Understanding Experience

Pine and Gilmore’s book The Experience Economy is chock full of helpful frameworks for understanding the concept of experience. Last week I wrote about how they distinguish experiences from other economic offerings. Today I want to focus on their framework for understanding experience itself.

Their Experience Realm framework organizes experiences on two axes according to the level of guest participation (active vs passive) and the connection between the guest and the environment (absorptive vs immersive). This results in four quadrants:

  • Entertainment – Passive events such as attending a concert, a sporting event or the theater
  • Education – Events that require active participation and reflection such as school, college or workshops
  • Escapism – Active and immersive events such as theme parks, casinos, video games or paint ball
  • Esthetic – Passive and reflective events such as viewing natural wonders or attending an art exhibition

For Pine and Gilmore, an experience is a memorable event. The first step toward making an experience memorable is to make it recognizable. The philosopher John Dewey wrote about this process in his classic essay “Having an Experience” (from Art as Experience). Most experiences are what Dewey called inchoate; they’re unfulfilled, with no closure. To elevate an experience from the daily stream of activity that we encounter, that experience needs to be fully formed with a clearly articulated beginning, middle and end.

Think about this in terms of the experiences Pine and Gilmore enumerate. Stage plays have a clearly articulated beginning. The lights dim and the curtain rises. A successful production engages the audience until the end when the cast takes a bow and the audience leaps to their feet in applause. That traditional act brings the experience to a satisfying conclusion.

Well-defined examples are everywhere. The opening tip-off at a basketball game. College graduation. The grand finale of a fireworks exhibition. The Olympics opening ceremonies. The Main Street Electrical Parade. Johnny Carson’s opening monologue. The closing keynote at a conference. The starting pistol. The ending credits. These bookends help define an experience and give it power.

Richard Chase wrote about this phenomenon in HBR in an article entitled Want to Perfect your Company’s Service? Use Behavioral Science. “Ultimately, only one thing really matters in a service encounter—the customer’s perception of what occurred.” It’s entirely possible to shape this perception by how we form the experience. His first recommendation? Finish strong.




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