How “Experientiality” Manifests Online and Offline Amid Disruption
The pandemic is accelerating the evolution from the industrial age to the age of knowledge. “Experience” is a word that continues to materialize amid this evolution.
Countless guides describing how to create best-in-class online and omnichannel “experiences” have emerged across social media and academic research sites alike as part of this development (#onzoom) and more and more cx and ux related roles — including C-level “Chief Experience Officers” — seem to be surfacing on a near constant basis. And yet we, as a society, have leapfrogged from idea to tactic without a clear understanding of the concept of “experience” and what it means. The more the word is used without this understanding, the more nebulous and vapid it becomes.
This, my earlier article on Experience as Agon, and my coursework on information and content strategy with Kevin Budelmann at Northwestern University, inspired my decision to perform some initial research, in my immediate circles and through social media , on “experience,” its perceived definition and the degrees to which people identify “experientiality” across various online and offline concepts.
One major pattern emerged from insight interviews that I conducted with three subjects:
“Experience” is sensorial by nature and degrees of experientiality are driven by sensorial immersion. The greater the degree of sensorial immersion, the greater the degree of experientiality.
At various points throughout my research, immersion was otherwise described as “all-encompassing,” “out of the ordinary” or “genuine” and “authentic.” It seems that experience has something to do with disrupting the status quo and co-creating an alternate reality.
Subject 1 illustrated a link between immersion, experience and the five senses when he described how “when a dog has a scent, [the] entire world shuts out” and that, when engaged in an experience “everything shuts out except [that] one thing that you’re experiencing.” He went onto say that “when you run long distances time feels like it’s going forever. But if you have a song that’s playing that you’re really into — immersive — auditory — time goes quickly.”
Subject 3 suggested that “an experience should be all-encompassing” and that “the way that we interpret the world around us is through the five senses. There is no other way to interpret the physical world. Layer that with emotion now you’ve got experience.” She highlighted that the degree of experientiality is dictated by whether or not it is extraordinary or routine. She described how dinner at home can be highly experiential if she is creating a new recipe, but not experiential at all of she is eating the same thing that she does on a regular basis. Further, that going to a restaurant that she visits regularly is much less experiential than visiting a restaurant to which she has never previously been.
Subject 2 offered a similar observation: “If I’m cooking the food and it’s a normal day in — it is probably not an experience. If I’m eating at home and taking out from a restaurant, then that’s an experience. Food prepared for me, more visually appealing, straying from the norm of day to day meals” is experiential.
Another key pattern emerged, related to the distinction between physical experience and online experience, that:
Online experience is perceived to be inherently less experiential than physical experiences when it is not occurring live. To that end, “liveness” seems to have strong bearing on degrees of experientiality.
Subject 2 described how “Liveness has something to do with experience” and that it “needs to be interactive.” Experience is “unique to the day, not accessible all the time. Special.” Subject 3 agreed: “Real time makes it more experiential than recorded.” She described a favorite arts venue’s move online during the pandemic and how she only likes to watch their live stream when it is live and not recorded, even though she does not usually participate or interact with the performances. She said that she has “not watched one recorded version of it, even though it would be almost exactly the same. Because if I want to participate, I could. Even if you’re a silent participant you can still lend your energy to it.”
Feelings about sensorial immersion related to online vs. offline experiences vary and seem to be very subjective.
Subject 1 described that live concerts were not generally “experiences for him, as he is unable to find himself immersed in them given the frequent commotion created by other concertgoers, no matter the quality of a performance. He understands, though, why others see live concerts as highly experiential, because of concerts’ capacity to deliver on the five senses. He described concertgoers “feeling the bass” and the unique “smell at shows, pheromones in the air.” He found a recent online video game live stream on Twitch, however, extremely immersive and, therefore, more experiential than any concert to which he has been recently.
Subject 2, on the other hand, offered that online shopping is not experiential at all from her perspective but that shopping in store is experiential. When asked why, she explained that shopping in store is “sensorial — designed. Sure you can do that on a website, but you can click out of it. You are not focused on an experience.” When asked how she would conceive an online experience if asked, she suggested that if it was for an online yoga class, for example, she would “instruct people to light candles, put their speakers on a certain level, change lighting, build a playlist” to make it more sensorial.
Subject 3 had mixed feelings. She is aligned with Subject 1 in feeling that “experience is not on a spectrum. It’s binary, in the eye of the beholder and subjective” and that some may find “way more enjoyment from a Zoom concert than a live concert” and see one as an experience and not the other. That said, she feels that physical has the leg up in the realm of all things experiential because we are still “learning about digital sensory.” Humans are “innately born with fingers and eyes and nose and ears and not born with tech around us. Our immediate impulses are rooted in natural senses. We are now asking to ‘experience’ in a digital way” and there is a learning curve as we “don’t have it figured yet.”
Quantitative data, accumulated from an online survey that consisted of then questions in which respondents were asked to rank concepts on a scale from 1 to 10 on their level of experientiality, validated some of my qualitative findings.
The average experiential score for physical concepts was nearly double that of correlative digital concepts (74.72% vs. 41.67%) and “live” physical concepts far outperformed their digital counterparts. Live concerts (89.52%) and live theater (86.19%) — both multi-sensory, physical concepts — were far and away seen as the most experiential concepts and online shopping (36.67%) was seen as the least experiential concept.
It seems sensorial immersion and liveness, then, are both key qualities of experience. All those that play and work in “experience” would do well to understand how these qualities manifest in their conceptions.