Experience design and why it matters for your school

Let’s start by thinking about the IKEA hotdog.

There is a very specific reason why an internationally renowned home furnishings store offers one-dollar hotdogs before you exit the store, and it has to do with experience design. Someone somewhere sat down and intentionally designed a small moment of delight for IKEA customers — the joy of eating an unexpectedly low-cost snack at the end of a long trip around the store — that ultimately reframes how the overall experience of going to IKEA on a busy Saturday afternoon feels.

The impact of experience design is all around us. It is the reason why our supermarket lays out food beginning with fruit and vegetables, why the barista writes our name on a cup of coffee and even why the team in your local Apple store wear blue t-shirts and are called Genius.

It is also the reason why, somewhere in California, there is a rather mediocre hotel — the Magic Castle Hotel — that, despite its somewhat shabby appearance, is booked up for months in advance. You see, in this hotel, someone once woke up and intentionally designed another moment of delight: the Popsicle Hotline.

The Popsicle Hotline is a red phone that sits a few metres away from the hotel’s swimming pool and it has a single purpose. Hotel guests, young and old, can call up someone at the other end of the line, order a popsicle and, a few minutes later, have their order delivered on a silver platter, free of charge, to their seat by the pool.

So, if IKEA is selling dollar hotdogs and the Magic Castle Hotel has a Popsicle Hotline, what are the intentionally designed experiences that we are offering families as they journey through our schools?

Admissions as a moment that matters

After a long time in the school business at the International School of Brussels (ISB), we realised a few years ago that, for many families, the experience of school admissions is not unlike the endless aisles of overwhelming choice, queues, payment options and the eventual frustration of finding out that the item (school) they want is no longer in stock.

So, we set out to intentionally design it differently by asking ourselves a series of hard questions:

  • What if we viewed the admission process as a learning opportunity for families?
  • What if we reconfigured the admissions office as a classroom?
  • What if we started ‘framing’ what families see when they go on tour?
  • What if we got better at understanding how our brains work and how people make choices when deciding on a new school?

Over the past five years, these four questions have literally transformed every aspect of the admissions experience at ISB. Today we have a truly unique, interactive experience in which each member of the visiting family is engaged in a learning experience rather than being bombarded with endless pieces of information about our school.

The ISB Experience Room

Imagine you are watching a family enter the admissions office at the International School of Brussels. Apart from the design of the space, one of the things that will strike you when you visit the school is that the conversation is focused more on questions than answers (such as endless facts and figures about the school) in order to give the family time and space to reflect on whether this is the right school for them or their children.

It also provides the family with an opportunity to learn through play. So, they are encouraged to move around the room and, at one point, stand in front of a large interactive screen. The screen has 24 tiles on it. Each tile is something that might be important to them when choosing a school — friends, playground, academic results, teachers and so on. Each member of the family is invited to select a tile and identify what’s important to them. Everyone gets a vote.

Part two of the game is that the family is then asked to consider all the tiles that have been chosen and put them into priority order. So even if Dad has chosen ‘tuition fees’ as an important factor, he may find himself in a conversation with his nine year old daughter who has selected ‘friends’.

Of course, there are no right answers. The point is that the family is having a conversation they haven’t had before — and every member of the family has something to contribute. The point is also that the family is having an experience that is likely going to stick and frame their memory of visiting our school.

Getting started with experience design

In their book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (Simon & Schuster, 2017), Chip and Dan Heath take us to the Magic Castle Hotel alongside dozens of other examples, and unpack for us exactly how these experiences have been designed. Three lessons in particular stand out and may help us to get started in our own schools.

First, start by getting the basics right. Going back to the Magic Castle Hotel, the authors rightly argue that the impact of the Popsicle Hotline would be significantly reduced if the hotel was unable to provide hot water, comfortable beds and an efficient means of checking in. Delighting your guests, they explain, is an unattainable goal until you provide the basics. Which makes me stop and wonder for a second whether we are even clear on what these basics are for the families visiting our school.

Second, design your experiences around people who already like you, rather than those who are yet to be convinced. It is said that companies typically spend 80 percent of their resources trying to improve the experience of seriously unhappy customers. Heath and Heath believe that this, far from being a strategic investment, is madness. Instead, they argue that we should spend our time elevating the experience of those who are already feeling positive about us and what we offer. Which makes me stop and wonder for a second whether most of us are giving far too much attention to families who do not, and will never, share the pedagogical beliefs and values of our school.

Third, have the courage to break the script. In business terms, the script refers to our expectations of a stereotypical experience. When we go to a restaurant, we know the deal. We know the way it works and what to expect. So, one of the best ways of designing a memorable experience for someone is to surprise them simply by doing something they don’t expect. After all, the Heaths explain, familiarity and memorability are often at odds. Which makes me stop and wonder for a second whether the experience of admissions at my school is in any way different from every other school that a prospective family has ever visited. What will make us different?

There is a rule in psychology called the ‘peak-end rule’. It describes how people look back and remember past experiences based on the peaks (emotionally intense experiences that occur naturally or by design) and how things end. The owners of the Magic Castle Hotel and the designers at IKEA appear to have understood this rule and the importance of well-designed experiences. Experiences that build on the basics, focus on those who are already ‘promoters’ and create surprise in moments of sheer delight.

It is perhaps time those of us responsible for school admissions came up with the equivalent of a Popsicle Hotline for the families visiting our schools.

insight applied

  • Parent experiences should be intentionally designed.
  • You must be meeting basic expectations first.
  • Design experience for those who are already your fans.
  • Be prepared to step outside the normal experience.

Dr David Willows is the Director of Advancement at The International School of Brussels, Belgium, and the Co-founder and Strategic Director of [YELLOW CAR], helping schools stand out by intentionally designing the experience of school. For more information about [YELLOW CAR], visit yellowcar.io

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