of interest in the idea (basically, everyone wants to use it), I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to funded it. Ideally, to be most successful, it should be done as a non-profit, though it is possible to build it as a for-profit under certain conditions. So, it’s on the back-burner while I build other things, like the new Design MBA program.
Another project I’ve always wanted to do is to redesign the healthcare system and the government, in general.
NB How do you see your role within the design community now and with respect to the future? what challenges drive you now and which new ones do you see on the horizon?
NS I think that the most value I can provide to the various design communities is to write, teach, and speak at this point. There is still so much to explore and share about Meaning and how it influences successful design and business as well as Sustainability. New understandings about these domains allow designers to have a bigger positive impact on the world and these issues are as old as time–they won’t go away anytime in our lifetimes. They drive my work as well, and will for a long time. I still have other ideas that are fun and unique (I’m writing a book with a friend right now on what interaction designers can learn from Science Fiction interfaces). This isn’t going to change the world but it will be a unique, interesting perspective on interface design that offers some really interesting lessons.
NB Thank you so much for an inspiring dialogue!