The SATE conference, in New York City, was created by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) to foster professional dialog about the methodology of Experience Design.  SATE stands for Story + Architecture + Technology = Experience. The following is curated from a presentation entitled, “Creating Smart Spaces: Architectural-scale interactivity in process and practice” by Darren David, CEO, Stimulant

“We stand at an interesting intersection of the digital world and the real world.  Social creatures by nature, we all love the magic of the shared experience. Digital technology like streaming media has been feeding that desire, providing the ability to share experiences in real-time to help us feel more connected,” said Darren David.

“But in many ways, these experiences are trapped in a device that keeps us from fully participating in the experience. To have a digital experience take us out of the present moment flies in the face of thousands of years of human evolution. It seems we’re being asked to choose between being human or being digital. I don’t think this is what we imagined when we talk about the future of shared digital experiences.  I’m a firm believer that we shouldn’t have to choose. We should be able to use technology to bring people together in the same space and to interact with our environment and expand our minds.

We call these enlightened environments ‘smart spaces’ and they exist at the intersection of architecture, technology, and experience design. Since the advent of the smartphone ‘super-computer’ and streaming media, people’s perceptions of a satisfying experience have been radically altered. So what we, as experience designers, need to do today is to make analog objects behave digitally, and to impart digital objects with something that feels like real world objects.  

This is the idea of performance aesthetics, where we suspend disbelief.  In the real world we can’t scale a photo by pinching our fingers apart, but suddenly we have the desire to believe that behavior. Secondly, the smartphone has familiarized us with new ways of interacting with content. Back in 2007, before the smartphone, we had trouble getting people to touch interactive screens. TV’s weren’t for touching! But by the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, there were fingerprints on every screen in the hall because people had become touch-curious.  When a new skill becomes normalized, what we call an earned competency, people expect things to act that way, and when they don’t, they must be broken.

“People are no longer satisfied with experiencing the world, they want to have an impact on it. They want to leave their trace on their world.”

The third idea is personalization – it’s your device. You pick the cover, arrange the icons, the apps are authenticated to you and feed specified data. Have you ever picked up someone else’s phone? It feels kind of dirty, like getting a glimpse at something intimate, very private. The truth is real world experiences haven’t caught up. It’s still largely one-size fits all. As a result of our acclimatization of personalized experiences, we don’t feel these mass experiences as compelling. A major shift is at hand.  

When the smartphone was introduced everyone said they were consumption devices. But this has shifted.  Smartphones have empowered a huge segment of the population, who never felt they had a creative bone in their body, to become ‘creators’ who produce and share unique content experiences. People are no longer satisfied with experiencing the world, they want to have an impact on it. They want to leave their trace on their world.

Expectations have changed and it’s no longer good enough to include technology in attractions, we have to meet or exceed people’s expectations.  And with these new expectations come new challenges. The first of which is dealing with unfamiliar interactions.  Creating new experiences is risky. Creating a new kind of experience, creating a new way to interact with the environment, is riskier. People want to dive right in, but we fear failing and, falling back on old habits, we assume that things that don’t work as we expect, are broken. That’s a big challenge to digital systems design.

Some say, designs should feel natural, but that doesn’t necessarily mean intuitive. For instance the ‘Rain Room’ installation, where you walk under showers but remain dry. This presents a cognitive disconnect that requires people to make a leap of faith, to learn a new behavior. In designing for public spaces, the interface must be highly intuitive or face the risk of failure. It all comes down to expectations.

Setting Expectations

When you create an experience it’s like a magic circle, where things don’t behave as in the real world. Here, you grant people permission to have a different experience. For instance, in a boxing ring you are free to beat the crap out of someone and be rewarded. But if you do it in the parking lot you’ll get arrested. Designers need to give permission to people to step into these experiences and do something differently without fearing failure.  To create successful designs we need to scaffold on the familiar, build upon familiar paradigms, meet them halfway and build trust, before moving on to novel forms. If it looks like a button, it should be pushed.

Meeting Expectations

We must always plan for the worst-case scenario. What if several people attempt to interact at the same time, or someone is standing in the wrong place? We need to set the bar for interactivity at ground level so people fall into it and find it amazing. It’s like storytelling  – we must build experiences so when people walk into them they are already expert users.

People will be in very different states when they arrive, particularly in public spaces. The experience must be rewarding at whatever level of attention we give them. It is crucial to plan for unexpected behaviors to guarantee that we communicate the given message.

Garbage in beauty out – for instance consider the frustration felt when you get an error message on your PC. You don’t want to tell someone they’ve done something wrong. You want to give positive feedback. The idea is, anything you do should deliver positive feedback, even for a wrong response. There needs be a clear cause and effect for what you did and what comes out of it.

How do we create expert users but let them explore the environment on their own? We have to enable people to be the captain of their own journey. There may be a path we lead them along, but we want them to feel that they are exploring that path on their own.  One way to accomplish this is to give people super powers in the smart space where the smallest input may accomplish something amazing.  That’s key to rewarding people for their attention.


The system must adapt to the audience by knowing something about them, not in a creepy way, but perhaps their height or if there are several people together, and altering itself to fit their situation. This creates more compelling experiences than a one-size-fits-all interface.

We’re trying to build experiences that reward more people, to get people together to unlock new behaviors, to get strangers talking, to have magical moments together. The system should encourage that interaction in a positive feedback loop that says it’s OK to be social, to leave that device in your pocket so we can give you a magical experience.

But we must be sure we are not leading people astray. Consistency is paramount, especially in new modes of behavior. If we are going to teach a gesture or a posture, leverage that behavior to make people think they are experts so they will try it everywhere just to see the result.

Finally, whatever you build, it must be integrated with the theme of the overall environment, and with the marketing and branding. You cannot simply bolt a screen onto a wall. It must feel architecturally integrated. Once you’ve earned someone’s trust you must be careful not to abuse it or risk losing their most valuable possession – their attention.”

Image: FilippoD