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How Businesses Can Compete on Experience, and Win on Design

Today, the goal of every project we design at Gensler is to make a positive impact to peoples’ experiences. Clients in every sector are struggling to keep up with the dramatic evolution of how people work, live and shop today—and those who aren’t are sacrificing business performance. To better understand—and quantify—the link between design and delivering a great experience, we launched the Gensler Experience Index, a first-of-its-kind mixed-methods research study focused on creating a holistic framework for understanding experience, and quantifying the impact of design on experience.

Great design is great for business. We can prove it.

The Gensler Experience Index is the result of a multi-year study to identify the design factors most important to creating exceptionally great spaces and places. Five roundtables, 60+ hours of one-on-one ethnographic observations, and a survey of more than 4,000 consumers later, the Gensler Experience Index confirms and brings greater depth to what many of us in the design industry already knew—that great design is an important component of great experiences. Now, we can prove it. And not just in retail or consumer-focused spaces—we also studied the workplace, public space, retail and hospitality spaces. In every one of these space types, design is a crucial differentiator for companies looking to stay ahead of the curve.

A group of people in a room.

This knowledge comes at a crucial time. People today are smarter, savvier and their expectations are higher than ever. A good experience is no longer enough—fail to delight, and you’re in danger of losing that customer or employee to someone else who will. Today’s businesses are also savvier in their decision-making. Solutions based on intuition aren’t enough in today’s economy—you have to bring insight and evidence that is based on real data. Those dual forces are why studies like this are so important.

So how should businesses focus on experience, and how can design help? The first step is understanding human intentions. A key finding of our research is that the reason a person visits a space frames what they’re looking for out of that experience. Are they there to pick something up and leave? Are they there to browse and be inspired, or will they grab dinner with a friend? Whether it’s for a customer, an employee or a guest, design can be the differentiator between a good, bad or great experience. We organize these intentions into five “modes” of experience: task, social, discovery, entertainment and aspiration. These modes serve as a lens through which to better understand human behavior and expectations. This knowledge allows us to design for better experiences.

Six design factors have the most significant impact on design.

The connection between a great experience and business performance is well documented—multiple studies have connected the overall quality of customer or employee experience to a company’s long-term stock performance and growth. The measurable impact of design and physical space is, however, frequently left out of the equation, and the majority of companies have no systematic approach to creating a differentiated strategy for creating customer, visitor or employee experiences.

A group of people in a room.

To get to the bottom of this, we explored the impact of specific design factors in relation to a great experience. From among the 75+ design factors we studied in our survey, six factors emerged as having the most significant impact on experience: beauty, novelty, authenticity, clarity, inspiration and a sense of welcome. Importantly, these go beyond just functional factors of space— they are more experiential and speak to the overall impression a space has on a visitor.

The potential impact is huge. One key example: places with unique design features are dramatically more likely to be shared on social media and recommended to friends and family. Stores with unique features are shared 10x more often; 6x more often for workplaces and 3x more often for public spaces. That speaks to the power of differentiation—give people something interesting and new, and they’re more engaged, and they’ll tell their friends. The report also illuminated the direct, positive impact of designing to support people’s unstructured time or “discovery”—nearly ¾ of shoppers who visit retail stores without the intention of making a purchase end up buying something, and employees who take time for breaks and to reflect are more engaged and have better workplace experiences. Businesses that don’t invest in design are overlooking an opportunity to improve sales, build consumer loyalty and engage employees.

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The future is experience

The human experience must be the driving force behind every element of a space—from the design of physical space to the qualities of interaction, expectation and intention that together make up our Experience Framework. Businesses that put human experience first will continue to succeed despite the continued and dramatic shifts influencing spaces, from stores to workplaces. And at Gensler, we’ll continue to leverage design as a crucial component to those experiences—delighting, surprising and engaging people to keep them coming back.

Andy Cohen

Andy is one of two co-CEOs of Gensler, the world’s top architecture and design firm. Since 2005, Andy and Co-CEO Diane Hoskins have exemplified collaborative leadership, overseeing both the long-term strategy and day-to-day operations of the global practice known for its award-winning design innovation and research. Under their guidance, Gensler has grown to become the largest in the field, with over 7,000 people networked across 53 offices, serving more than 4,000 clients in 140 countries. A registered architect in 41 states and 3 Canadian provinces, Andy is a champion of the power of design to enhance and enrich the human experience. In 2021, he was named to Business Insider’s list of “100 People Transforming Business.”