Experience Envy

One of Live|Work’s contributions to the canon of service design theory is the concept of service envy.

If we want to make people desire services more then products, we have to create services that help people tell each other who they are. Our major challenge is to enable people to express who they are through the use of services instead of through ownership of things.

Putting aside for a moment whether this is a good thing, I’m not sure I can imagine what service envy might feel like. Carrie Chan wrote about creating emotional attachments to services a while back and questioned whether it’s even possible to form an attachment to something that’s not physical in nature.

First class air travel is an example of service envy that most people recognize. But I don’t envy the first class passengers. I always get the impression that they’re on display, like side-show freaks, set out for the masses to gawk at as they board the plane. The last time I flew United, their absurd little red carpet boarding line (located inches from the regular boarding line and merging with it) made me laugh at its dubious exclusivity.

Night clubs are probably a better example of creating a sense of envy around an intangible offering. But night clubs go well beyond the world of service. They’re firmly within the experience realm. They create a palpable sense of exclusiveness by turning away throngs of people at the velvet rope. If we value the experience as a way of telling others who we are then rejection comes at a steep price, as Seth Godin observes:

While people are delighted to be included (and seem to enjoy excluding others), the benefits they feel are dwarfed by the anger and disappointment of those excluded. It’s something that people remember for their entire lives.

Experience envy I can understand. But services by definition never rise to that level. Ubiquitous services certainly don’t inspire envy, but how many can afford to impose artificial exclusiveness?

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