An Evolving Interactive Mind

Though not proven, it’s pretty clear the mind isn’t entirely capable of understanding itself. I’m reminded of this nearly every day when I can’t get past my front door without forgetting my keys.

When we venture into things we’ve never done before, how do we know our minds can overcome so many obstacles? Are we mentally capable of creating an experiential approach to brands online? That thought crosses my mind, and the minds of my staff, many times a day. Every day, in fact.

When it comes to creating interactive experiences through advertising or through Web site experiences, there seems to be a lot of potential for success. Yet our ability to succeed is dependent on an ever-evolving factor: the user.

“User” is still a new concept for brand marketers, at least in the online sense. The fact people use a product was the only thing that mattered in the old world of marketing. Now, online allows the idea of using a brand or product to take on a whole new meaning.

This is where we start to fall down. Not only are users a factor, but the people who approve experiential Web sites (clients, you know who you are) have to leap over a few old hurdles in their rationalization process.

What mechanics are we dealing with? How do we know creators, approvers, and users of this new medium are equipped to handle all this new stuff?

I’m no scientist, but there are a few basic things I can be sure of when deciding how to create an experience. Our brains receive and respond to all sorts of stimuli. However, we’re only consciously aware of the information we’re focusing on. The way it’s perceived is influenced by many factors, including our prior experiences, cultural biases, and latent emotional responses.

So how do we design an experience, albeit a simulated one, online that can resonate with an audience? Is it possible? Or are we trying to go too far in creating an externalization of the human experience?

First, let’s look at how an experience comes into being and a few examples of how we can get around this human problem.

An experience is a moment in time. Experiential design wrestles with the relationship between events and experiences, and how this complex relationship develops and evolves over time.

That sounds pretty simple, so why is it such a struggle to develop an online version of this kind of thing?

As far as experiences go, we have a great reference point: time. Time is the motor that drives a user from experience to experience. TV, online video, and software games are all designed with time in mind, albeit in a linear fashion.

So how come offline agencies, with some of the best creative minds in the business, can’t seem to grasp interactive’s nonlinear nature? I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to and are happy creating one-dimensional experiences that do a great job of reinforcing a brand while ignoring the user.

If you think about it, an interactive, experiential design isn’t like one TV spot. It’s more like a few years of TV spots woven together into a Web site.

Here’s where the nonlinear lingo comes in. As far as interactive designers are concerned, it’s the key factor that makes designing experiences so difficult.

Let’s not even talk about budgets. If I walked into my client’s office and said the best Web site or online ad they can design will cost as much as their most expensive TV spot (plus tax), I’d be in for a big, old “no, thank you.”

If you haven’t seen it, the new Philips Bodygroom site for the timid man who’s unable to deal with the hairier parts of his anatomy is a glimpse of how, through humor, we can begin to make a brand experiential. (The site was created by my very talented brethren in our NY office.)

So here’s a beginning. A beginning in taking the online experience through the clever use of video and a touchy subject, adding a dash of wit, satire, and, oh yes, information to make a memorable experience in time.

Nowadays, what’s new is old. But in the world of interactive experience, we’re just beginning the journey, one that will test all our learned sensibilities and will make us question how the best marketing brains can think a little bit ahead of the latest experience.

Me, I’m waiting for the Web site that can make you cry. I’ve got my hanky ready.

Meet Dorian at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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