Experiential Processing: Designing for Reactive, Deliberative, and Reflective Experiences

In a previous post, Optimizing the Most Critical Elements of the Customer Experience:  Customer Choices, I shared a set of frameworks for understanding the decision processes that customers use to make choices.  In this post, I will build on this foundation to further describe the way customer process their experiences and outline an overall strategy for designing experiences that fit with the way customers think and act.

How Do Customers’ Process Experiences and Make Decisions?

People generally have a gut feel for the situations they are in and what they want to do.  In these situations, customers’ may have already subconsciously made a provisional decision before they even begin to consciously and rationally consider tradeoffs and their ability to justify that decision.

The leading neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, has made a series of surprising discoveries regarding the extent to which subconscious feelings are a precursor to rational thinking.  In an ingenious experiment, Damasio demonstrated that subconsciously generated physical changes in the body significantly precede a person’s deliberate and rational thinking. (See Iowa Gambling Task)

In this experiment, participants were given four decks of cards along with $2,000 in play money.  The participants were told that each time they chose a card they will either win or lose money.  The goal was to win as much as possible.  What the participants didn’t know is that the game was rigged.  Two of the decks were “high risk decks” with larger payouts and much larger losses.  The other two decks were “low risk decks” with smaller payouts but even smaller losses.  If participants consistently drew from the low risk decks, they would end up way ahead in the end.

As expected, participant’s initial card selection was random; they had no reason to favor any of the four decks.  On average, participants turned over approximately 50 cards before they began to draw more consistently from the low risk decks.  It took about 80 cards before the average participant could explain why he was drawing from these two decks.  However, the most interesting part of the experiment was that Damasio had attached electrodes to the participants’ palms.  These electrodes measured electrical conductance of the skin which correlates with nervousness.  Damasio found that, after only 10 cards, participants began to show signs of stress when reaching for a card from one of the high risk decks!   As signs of stress began to increase, the participants started to draw more frequently from the low risk decks.  The most interesting observation about these findings is that the participants began to have a preconscious feel for the game 40 cards before they consciously recognized what was happening and 70 cards before they could articulate the reasons why.

This experiment illustrates an experience that occurs on three different levels: 1) subconscious and automatic reactions, 2) deliberate planning and action, and 3) reflective thinking.  These three levels correspond with a model created by the brilliant cognitive scientist and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky.  Along with Seymour Papert, Minksy has developed a modular theory of the mind (called “The Society of Mind“) that attempts to explain how intelligence can emerge from the interaction of large numbers of non-intelligent agents.  (See:  The Society of Mind and The Emotion Machine).  In essence, the mind can be modeled as the integration of a reactive layer (A-Brain), a deliberative layer (B-Brain), and a reflective layer (C-Brain).  This is illustrated as follows:

A-B-C Brain
  • The A-Brain (Reactive Level) is the only part of the brain that receives signals directly from the external world. The A-Brain continuously predicts what will happen next and compares the signals it receives to these predictions. If there is a significant difference between the prediction and the actual signals, the A-Brain reacts by shifting attention, making muscles move, and/or stimulating systems that affect the person’s level of physical arousal. This A-Brain has no sense for what external events “mean.” It just responds with some combination of instinctual and learned reactions:
    • Instinctual reactions include automatic physical responses to sensations of temperature, hunger, thirst, pain, etc… It includes things like quickly removing your hand from a hot surface or focusing on finding food when you’re hungry.
    • Learned reactions can include everything from jumping out of the way of a moving car, to executing the sort of automatic behavioral scripts involved in driving a car, playing an instrument, making coffee in the morning. Learned reactions also include a wide range of subconscious associations with environmental clues… like the physical stress reaction you have when you hear someone you care about talk to you in “that tone of voice.”
  • The B-Brain (Deliberative Level) is connected in such a way that it can receive signals from the A-Brain and can respond by sending signals to the A-Brain. However, B has no direct connection to the external world. The signals that the B-Brain receives from the A-Brain are often focused on differences between the A-Brain’s predictions and what it sensed in the real world. The B-Brain then interprets what the A-Brain senses but mistakes these interpretations for the real thing. The B-Brain does not realize that what it perceives are not real objects in the external world but are merely events that occur in the A-Brain itself.” In addition, the B-Brain cannot directly perform any physical action on it’s own but it can influence the way A reacts. The B-Brain is responsible for our ability to achieve more complex goals. It applies all sorts of knowledge in order to create and carry out more elaborate plans. This knowledge is accumulated and generalized from personal experience and what we learn from others.
  • The C-Brain (Reflective Level) supervises the B-Brain while the B-Brain is dealing with the A-Brain world. Reflective thinking often begins when our usual strategies start to fail. The brain is able to reformulate and reframe its interpretation of the situation in a way that may lead to more creative and effective strategies. The C-Brain includes several levels of processing:
    • Reflection: The C-Brain reflects on it’s recollection of thoughts in the B-Brain. This includes predictions that turned out wrong, plans that encountered obstacles, and failures to access or apply the knowledge that was needed.
    • Self-Reflection: The C-Brain reflects not only on the thoughts of the B-Brain but on the self that had those thoughts. Self-reflection incorporates our model of our self with our model of the external world. For example, a person might recognize that, in the course of doing something, he’s stuck or confused. This may lead them him to recognize that: his plans have gone off track, he’s paying attention to too many details, or he’s pursuing a goal that could be revised. This self-reflection leads to a shift in perspective that allows people to work around obstacles.
    • Self-Conscious Reflection: The C-Brain also reflects on how well our actions match the values, ideals, taboos, and identify we apply to ourselves. In order to do that, the brain must have built models about the kinds of ideas and behavior one ought to have.

The interaction of these three brains creates something that Minsky calls the “Immanence Illusion.”  People have the illusion that their experience is unfolding in real-time because as they processes signals from the outside world, they are also recalling and creating a comprehensive array of predictions about what they will experience.  Whenever a real object appears before their eyes, its full description is instantly available.  “Our sense of momentary mental time is flawed; our vision-agencies begin arousing memories before their own work is fully done.”  Perceptions can evoke our memories so quickly that we can’t distinguish what we’ve seen or heard from what we’ve been led to recollect.

“We don’t see things as they are.  We see things as we are.”  Anais Nin

Implications for Experience Design

The implications for experience design are profound!  At one level, the clues that customers pick up from the experience must be roughly aligned to fit with the way their reactive, A-Brain processes the signals from the world.  At the same time, the most compelling experiences include a small number of clues that are deliberately designed to get the customers’ attention; to create an “orienting response” and shape their reflective, C-Brain.  The trick is to deliberately design an experience that naturally maps to customers’ automatic behavioral reactions while reserving a very small number of salient differences; things we call “Signature Experience Elements.”

The place to start is by understanding customers’ reactive, A-Brain processes.  One of the ways to do this is to map out their Automatic Behavioral Scripts.  These automatic behavioral scripts are like little subroutines that brains execute in a way that enables people to accomplish predictable tasks without thinking too much about them.   If you’re like most people, you have automatic behavioral scripts for tasks like:  driving to work, getting a cup of coffee, going to the bank to make a deposit, etc…  You can accomplish these tasks on “automatic pilot”… allowing you to pay attention to more pressing matters.  So, when you go to the bank branch to make a deposit at lunch, you can be thinking about your meetings this afternoon or what you’ll do this evening.

Unfortunately, most companies do exactly the opposite.  They interrupt their customers’ automatic behavioral scripts.  For example: frequent changes to a travel company’s online storefront interrupts the automatic behavioral scripts of their frequent travelers; or a bank that “greets” customers as they come in to the branch to make a deposit creating a valueless distraction from their customers’ “doing it on automatic pilot” activity and interrupting their train of thought on the six other things that were more of a priority.   In addition, if you’re going to do something different (get the customers’ attention; interrupt their train of thought; create an “orienting response”), you’d better make it good!  Most companies have a hard time being creative and focused on the small set of things that will actually make a difference to customers… and be consistent with a differentiated brand story.  So, as a result, the actual experience customers have with many companies can be summarized as varying degrees of being difficult to do business with.

Beyond fitting with the customers’ reactive, A-Brain processes, the next challenge is to create a small number of Signature Experience Elements that get the customers’ attention and are aligned to tell a story that works with how they make decisions (deliberative, B-Brain process) and consider the meaning of the experiences they have (reflective, C-Brain process).  For example, Whole Foods Market has a small number of signature experience elements that reinforce their “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet” positioning and are perceived by customers’ as a difference in kind.  These include:  organic food, artful food presentation, local growers, educational signage, novelty seeking selection, and premium pricing.

For the past several years, we’ve been working with clients on designing a small set of “Signature Experience Elements” that customers will perceive as a “difference in kind” and that fit with the overarching purpose of the organization.  Typically we design to no more than 5-7 Signature Elements that are aligned with the purpose or story the experience is trying to tell.  Another client example is a major jewelry store chain, whose brand story is “The Perfect Gift, Guaranteed.”  This company’s signature elements included:  a distinctive welcome, creative and consultative gift advice, coaching the customer on how to romance the gift, and a wow process for returns.  Each of these signature elements was designed to get the customers attention and contribute to them really internalizing the desired brand story.


One response to “Experiential Processing: Designing for Reactive, Deliberative, and Reflective Experiences

  1. Pingback: Roadmap to the Customer Innovations Blog « Customer Innovations - Driving Profitable Growth

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