People don’t just buy products, they buy experiences. From the second they consider purchasing to the point when they’re ready toss away an old model for a new one, every moment matters. A business really needs to develop an experience with the entire life cycle in mind. For the past two decades Tedde van Gelderen, author of Experience Thinkinghas worked as an experience architect. In this conversation, he’ll be your guide to delivering remarkable experiences that delight people along the way.

Tedde van Gelderen: I came out of the airport after a two-hour flight, and we all walked to the rental place—you know these things have like four or five rental places in a row. We didn’t really know which one to pick, and we just go, “Well this seems decent. Let’s go with this one.”

So we joined a queue, and as we turn a guy walked up next to me. It baffled me because I was not used to this: he reached out and shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Matt. I’m going to help you today.”

So he touched me, he shook my hand. It’s not unusual in a business setting, but I was sort of taken aback.

“I couldn’t remember a moment where when I was renting a car that they introduced themselves and shook my hand.”

That made me realize the kind of business I’m in, which is all about how people interact with each other—on a personal level, but also on a business level and when they interact with information, with product, and with things around them.

It broke the pattern of what I felt was more of a business transactional moment, where you just get in a car and fill in a bunch of forms and then off you go. They’re professional, they’re good, they’re cheerful, they’re polite, but they usually don’t connect with you in that way that early.

That was really the moment where I thought, “I need to capture this and help more companies understand this kind of level of interaction that you could have with your clients, or your customers, or your users, and help them understand that it does make a difference.”

It was notable, it was memorable, it was something that I clearly remember, and it was really about something completely mundane as renting a car.

I will remember this company forever now because this one guy did it differently, did it better.

Charlie Hoehn: So, was it memorable because it was a pattern disrupt, or did it make an impact on you because it was so personal and human?

Tedde van Gelderen: I think both, and that’s what a lot of companies start to lose. The human side of things is more and more lost in professional interactions and in a lot of things we do now for each other and for making people have a better life in general. But also in a professional sense, to have a better business life.

It’s been increasingly harder for companies and individuals to create this differentiator. How are you different than the next guy? How are you better than the next person that provides a product or service? Where is that differentiator?

A lot of people grapple with debts and love people trying to find the answers to that. But they’re not very creative in making stuff much cheaper. It’s how can we make stuff bigger, or we can make stuff shinier.

“But nobody thinks about the human aspect or the experiential aspect of it to say, “Where can we change it?””

Because this could be a very mundane change in how everybody rents cars—the standard thing can be that you should introduce yourself. If you put this in another context, how odd it would be if you walk in to a restaurant and the waiter or waitress introduces themselves by shaking your hand?

Why would you? That’s way too formal, that’s way too much. I don’t need to know you really. I just need to get to my table.

So there’s always this implied level of interaction that is by and large the same in different restaurants. That’s what I encountered here. This was different because it was beyond that, but it actually felt okay. “Hey, this is different, and this is better.”

I think that’s what companies need to pay more attention to in that sense—that human side and a differentiator.

Experience Thinking Creates Differentiation

Charlie Hoehn: How did you start implementing experience thinking in to your day to day business or did you? Was it something that you brought to your clients or was it something you started practicing?

Tedde van Gelderen: Most of the time the kind of work that I do involves trying to get companies and teams and organizations to think more about introducing the customer and the user in their design process.

When they think about creating new experiences, hardware, software, content, brand, and all those things could be part of those experiences. That’s already part of my job.

But there was not a lot of real intentional thinking behind it. People do their best to think about the user and the customer, but they are very hard sometimes in their solution. They don’t really have a good approach to introducing these people throughout the design process.

This book for me, I would say, is between ten or twelve years old now, in terms of my thinking. I started to more and more think about this idea of, “How do I help companies create this differentiator that is more obvious and still fits within what they normally do?”

Charlie Hoehn: Would you say that the big idea in your book is how we create these experiences that differentiate us from our competitors?

Tedde van Gelderen: Yeah, that and then “How do I start? Where do I start?” Because that’s a very good statement to have as a goal.

A lot of people say, “We need to be better, we need to be best in class, or have an experience, or have this state of the art, or do something that really sticks out from the rest.”

That’s absolutely a fine statement to make as a goal. But then the next question is, “So now what? How do I start? Where do I begin? What is step one? Step five? Step 15?”

“We don’t really know how to structure and plan and strategize these kinds of changes to make that differentiator really happen.”

That’s what this book is about. This kind of high-level, step by step plan to help you understand that these are the things that you do. I’m not trying to explain in great detail as to how you do it because there are literally dozens and dozens and dozens of books that cover that part.

I’m trying to stay one level above that, to say, “Let’s talk about what you should be doing.”

I will mention the words, I will mention the techniques, I will mention the process, but first of all I’m going to tell you an instructional way to get there. And it’s going work every single time.

An Experience Thinking Framework

Charlie Hoehn: What is the structure or the framework for experienced thinking, how do we need to be approaching this?

Tedde van Gelderen: Well the first level I try to go to—and it’s no different from the things that the organizations try to achieve and deliver—is to look at the internal organization. Our close structure. It’s looking at the processes, looking at the people, looking at the way they do their business. How do they make money and the technology itself, of course, as well.

All the while, trying to make sure that your organization is in such a way where everyone supports this kind of thinking. It supports this kind of design that will help people sustain and make it better. That’s the first level, so I started off with that.

Charlie Hoehn: What is a company that does experience thinking extremely well, that we’re all familiar with?

Tedde van Gelderen: A lot of companies do bits of it well, and some companies do it really well. Apple is one example, and it’s a very stereotypical example in a way—not to knock them in any way, because they do great stuff obviously.

But I would also, for example, look at government agencies. Some parts of the government have really worked out services of how to renew your driver’s license, or even how to pay your taxes. How easy that is to have good parts of those services really thought out very well, in a very exponential way. So smooth, very seamless for people.

I would never say across the board that this is wonderful, absolutely not. Taxes aside, take a museum for example. Or you can go to a company like Disney that they have this down to a tee.

“They know how to create an experience for you that you go, “Wow, this is something else.””

And you can’t always put your finger on it why is it so different, but you sort of stop at those words that you are saying, “This is amazing. I don’t know how to articulate this any further than that, just to say that this is an awesome experience.”

So these people and these companies obviously figured that out. We look at the outer layer of that experience and say, “This is amazing,” but we don’t really know how they did it.

Another example of really good experiences is this different way to think of it is in a movie. So, if we think of the whole cinema experience and of course there’s a dark space and you sit on the chair, but a movie is completely designed.

They like to tell you what to think, what to see, and what to hear, sometimes what to smell, sometimes even what to feel when your chair moves in the action movies. The theater has control over all of the experience through our five senses. They create exactly the emotion and the feeling, and the perception that they want you to have.

If you want to look at a good experience or an example of really good experience design, a movie is a really good example of that.

Disney is completely set up as an organization to deliver these experiences. Everybody that gets hired there, everybody who goes through the career path, they are all setup to be focused completely on the customer and on the people. I don’t even think they call them “customer.”

“The people that go through that experience really are centered by everybody that works there.”

The whole structure of the organization is focused on making people happy and getting them the experience they are paying for, but also what to expect.

When I say Disney, and also Apple, immediately you get an emotional reaction. You get used to a very positive and imaginary feeling that really gives you this uplifting emotion. That’s the brand. That’s the first step after structure.

Think about “What does our brand promise our customers, our users, to people outside our audience, outside our brand?”

Delivering an Experience

Tedde van Gelderen: As we know, the products that some companies and organizations produce don’t match the brand promise that they think they give.

We say “Volvo” people think “safety,” because that’s part of their brand and that’s part of their ongoing marketing focus. They have to make sure that people see Volvo and think safety. They have done this for decades.

The brand is next step that you have to work on. “What is that brand, what does it look like, how do we define it, who are we, and how do we express ourselves through our brands and through positioning that we have so we can go to the step after?”

Once you’ve created a structure in the organization that will deliver the experience that you want to create, the brand is the first level. Secondly, the brand experience and the brand promise has to be defined.

Typically, companies have a certain a brand established, but if it’s a new company, they really have to think about their purpose, their goal. That’s what you capture in the brand.

The second level is, “What do you do now, what are the experiences that people interact with when they actually get these with your products and services?”

Disney has a lot of products out there—not just movies but physical things that are basically a combination of many, many services and many, many products.

So, we need to create and design the product. How do we do that? What do we do to create a product that actually works for people? It comes back to what I mentioned earlier about user and customer involvement. You’re trying to make sure that you evolve as your customer throughout that whole process.

Product is one, hardware and software is one, services is another. You can think of services as renewing driver’s license or getting something done that is not tangible, like a restaurant. Yes, there is food, but there is also a service part where you go through the whole ritual of entering the restaurant and sitting down, getting the menu, eating, going away again, and the entourage setting up the environment.

The service experience is a similar kind of approach as a product experience, where in order for that to do that well, you need to really make sure that you involve the customers who use it throughout that design process. Make sure they’re aware of what happens next and make sure that people will tell you when something goes sideways, in terms of experience.

You end up thinking emotionally around the last stage of this approach, which is what we’ll call life cycle or an end to end experience. Companies that do this really well don’t think about distinct products and services. They don’t think about the service in isolation and say, “Oh we need a great website and if we do a great website we’re all good.” Or, “If we create this wonderful shoe then we’re all good and we’re going to be fine as a company.”

“Good, great, and excellent companies understand that the use of the website is embedded within a bigger journey, a bigger stage.”

For example, we look at a sports franchise. Any of these sports franchises out there have a website so you can buy a ticket. But everybody knows, of course, it’s only a fraction of the experience. It’s not about the website. It’s about getting to the game.

Getting to the game is also meeting the friendly stewards that get you to your seats and then, of course, it’s the game itself. Hopefully, your team wins, and then you go home again, and hopefully you get there safely, and then the website comes into play again where you want to book another game or see if there is still availability still in the section in the stadium you want to be in.

So, sports teams have all of these different experiences to deal with, and if they’re smart, they think about this end to end. From the very beginning of when I think about going to a game to the very last second when I actually come home again and the whole experience in between.

That’s what successful companies think about and how they connect all of these products and services to work.

Creating and Implementing an Experience

Charlie Hoehn:  How do you implement this stuff? Can somebody who’s not traditionally practiced in this or experienced themselves become a great experience thinker?

Tedde van Gelderen: This is a lot to take in, and companies have to think about this a while before they can successfully start a journey to change, to improvement and to optimization.

That’s why I wrote the book. I wanted to at least give this umbrella view of how all these things go together, because there are too many books that go into slices of this—that basically take one chapter of my book and say, “This is all you have to deal with.” And it’s not.

“Don’t just focus on the brands, don’t just focus on the website or online. Don’t just focus on your physical space and make your branches good or make your stadium good.”

Think about all of these things, because realistically we have to think about this as a holistic thing. That’s what our company or our organization is about. Once you’ve recognized that and say, “Yes, they are all part of this bigger whole,” then we can start to engage each other and to say, “We need to work together better. We need to think end to end. We need to connect all these dots better.”

This is why the subtitle is Creating Connected Experiences, because that’s what all of this is about. It’s to create this connected experience that the consumer goes through and judges the organization completely based on that.

Charlie Hoehn: What else do we need to be thinking about to really engage in experience thinking to make it a part of our company?

Tedde van Gelderen: Sales and marketing, engineering, contents, executives—they’re still working too much in isolation. For this to work freely, we have to recognize that ultimately, we’re like a Disney opening up a show. We’re putting up an experience with people.

Yes, we might be a bank, but still, it’s an experience that people want to be happy with and successful in.

“Let’s see this as an experience that we all work towards and organize ourselves around.”

That is where this book will hopefully help people. To make them realize that there is a way to structure yourself, there’s a way to organize yourself so it can be done.

Who Needs Experience Thinking

Charlie Hoehn: So, to play a little devil’s advocate here, why does really matter for businesses? If we’re a company that’s a little bit of a necessary evil, if we’re the only game in town, why does it matter so much?

Tedde van Gelderen: Good question. Partly I would say, you have to make that determination yourself first. There will be cases where you say “It really doesn’t matter. We are the only one, so we don’t have to differentiate.”

But when you live in a world where there are five rental places side by side that all give you the same kind of cars for similar pricing, how do we differentiate now? You have the same counters, the same people, they all dress nicely, they have little name tags. Everything looks the same.

“How do you stand out in the sea of sameness?”

That’s a reality for even more companies than the ones that can say, “I’m the only game in town.” For those companies who have to compete with four or five, ten, hundreds of competitors, they seriously have to look at this as a way to find the change they need to stay afloat and to make that difference really stand out for them so they can survive as a company.

Charlie Hoehn: Tell us the people who have gotten the most out of the ideas presented in your book? Tell us the before and after of companies who have gone on to be successful with Experience Thinking?

Tedde van Gelderen: This book is still a sort of new area. This structure and framework are not pervasive in many companies yet. I see a lot of companies stumbling into this and realizing it that they’re doing something not right, not in an ultimate way, once they encounter it.

One big example is brand. A lot companies and teams will see brand as a kind of “Wow, we need to create a logo somewhere. I need a tagline.” And that’s about it. When they start to design services and products, they leave the brand behind.

I’ve been in too many situations where the brand was not put before creating products and services. It was done parallel and tackled every couple of years when people felt like it, irrespective of what they did with products and services.

They are so connected that, in time, a lot of companies that we worked with didn’t see that and had to revisit everything as a result.

How to Get Started and Connect with Tedde van Gelderen

Charlie Hoehn: Where do I begin in revamping my company, my products, my services so that they are aligned with what you’re talking about?

Tedde van Gelderen: The start of writing this book was very much for management objectives. People aren’t necessarily doing the work but need to understand it sufficiently to guide and to plan for the work. That’s the intent. If I need to start somewhere, this is a recipe, this is the way to start. This is a way to look at it from the structure, the different types of experiences that are out there—the lifecycle and the end to end thinking.

It’s not meant to be a cookbook in the sense that we’re going to tell you verbatim how to start. It’s to say: these are the ingredients, these are the steps that you look at. These are the things that you can look at, this is the brand, the content, the product, the service, experiences that you’re creating. You need to start to consider them more connectedly. So you can plan and you can make sure that your next project you’re doing or next initiative will take this content in to the right order.

“So, start with brand. If you’re good with that, you move on to the next thing.”

How you do that is really step two, because the team internally could be very good in user experience and design or in customer experience design, or you might have a very good branding team. There might be capabilities in house that are able to do 70% of these, and you may only outsource 30% of that.

Or you may decide to really bring this in house completely, or completely outsource this. I don’t say anything about this specifically.

Because of that variety, the book is not about how you hire this person or that person to get you to that level but to make sure that you have these guides. It’s to have this playbook, in a way, to say, “I know where to start now. I know what order these things should happen, and I know roughly how they would work.”

Charlie Hoehn: What’s one thing that they can do this week to apply experience thinking into their life?

Tedde van Gelderen: What really will have a big impact is to start with an end to end kind of thinking. Many teams and organizations are still grappling with this real toolbox approach of how to fix things or how to provide experiences. To people from different places, team members from different areas of the organization, different content areas, different management, sales marketing objectives, and bring them into a room, spend a couple of hours and talk about that end to end experience.

“You will be amazed at how they see what they provide, how they think they fit into that overall picture.”

I want you to capture that, then the next steps become easier. Because then you can go split them up into service experiences, product experiences, the brand, the content and ultimately look at how you structure the organization to deliver all that. But that’s the biggest challenge I would give to the listeners.

Can you do that? Do you have a sense of that end to end, from where your customer first encounters with you or interacts with things that you have to the very last moment when they leave? Do you have that mapped out, do you understand that?

Because if you don’t have that, then you are kind of going in with one eye, and you don’t really know where you’re going. You’re optimizing maybe an insignificant part of the journey without knowing it.

Charlie Hoehn: How can our listeners connect with you, follow you, what’s the best way to do it?

Tedde van Gelderen: I can be found in LinkedIn. There’s a blog in the company that I run where I regularly talk about these things as well.

But in short I would say that my name is so distinct if you look at my name in Google you will find me. You’ll find ways to connect with me.