If you were doing one single thing for the rest of your life, wouldn't you want to get good at it? Wouldn't you want to understand it? I've asked myself this a lot and I believe it's a worthwhile investment to spend some time and effort in understanding and getting better at the one thing I do every day: Having experience. Because I am, above all, an experiencer; and you are, too. Being an experiencer is not a choice, it is the role we are all assigned at birth. I started touching on this notion in Experiential Value:
"We are eminently experiential beings, parts of reality that are capable of experience. But being capable of experience is not what sets mankind apart, there are plenty of other experiential beings on earth. What really makes us special is that we are also aware of it, an awareness not only of our current experience, but also of the experiences we had in the past and the ones we may have in the future. It is this heightened awareness which allows us to assess our experience in a way that no other being known to us can."
We are all aware of our experience at some degree. How else would we choose what to do or not to do? However, to become a good experiencer it is essential to achieve a higher awareness of your experience, it involves becoming aware of your experience as such. I want to emphasize this because it requires nontrivial effort. Many people think of experience as something they have when they go to a concert or on a camping trip, but not what they have while they are typing e-mails at work or while they are stuck on traffic. It is also easier to think of moments already lived or future activities as experiences and forget that experience is what you're having right now. Thinking of your experience as such is tricky because you are fully immersed in it, making it hard to think about it the way you think of, say, a film or a theater performance.
Taking things for granted is a popular pitfall, but also one you can't afford when it comes to your experience. You can't afford to be oblivious to your experience because it is, truly, the only thing you have. Look at your hands, look around you, look up to the sky. Your experience is as immediate and real as things get for you. Yet, unless we encounter something out of the ordinary, experiencing reality sometimes feels mundane. Because our experience is "always on", it can become so familiar enough to us to forget how special it is. But if you're reading these words, I'd like you to start thinking of experience as a gift, and a very special one. It gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless world. It makes the world "feel like something". It makes us feel like "us". Experience is strange and unique because it brings things into felt reality.
To experience is to feel
To experience reality is to have reality "feel like something" to you. Consider that for a moment: To have experience is to feel. At the most fundamental level, to feel is to make a distinction. Making a distinction, of course, implies there being something to distinguish from. In other words, feeling requires perceptible differences. If to feel is to make distinctions among perceptible differences, the result of feeling is categorization. Categorization necessitates, at the minimum, two categories (e.g., black/white, yes/no, something/nothing, positive/negative). At a very primordial level, this is what experiencing is about, to have reality feel one way or another to you.
In animals, this rudimentary, one-dimensional feeling has a name. It is known as affect and we can appreciate it in our own experience when we find something "pleasant" or "unpleasant". Affect is the primary way in which the environment feels like something to us, it is the way it "affects" us. We share affect with the rest of the animal kingdom because being capable of affect has great adaptive value, i.e., it allows us to adapt to our environment. Psychologist Robert Zajonc (University of Michigan) illustrated this point in his influential 1980 paper "Feeling and Thinking":
"Affect is the first link in the evolution of complex adaptive functions that eventually differentiated animals from plants. And unlike language or cognition, affective responsiveness is universal among the animal species. A rabbit confronted by a snake has no time to consider all the perceivable attributes of the snake in the hope that he might be able to infer from them the likelihood of the snake's attack, the timing of the attack, or its direction. The rabbit cannot stop to contemplate the length of the snake's fangs of the geometry of its markings. If the rabbit is to escape, the action must be undertaken long before the completion of even a simple cognitive process — before, in fact, the rabbit has fully established and verifies that a nearby movement might reveal a snake in all its coiled glory. The decision to run must be made on the basis of minimal cognitive engagement." (p. 156)
To the rabbit, confronting the snake feels like something. The rabbit's affective response makes the situation feel like "something to run away from", it turns it into some kind of cost to be avoided. Human affect does something similar, it makes situations either costly to endure or rewarding to have. Affect, in a way, turns experience into a cost function, but one that you can feel. I want to stress that. A cost function takes some input and returns a value that somehow represents the cost or reward associated to the input. The higher the absolute value of it is, the higher the cost or the reward obtained. Similarly, the cost function of your experience takes the situation you are living as input but, instead of returning a value, it returns a feeling. This feeling, or affect, can be costly or rewarding to have and constitutes a primary appraisal of the experience you are having.
Affect is compelling
Although affect may feel like a one-dimensional feeling, it's a strangely complex phenomenon. We don't have any definitive theory for it, but any serious account of affect will tell you how our affective responses are not only a function of the situation being experienced, but also of our moods, our memory of past events, and our cognitive history.
If we take a closer look into affect [note: you can do it through introspection], there are two components of it that are easy to identify. We already introduced the first one, it is how "pleasant" or "unpleasant" the situation feels to you; psychologists call it valence. The second one, less evident but still very salient, is a feeling of how much the situation is "drawing you in" or "pushing you out"; psychologists call it motivational intensity. Because it has made it easier for me to understand it, I think of motivational intensity as if it were some type of "appetite"; in other words, the situation you are living is either appetitive or unappetitive to you. With these two component feelings, pleasantness and appetitiveness, we can build an elementary (yet highly useful) model of affect:
The model describes the affective response elicited by a situation in terms of two feelings: 1) Pleasant-unpleasant (on the X-axis above) and 2) appettitive-unappetitive (on the Y-axis above). An affective response is the combination of these two feelings. When the affective response passes a certain threshold (see the circle in the figure above), the affective response compels us to elicit behavior to either engage or disengage the situation (see the "engagement" and "disengagement" zones above). Similarly, there are situations where the affective response is simply not intense enough to compel us into action (see the central zone in the figure above).
The pleasantness and the appettitiveness of a situation usually point in the same direction, i.e., we typically have an appetite for things that give us pleasant feelings (e.g., a slice of pizza) and are typically repelled by things that give us unpleasant ones (e.g., a cockroach). However, you can see that they are actually independent dimensions of affect by considering situations that you may exhibit an appetite for, yet they are unpleasant to experience. For example, if you have ever witnessed a bad car accident, you may notice how —despite it being an horrible incident— some people are drawn to watch it; maybe even yourself. For better or for worse, some of the situations we live have a compelling character that makes us feel like actively engaging them or disengaging them (see "engagement zone" in the figure above).
Because all experience is accompanied by an affective response and because this response is an embodied feeling of cost/reward, we are compelled to optimize our experience and keep it personally acceptable. We literally feel the consequences of not doing so in your own skins. The more intense our affective response is, the more we are motivated to engage or disengage the situation. Using our behavior, we constantly vote on whether the situations we live are worth having or if they are experientially costly.
Experiential costs take away from your experience
It is after this brief discussion on affect that I would like to formally introduce the concept of experiential costs, a term that I have used frequently in past discussions but I hand't touched on particularly. An experiential cost is anything that detracts from the experience that you're having in the moment, anything that makes the situation you are living less valuable. In different words, an experiential cost is an experience that you appraise as "costly" or "burdensome". If you hadn’t heard the term experiential costs before, it is because we usually talk about them using metaphors. We don't go to a friend and say we went through an experientially costly situation. Instead, we describe situations as painful, irritating, or uncomfortable.
Generally speaking, if you find the situation you are experiencing somehow unpleasant and/or unappetitive, you are dealing with experiential costs. You can also think of them as "disagreements" with your experience. When you are not in whole agreement with the situation you are living at any given moment, you are enduring an experiential cost in some form. The way human experience works makes it so that a situation may be rewarding as a whole despite containing elements that cause negative affect. When we are able to identify them, these elements become targets that we may selectively engage or disengage to optimize our experience.
We encounter experiential costs practically every day and along every step of the way. At home, they may come in the form of chores like doing laundry or taking out the trash. On the street, they may be the impatience you feel while waiting for the light to change or the cringing rumble of a loud motorbike. At school, they may manifest as a tedious lecture or in the form of homework. And at work, it may be having to manually enter data into an Excel spreadsheet or, if you're a more manual worker, it may even be all of the work. Basically, an experiential cost is any experience you may be having but that you would choose not to have if you were given the option.
Removing Experiential Costs = Value
We can create value by giving a person the option of not enduring an experiential cost. We started discussing this idea in Reducing Friction. To explore this idea further, I would like us to think about an experience that may be universally unwanted and relatable: Filing taxes.
The experience of filing taxes is, well, taxing. Even if one sees value in paying taxes after carefully considering its pros and cons, it is not something we can expect people to enjoy or be attracted to. As much as people may embrace taxation, the truth is that we all file taxes under threat of punishment. You may want to eat a hamburger after seeing someone else enjoying one, but chances are you won't outright desire to file your taxes after seeing someone else working on their’s. As an experience, filing taxes is draining and doesn't produce a tangible reward at the personal level, except, maybe, when you are owed a significant return. It is a behavior that is compelled by the government through a negative incentive, not one that you'd produce freely.
But how burdensome is this experience, exactly? According to market research firm IBIS World, the Tax Preparation industry in the United States booked USD $10.8 billion in revenues during 2019.
In other words, Americans decided it was worth it to collectively pay billions to use tax-filing software or to have someone prepare their taxes for them instead of dealing with the process directly. By helping people fill out the infamous US tax form 1040, firms and individuals in the Tax Preparation industry generated close to USD $1.9 billion in profits in 2019. They created value by offering people a better version experience.
Just like in our tax filing example, value can be created by helping people deal with any other situation they find experientially costly. People simply exhibit a willingness to pay for options to mitigate or avoid experiential costs. The more money they are willing spend —as a share of their wealth and income— to make an experience more bearable or to avoid it entirely, the more experientially costly it is to them [note: Ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber play with this notion very successfully when they set their "dynamic pricing"]. If the situation is common enough, there may even be an opportunity to create value at scale by providing a solution (e.g., a product or a service) that addresses the situation by systematically offering a more pleasant version of the experience. In other words, when an experientially costly situation is common to a group of people, there is an “addressable market” that can be served. The more common and intense the experiential cost is, the bigger the economic opportunity of addressing it.
Needs-Problems / Pain Points-Frictions
Traditional frameworks to identify business opportunities focus on discovering people's problems and/or unmet needs. I would like to show you how "having a need" and "having a problem" are both situations that can be articulated in terms of experiential costs.
Broadly construed, "needing X" could be thought of as a situation in which "not having X" makes the situation experientially costly. You "need X" only to the extent in which "not having X" becomes a problem (e.g., you only need an umbrella if it's raining). Conversely, "having a problem" could be thought of as an experientially costly situation that could be resolved by a missing something, a "solution". This solution is typically the product or service that can be developed and marketed to the people experiencing the problem.
In addition to needs and problems, traditional frameworks may also look for "paint points" that a user or customer may be experiencing along their journey to achieve a personal or business goal. For example, a bank customer looking to make a cash deposit may have to wait in line to be offered service. Pain points are, as you may now be aware, another metaphor for experiential costs. However, the metaphor is useful to refer to experiential costs that are not intense enough to compel users or customers to stop achieving their goals. Paint points simply cause "pain" along the way.
The world of human centered design offers us one more useful metaphor to think about experiential costs: Thinking of them as frictions. In the natural sciences, friction is a concept that refers to the resistance to motion of a mass, usually derived from the rubbing of one body with another. In mechanical systems (e.g., internal combustion engines) the presence of friction reduces efficiency. The term friction is similarly used in the field of UX to refer to inefficiencies in the interaction with a product or digital interface. Anna Cox, professor of human-computer interaction at University College London, calls frictions "points of difficulty encountered during users’ interaction with a technology". Similarly, this notion can be generally applied to the experiences that individuals have while trying to achieve a goal. From my essay Journeys and Destinations:
"Expecting significant costs or encountering them along the way can make us think twice if the journey is worth it, sometimes to the point of convincing us that it is not. We can also see these costs as frictions, experiential burdens or inefficiencies that, just like mechanical friction, hold us back and make us spend additional time and resources before we achieve our goal."
I personally find the metaphor of experiential costs as frictions very compelling. It is just easy to relate with. If you want to read more about it, I try to flesh out the value of this idea in Understanding Friction.
Experiential Costs as Media and Engagement
We can use the concepts of media and engagement to explore the notion of experiential costs further. In Creation & Consumption, I discussed how every experienced situation can be deconstructed as a combination of media and engagement:
"We can think of media and engagement as the ingredients of perceived reality (if there were any other reality). Media that is not engaged is not experienced and, in the absence of media, there is nothing to experience."
With this in mind, we can say that any situation that is built with at least some unwanted media and/or some unwanted engagement is experientially costly in some regard. In other words, you are enduring an experiential cost if the situation you are living is:
- Exposing you to unwanted media (e.g., a situation where you are forced to see an advertisement without your consent).
- Exposing you to unwanted engagement (e.g., a situation where you are finding it hard to sleep because of the party next door).
- Compelling you to engage in a way you would prefer not to engage (e.g., a situation where you are receiving poor service at a restaurant and you are compelled to ask to see the manager).
- Any combination of the three scenarios above.
However, as we elaborated while discussing needs and problems (on the section above), we may also endure an experiential cost when we are missing something. In other words, you can also endure an experiential cost when the situation you are living is:
- Depriving you of wanted media (e.g., a situation where it starts raining and you wish you had an umbrella).
- Depriving you of wanted engagement (e.g., a situation where a party is not lively enough to be entertaining).
- Not letting you engage in a way you would prefer to engage (e.g., a situation where your car is not starting).
- Any combination of the three scenarios above.
Opportunity Costs are Experiential
Thinking of media and engagement that are wanted but missing can help us make the connection between experiential costs and another very traditional concept, that of opportunity costs.
By devoting ourselves to any one course of action —to any course of experience— we necessarily give up the opportunity of doing certain other things which would also yield us some value. The forgone value of any such decision is known as opportunity cost. Everyone is familiar with the burden that sacrificing an opportunity to have a valuable experience imposes on the mind, the burden of wondering if we made the right choice. On occasion, it may even feel as regret. Even the forward-looking thought of forgoing a valuable experience is capable of burdening our minds, a feeling colloquially known as "fear of missing out" or "FOMO". Because opportunity costs find their origin in experiences wanted but forgone, it is only natural to say that opportunity costs are experiential in nature. Because if you cannot feel the cost, does it matter? As every other cost, opportunity costs only make sense from an experiential stand point.
Experiential Costs can be solved for
Perhaps, one last idea to share is that there is a always a solution to any experientially costly situation we may encounter. This solution is a combination of media and engagement that is missing in the situation but that, if found, can mitigate or nullify the experiential cost we are living. Sometimes, what is missing is something trivial like a toy, a product, or a service; some other times, it is of more transcendence, like a place we are fond of or the presence of a loved one. Sometimes what is missing will be conveniently within reach; some other times, we have to fight for it; and yet some other times, it is simply gone forever.
The good experiencer understands this. The good experiencer knows when the situation at hand is experientially costly. The good experiencer is feeling-aware. But beyond that, the good experiencer knows when the feeling is something to be dealt with or something to be embraced.
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