Are you experienced?

Experience design is the ‘user led design of products and services’ – but how can it help museums and heritage organisations integrate, improve and innovate? We spoke to Alison Pearce of the National Trust to find out more.

In the National Trust experience design refers to an audience led approach to planning investment and change – an interpretation of the concept developed in 2011 explains Alison, who leads on experience design for the Trust.

“At that point, we had no real way to integrate our approaches to audience development, property presentation and interpretation design, retail and catering investment, and visitor infrastructure projects . . . yet all these things make up the experience.”

“Also visitor numbers were growing so we were investing more and more in infrastructure – such as visitor reception buildings and car parks, but we needed an approach which enabled us to better future proof these investments. This prompted us to think about how we approach things more holistically. Our head of visitor experience at the time sought to learn from other organisations and sectors – for example more market-led masterplanning that you might see in a commercial visitor attraction, architect-led spatial masterplanning and the more familiar interpretive planning. This led to the basic premise that when designing our future experiences, we simultaneously look through four lenses:

Audience – Who are our current, and potential audiences? What do they want and need from the places that we care for? How many people can we feasibly accommodate in our places without detracting from what’s special about that place?

Proposition – Drawing on what people want and need, but simultaneously thinking about what’s significant, what’s special about our places, what purpose do they need to serve? What proposition best delivers that purpose? And what are the components of that proposition?

Business model – How do we ensure financial sustainability? What’s the income model?

Space – What’s the visitor journey? How do the components of the experience and the infrastructure come together? Are we alleviating pinch points? Are we making sure that we are giving those who come to our properties access to the best bits?”

The Trust has an equally innovative staffing approach to support this way of thinking too, harnessing networks as opposed to teams.

“We’ve recognised that to do integrated thinking really well requires a specific skill set. So, we’ve developed a profile of the skills and expertise required to effectively lead this area of work and identified people across the organisation who have those skills. We supported their development, and then essentially matched people with priority projects.”

The process is split into three stages explains Alison.

“We start with an analysis and diagnostic stage, really getting under the skin of a place, what makes it special, the current operation and experience, the audience and the potential. On the back of that we determine what the future ambition is.

The second stage is then about generating ideas and exploring options: what are the changes and investments we need to make to realise the ambition, what’s the to-do list?

And then the third stage is implementation planning. How are we going to do this? In what order? How are we going to fund it ? How long is it going to take? Who needs to be involved?”

“So, our approach is basically about looking at a place through those four lenses as you work through those different stages.”

For Alison, drawing out the value of experience design is ultimately about people: getting the right people with the right expertise around the table at the right time, and having great conversations to maximise the benefit of the places that we care for.