When I arrived at On Cue, an annual private gathering hosted by venture capital firm, Cue Ball Capital, I had no expectations. The event had not even been publicised. In fact, there is no mention of it online. The only information I received was an address from the On Cue team. A friend who invited me provided little detail, and said only that it is an event that is about the people who attend, and that it was the best event he went to last year.
The idea of an event designed around the participants is intriguing. Most events are designed around their content. After years of attending every kind of ‘gathering’ imaginable, I had lots of ideas about what I didn’t want to experience – pomposity, old news, hobnobbing, seating assignments, purpose without structure, structure without purpose, etc.
An event designed around its participants is much like a product or service designed around its customers. They both require five key design elements. These elements carry over to most types of (customer) experience design, regardless of where it is a product, service or organizational culture.
1. Nailing the Details
During the opening session of On Cue, guests wandered through the atrium amidst towers of free books that were written by speakers and attendees – novels, cookbooks, business books. One of Cue Ball Capital’s portfolio companies, MiniLuxe, handed out products and provided free manicures. A green-haired Spanish bagpiper caught the attention of attendees and escorted us into the lecture hall.
Each detail had a purpose and was timed to coordinate, feed, inform or delight. Experience design is about creating a feeling, and this feeling reflected the events theme of pushing the limits of human possibility. As a result the event felt replete and fluid such that all you had to do was sit back, be enchanted, and leave inspired
2. Customized Fit
On Cue was human-centric, and it was designed around the participants. Service and hospitality are key to making participants feel valued and cared for. Cue Ball’s founder, Tony Tjan, invited most people personally, and it was clear that the purpose of the event was to celebrate everyone’s presence and create a feeling of community. The event organizers oriented the entire event around the needs of participants. Because they knew the audience so well, they were able to anticipate our needs and exceed expectations. The importance of ‘service’ was everywhere, which made the event feel luxurious, intuitive and thoughtful.
3. Infusing Meaning through Narrative
Surprise that feels intuitive is a core aspect of experience design. You always want to strike the balance between what is new and what is familiar, and to repurpose the familiar in unfamiliar ways.
On Cue’s welcome kit included a ‘newspaper agenda with articles written by or about each speaker and performer. Each wine was curated for the event by a winemaker who was present to tell your drink’s story.
4. Curating Quality (People and Content)
Everything at On Cue was thoughtfully curated. Local designer, Louis, gave away hand-made silk scarves for men. The speakers included the world record-holding freediver and a man who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in his shorts. There was an astronaut and an astronomer as well as the co-organizer of Tiananmen Square, Li Lu. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock topped it off with a philosophical reflection on his career. Talks were punctuated by performances from a wireless light dance troupe and a 10-year old violin prodigy, among others.
The pursuit of quality often risks inauthenticity and sycophancy. On Cue was able to avoid this by combining luxury with sincerity. Each speaker had something special to share, and everyone was humble. The event felt swanky, but not plush. You had the sense that everything and everyone was there for a reason. The result was that as the day wore on the participants had increasing good will toward each other. Conversation became more colorful and egos more gentle.
5. Incorporating Play
The sense of purpose was lightened by a sense of play. As I spoke with the freediver about the importance of breath in everyday life a bouncy ball traveled past us and we barely noticed. A professional ‘trick pool’ player entertained guests at a billiard table. Interactive play sets up an environment that feels creative, comfortable and communal. Meaningful conversation was cultivated by the combination of play and content. An improvisational dance troupe performed next to startups who were wandering the room. A sense of magic was created by the theatre of it all, by the fascinating speakers and by each other. Everyone had something to share and something to wonder at.
To incorporate these five elements into experience design, a company should gather insights about its audience through ethnographic research. It is also important to stay true to yourself. Companies should reflect their core objective and make sure that it is reflected in every aspect of design. Look for the fine line between what is familiar and unfamiliar and develop an approach that offers both. Remember that an experience is the sum of every touchpoint, so make sure the entire interaction is woven together by purpose and narrative. Ultimately it should feel fresh, intuitive and sincere.