Data Will Lead The Way: The Future of Experience Design

Navigating the evolution of how brands and consumers will interact

This essay is part of Data + Creativity 2020, a Muse by Clio insight report exploring that critical intersection in marketing—and how to leverage it to create more impactful work. Click here to download the full PDF report of 12 essays, or here to read them on the Muse site.

When interactive experience design is at its best, it's engaging audiences in real-time, with real-time information, content and (most powerfully) data. That's because we've come to understand that data is a fundamental input into any organization's brand articulation. Data is part of a company's DNA, from its design to the functionality of its products. The most innovative companies—from consumer tech like Amazon, to Oscar healthcare, to transportation services like Uber and financial services like Mint—acknowledge that their data is core to their business and culture. As such, it is one of our most important creative tools.

In a post-Covid world, this has only become more true. Our calls for "creativity" are not only meant to inspire more beautiful, more effective brand experiences, but ones that (at times) provide a service, meeting the needs of society head on. In this new challenge, data demonstrates its boundless creative value. Through data, everything can be built or rebuilt to consider a future where experiences have to be both inspiring and safe, experimental and functional, in-person and virtual. Through data, designers and brands have the chance to design what living in this dual reality will mean.

Reaching its full potential

Part of data's allure has always been its utility. Data is critical for analysis and understanding. Past data can predict future behavior. Current data provides real-time feedback. Provided the data is secure, accurate and real-time, operators can make adjustments to incrementally improve functional performance in everything experiential, from building energy efficiency to content display to product customization. Even better, data can also be a creative storytelling device—the DNA giving form and structure to design experiences and imbuing them with deeper meaning. In cases where data's potential is fully realized, it paints a vivid picture within the spaces we experience in our daily work and personal lives. We learned this firsthand in our work on the "Unisphere."

For this data-driven experience, United Therapeutics, a multibillion-dollar biotech company, wanted to use data to bring their newest building on campus to life through visualizations of their sustainability initiatives. The building was already a technological marvel, generating all the energy it needed on-site through solar panels on the exterior, as well as a complex system of interconnected sensors monitoring both contemporary and ancient energy conservation technologies. Our challenge was to creatively communicate to their employees, visitors and guests that this structure, called the "Unisphere," was intimately dependent on their positive actions in hitting the collective goals of energy conservation and a sustainable workplace. 

We were initially offered the entirety of the building as a canvas, so the creative possibilities were limitless. Through the strategy and design process, we focused our experiences in key locations along various audience journeys. We created an Energy Dashboard display that allows employees to explore each of the building's energy systems in depth, tracking how their daily behaviors impact sustainability goals. Our massive Energy Dial also translated real-time data from the building's control systems into giant, 40-foot rays of light that animated in sequence to demonstrate the building's energy usage as part of the natural ebb and flow of daily net-zero forces. Creative use of energy data and brand storytelling allows employees and visitors alike to learn more deeply about their net-zero ecosystem, fostering community and conversation while impacting the world in a positive way.

Data and experiential's expanding roles

This approach only begins to envision where data and creativity can come together in innovative and functional ways. In a crisis like the current pandemic, building management systems will expand to incorporate entirely new suites of sensors and data collection systems that will monitor everything from body temperatures to the density of people in a conference room to physical distancing. The evolving role of creatives will be to access these systems and design ways to provide expressive feedback that still delivers both functionality and beauty.

Brand experiences, like any broadly accessible group experience, will also be held to new creative standards. Why? The cost of venturing into the public realm is now significantly higher, so brands (and consumers) will no longer settle for anything remotely average. This means that in future, experiences will need to over-deliver on quality, and data can be a differentiating asset in achieving this goal.

Even as our daily lives go back to near-normal, our approach to brand experiences must evolve. Navigating that evolution, and what part data will play, may be one of the most important creative challenges on the horizon. We're still very bullish on society's desire to come together, to explore and discover new experiences beyond the four walls of our houses or our many digital rectangles. But as designers and creatives, it's our responsibility to make sure those experiences are worth it—both for brands and for a new, more critical audience that expects more than the status quo. In that, data may hold the answer.

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David Schwarz
David Schwarz is founding partner at experience design agency HUSH.

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