Experience Design: Giving People Back Their Flow

Movement and success go hand in hand. We describe someone who’s doing well as being on the move, on their way up, moving and shaking, really going places. By contrast, those who aren’t doing so well are often thought of as being stuck or bogged down, at a standstill and getting nowhere.

And it’s not just metaphorical. As individuals, our relationship to movement really does help to define where we fit in the social pecking order, from least to most fortunate; at one end of the spectrum are those with little or no control over their own movement or that of anyone else. This includes those who are denied movement, like inmates, those who are unable to move themselves, like the severely disabled, and also those who, conversely, are forced to move, like migrant workers. And at the other end are those who can choose to stay or to go, who can summon others to them, and who show off their control over movement through ownership and collection of its most extravagant and luxurious symbols: exotic cars, thoroughbred horses, super-yachts and private planes. And in between are all sorts of subtle clues to rank provided by mode and duration of daily commute, number and type and age of cars owned, ownership of a passport, number and types of foreign countries visited, distance travelled on vacation, frequent flyer status, and so on almost endlessly.

Beyond success, we protect the freedom to move as a fundamental human right, and we are coming to regard movement as essential to wellness and to longevity. And, ultimately, movement is life itself. With each dam that is removed in the USA it is reported that life returns to the river almost as soon as it starts to flow again. And it is only when blood stops flowing through our bodies that we are pronounced clinically dead.

So you’d be forgiven for thinking that movement would be a basic design principle of everyday experiences like shopping, working, learning, getting medical attention, travelling, and so on. And yet the exact opposite happens to be true. Organizations of all types take their customers, employees, students, patients, members and guests out of their flow and bring them to a standstill, both figuratively and literally. It’s not malicious of course but rather, from the organizations’ perspective, simply the easiest, cheapest or most obvious way to handle them. The examples are all around us: every day in America most of the 50 million kids in public K12 education will need to sit still and be quiet before their education can begin, and at least 10 million adults will spend most of their workday at their desks, partitioned off from one another by cubicle walls to maximize their productivity; a good percentage of the 30 million or so visitors to a grocery store will spend time waiting in the checkout line; and the vast majority of the 3 million or so visitors to the doctor’s office will spend at least 20 minutes in the waiting room. With over 560 million visits annually, that adds up to some 270 lifetimes spent in waiting rooms alone every year! And let’s not forget the time spent waiting to check in to hotel rooms, or hanging on the phone to speak to a sales representative or to technical support, or standing in line at airport security or idling at the tollbooth plaza. We may be living in a fast moving world but we spend a lot of time in it sitting or standing still.

And yet it doesn’t always have to be that way. A small number of organizations have learned to value movement and are designing or redesigning experiences to give people back their flow. From the elimination of waiting times at Virginia Mason Medical Center to the redesign of learning at High Tech High School, from the distributed in-person and electronic checkout options at Apple’s retail stores to the installation of open road tolling on Illinois I-294, each in their own way is replacing the traditional static model that optimizes for organizational convenience with a new dynamic that optimizes for effective experiences. And the reason to take this seriously is that flow-based solutions, like the examples above, nearly always deliver the dual benefits of improving the customer or user experience and reducing operational costs at the same time, and often improve their environmental or community impact as well. And, because flow-based solutions are still in a tiny minority, organizations that adopt them are highly differentiated in their industry. All managers who want to achieve these same benefits for their organization, regardless of industry or application, can do so by shifting their experience paradigm and designing for flows.