Johns Hopkins Fast Forward Innovation Hub—Baltimore
A group of people looking at a large map.

Measuring Experience

Modeled after its longstanding workplace research, Gensler prepares to launch a new, lifestyle-focused initiative examining the factors that impact experiential design.


“Capturing and quantifying the impact that design has on the customer experience is new territory.” So says Christine Barber, Gensler’s director of research. The firm launched its Workplace Performance Index (WPI) in 2005. It now drives global thinking about how work settings impact the office workforce. Developing a lifestyle-focused Experiential Design (ExD) Index poses greater challenges. “The needs of the office workforce are generally similar across different kinds of organizations,” she explains. “To quantify design’s impact in a lifestyle context, we have to look at human experience in broader terms.” With that breadth comes a lot more complexity. It also complicates the question of what measures really matter to clients.

A man and a woman in a room with shelves and a table.
LMHQ—New York City

Laying the groundwork

Faced with the need to sort this out, Gensler started small. An internal survey of relevant practice leaders surfaced their client concerns. One theme quickly emerged: the growing sophistication of consumers regularly redefines what makes for a great experience. Other themes included the need to engage next-gen consumers and to stand out in crowded markets. Clients had to weigh the costs and risks of doing this against their profitability. Design plays a critical role in market differentiation, says Gensler’s Tom Ito: “We address the experience in every project.” But the insights gained are hard to apply elsewhere. “We’ve got the anecdotes, but where’s the data?” Gensler hopes the ExD Index will change the conversation. “The idea is to use qualitative research to give our design teams and their clients insights and feedback during the design process, not afterward,” says Ito’s colleague Tate Ragland.

A series of roundtable discussions with Gensler clients is now under way in different US cities and in China to help focus the ExD Index and identify regional differences in how experience is perceived and valued. The first two sessions began with presentations from an array of thought leaders in the experience realm: a futurist, a robot designer, and a food and sensory experience artist. Audiences of experience-driven clients listened and then weighed in.

A bar with a counter and stools.
Bon Appetit Test Kitchen—New York

Talking about design’s impact

Drawing on work and life, participants honed in on the nature of experience, what makes it impactful, and how design figures in. The focus on experience rang a bell with participants, says Gensler’s Kevin Rohani. “Because of the businesses they’re in, they think about this all the time.” The first two roundtables, held in Los Angeles and New York, have already yielded important insights.

One takeaway is that experience is highly heterogeneous, with the definition of a good experience varying from one person to the next. For some participants, technology is front and center, while for others it is all about unplugging and getting back to basics.

“There’s no single formula for a great experience,” says Gensler’s Elizabeth Brink. “There are so many dichotomies.” Yet commonalities quickly surfaced. One is that the person who mediates an experience for you can make it or break it. “The speakers told stories about their great experiences,” Rohani says. “Invariably, they pointed to specific individuals whose interest, knowledge, and genuineness made all the difference.”

Another commonality is that memorable experiences often start with something recognizable and then take it in a novel direction. “As Carla Diana told us in New York, leading with the familiar is one way to engage people and make them feel comfortable, then you flip that on its head—a tactic drawn from concert halls and haute cuisine,” says Gensler’s Lauren Adams.

A third commonality is that quality experiences provide guideposts without overly constricting consumers. “You bound the experience lightly, and then give people a lot of freedom to make it theirs—ideally on a continuing basis,” says Rohani. A related tactic is to analyze what’s getting in the way of a great experience. “You don’t always need something crazily new,” adds Adams. “As Diana said, just get rid of the frustrations and time-wasters.” Car and bike sharing are examples, trading on convenience, but other sharing platforms get a premium for offering an experience that’s notably better.

A person standing in a clothing store.
Brooks Trailhead—Seattle

Planned next steps

The roundtables point to survey questions that could gauge consumer experience, heterogeneous as it is. “When we first conducted our WPI surveys of the office workforce, we quickly learned to avoid generic questions,” says Brink. “Did the experience feel cohesive? Did it feel authentic? That gets better answers than if you ask, did you enjoy it?” Such prompts can help identify what made an experience negative, like a spa that promises tranquility yet annoys you with a roaring air conditioner.

Following roundtables in San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Shanghai, Gensler’s ExD Index team will tap consumer research and conduct in-depth interviews with experientially savvy clients who can offer concrete advice about what matters and how to measure it. Consumers are also in view as the likely target of a first large survey. “We expect the ExD Index to show its first results in 2017,” Barber says. “Like the Workplace Performance Index, it will be refined and sharpened as we develop it.”

Gensler expects that once it’s launched, the ExD Index will be a critical resource for its designers and its clients. Projects benefit when designers and clients share insights about experience—the attributes that matter to consumers and how design can evoke them.

“We intend the ExD Index to be open-ended, not formulaic,” Ragland says. “Our goal is not to prescribe outcomes, but to unleash people’s creativity.”

Mara Hvistendahl is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine. Her book Unnatural Selection was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She is based in Minneapolis.