DOWN WITH THE SINGING WAITERS!
The latest buzzword in design is "experience". A couple of years ago, when you were talking about new and converging media, it was all about "the content, stupid!", then it became "the context, stupid" and now all the pundits go: "its the experience, stupid".
Like Dave Brudney, an expert on hotel management: "Pike Place Fish, a stall in Seattles famed Pike Place Market where selling salmon is pure theatre, attracts locals and tourists by the hundreds daily. Fishermen? Salmon salesmen? How about entertainers? Now theyve become role models for training of corporate America offices (-) Pike Place Fish sells videos for $600 to help retailers everywhere on how easy it is to make your job fun." (1)
What Brudney seems to say here, is that if your storys good, your product will sell. Where have we heard thatbefore? A long time ago, when Vance Packard analysed the "Hidden Persuaders" (2) behind the kind of sales talk that was only superficially about products. Underneath, it was all about luring you into buying the story. Since then, however, a precursor of Pike Places fishermen - the figure of the singing waiter - has been staged by marketing gurus as the low point of trivial ways for attracting customers. I still think that a lousy pizza doesnt get better when someone sings "o sole mio" over it - it gets worse, much worse -, but since Joseph Pines and James Gilmores 1999 book The Experience Economy (3), I have the feeling that the singing waiter is making a relentless comeback. The figure of the entertainer as Überprofessional, regardless of his former core activity, is all over the place: Pine and Gilmore themselves travel around the world with a truckload of props to enhance the experience of their lectures, shopping malls are being transmuted into theme parks, your mobile phone is becoming an entertainment channel, your dentist embeds torturing you into a "jungle experience", and your local police officer has changed into a clown after watching a Pike Place Fish video. Duh. So what about the core products of these experiences? What about manufacturing goods, facilitating phone calls, reparing teeth, preventing crime?
The fundamental problem with the current passion for entertainment and experience is that in many cases it shifts the focus from content to presentation - from the core to the perifery that is. When all aspects of a product and the way it is communicated are merging and converging, if the products whole format is judged in terms of the overall experience it is part of, what, then, is the product? The content, the context, the experience? Or, to use an old-fashioned term: whats the message?
To tackle this question, it may be wise to look back at one of the time-tested messages in our culture, that of Salvation Through Christ; for if Christianity invented anything, its the experience economy. And in terms of experience design and converging media, a 16th century High Mass in a well equipped cathedral still beats about any themed environment today, regardless of the available technology. Never mind vapid wine and desiccated bread - its the experience of Gods own flesh and blood, stupid! Or should we say: its faith, brother? In any case, for the agnostic observer the Churchs fixation on experience is highly consistent with its core message - for the believer, the experience is the message. Thus, when Reverend Greg Warner, a "contemporary Christian" ponders the question "How will Christianity fare in a culture that puts a premium on the marketing of experiences?" (4), the answer is that it will "fare" on enchantment, like it has for the past 2001 years. Disney and their likes, in fact the whole "Kulturindustrie", have learned their trade to a large extent from the various stagings in a great diversity of media of Christian sacrament. I have little against that - I have a choice. But the situation shifts radically if the enchantment-model is applied to other realms of culture, that are in essence not celebratory, but that do represent core resources: I dont want to be enchanted in a shopping mall, I want to be very wakeful and conscious there! I dont need a theatrical performance when I ask the way to the next busstop. I dont care if the person on the phone is enchantingly nice to me, if I dont get the information I need. I dont need an enchanting Flash-intro if it boggles my connection and impairs my search operation. In short, I dont like singing waiters.
On the other hand, theres no problem in trying to enhance the experience of a products core message by getting it across in ways that please the people. If the masses want to be entertained, then so they shall, by any means necessary. The point is to re-define necessity. The old modernist adage of Form Follows Function can be useful here, if applied not just to formal material aspects of products, but to the entire experiential context of the design, including choice of media, ways of addressing the public, desired cultural references, core objectives and overall experience. Consistency is the holly grail here. If I succeed in making an interface to a website so entertaining that its visitors will forget that they have to wait for 40 seconds before the thing loads and have no clue where to go next, have I fulfilled my core objective? I dont think so, even if they go: "cool intro!".
Besides, how do we judge the appropriateness of an experience, if not on the basis of some specific content and context? If enchantment becomes the entire message, the message threatens to become enirely manipulative. The Church, for instance, has a long - and not wholly uncontroversial - track record of manipulating the masses into having the right experience, the kind of experience that keeps them part of the flock - the way Christian leaders succeeded in branding sheep as role models is unsurpassed. Thats what I find scary about the experience economy; that the communication of commerce shifts from being about honest seduction to trying to convert me into a believer in brandnames. Im not sure if turning the shopping experience into a Holy Land Experience is the way to go. In the end, content still is, or should be, the alpha and omega of both design and communication. The media you use to disseminate it, and the creativity you put into making the message an experience, are a function of the content. The content establishes the product, stupid!