From Prototypes to Performance

17 Mar 2013

Part 3: The Royal Exchange Theatre ‘Family Experience Programme’

This is the final part of a series of three blogs looking at the value of Audience Experience Design using a case study at the Royal Exchange Theatre (RXT) in Manchester. If you want to get up to speed, please click for Part 1: Focusing on the Blind Spot and Part 2: The Art of Possibility

For the rest of you, welcome back.

We’ve reached the exciting stage where, armed with a set of prototypes, pared down from a wonderful cornucopia of ideas, the cloth cut to fit the budget, we then tested 3D prototypes with an invited group of families, including dressing up in real theatrical costumes, 'trail testing' around the buidling, sample food and craft activities.

Given the prompt “You’re testing us, we’re not testing you”, and thus empowered, the families threw themselves into the task and delivered funny, insightful and incredibly useful feedback to help us hone the offer. A positive brand touch point in its own right!

Fast forward a few weeks, and with all the family feedback taken on board, it was all up and running: digital marketing to encourage families to come earlier; front line staff more attuned to the needs and wants of a family audience; a broader catering offer at different price points, and a new temporary Food Emporium to mitigate queuing pre-show and during the interval.

The one selected flagship idea taken forward wasThe Rat’s Lair. Here, the ground floor Education Lounge was refashioned into an unexpected dedicated family area. Designed by the team and built by a freelance technician, it was an atmospheric space that truly combined ‘artistry with magic’, as per the Experience Plan. Lavishly decorated - in a tatty, gothic kind of way -  to looked like a rat’s den. Inside, there were dressing up activities, stand alone craft activities, comfy sofas, a wall of rat’s cages housing fake rats for the ‘Yeugh factor’ , and a stash of Family Welcome Trails to take people on an adventure around the building. It was less than we had imagined in our flights of informed-fancy, but it delivered.

You can have a peek at the prototyping session and The Rat's Lair here.

Observational research during the run of the show revealed a broad range of positive and creative family interactions in The Rat’s Lair:

Ÿ- autonomous and collaborative play,

Ÿ- individual and shared discovery,

- Ÿvisible surprise, delight, happiness, enjoyment and pleasure,

- Ÿdressing up, twirling, posing, smiling, showing off, taking photos,

- Ÿimaginative play and role play,

Ÿ- creative and focused craft activity,

Ÿ- active kids and relaxed parents,

Ÿ- comfort and ease,

- Ÿplenty of ‘Yeugh’!

In order to fully appreciate the importance of these observable behaviours they need to be contextualised. At a time in the customer journey when most theatres are focus on satisfactory customer care, generating income (food, programmes, merchandise) and getting people in and out of the auditorium safely, this modest project delivered a rich experience akin to those crafted by enlightened museum/gallery curators and educators. It took the theatre customer experience to new heights in a way that was specific, intended and crafted.

A basic on-line audience experience survey revealed predominantly higher ‘satisfaction’ ratings with facilities and services than previous shows. The Rat’s Lair scored higher than in its previous guise as the Education Room and was the highest ranked facility in the building. Audience members gave their experience the highest overall visitor star rating compared to previous shows. Had we the resource to conduct face-to-face research, we may have discovered additional experiential benefits that we had not planned for and thus built on, or ‘pain points’ we hadn’t anticipated that we could have learnt from.

The feedback we did obtain however compellingly demonstrates the largely untapped potential of our theatre buildings to enrich, engage and entertain audiences beyond the stage. At the internal staff de-brief, an exciting range of ideas was mooted that would further lever the RXT Brand Experience as a unique producing house that could connect with audiences and building visitors in previously unimagined ways.

Looking at the Family Experience programme through a different lens, this was a small project that punched above its weight when measured by a number of inclusive innovation criteria:

1. The theatre building is re-imagined as a site for richer audience engagement. The stage and Front of House are both exciting spaces.

2. The creative intervention must have an astute focus on the audience/brand experience.

3. Permission to play must be granted and made explicit.

4. The ‘design playground’ is non-hierarchical. Creative and core staff at all levels have equally valid creative contributions to make.

5. Team-led user prototyping is core, mitigating expensive ‘flops’ and engaging customers.

6. Selections are democratic, informed by specific experiential objectives with specific personas in mind.

7. Success is evaluated against experiential KPIs agreed by the team.

It became clear from staff feedback that this one-off project has dropped a depth-charge into the thinking of the RXT. I am excited to see how they take the learning forward, not just in relation to the audience experience offer, but also in how they work together in the future towards of a shared vision of that offer.

The focus of this project was quite narrow and time specific. Imagine now if it were adopted as a holistic programme of work where you widened your bandwidth to look at all your customer interfaces and stakeholder groups? Imagine if one of your core strategic objectives were to align audience delight with Brand Experience? Imagine if you had a central Audience Experience Plan designed to build brand strength, sharpen competitive advantage, generate revenue and drive audience acquisition, retention and loyalty.

Now wouldn’t that be a hugely rewarding (and strategically important) design playground to play in … anyone want to come play?

The Art of Possibility

13 Mar 2013

Part 2: The Royal Exchange Theatre ‘Family Experience Programme’

This is Part 2 of a series of 3 blogs looking at the value of Audience Experience Design using a case study at the Royal Exchange Theatre (RXT) in Manchester. If you want to get up to speed, please click here for Part 1: Focusing on the Blind Spot.

For the rest of you, welcome back.

I’ve called Part 2 ‘The Art of Possibility’ because one of the biggest challenges I encounter when working with mainstream, building-based arts organisations is individual and group thinking that has become stuck. Whilst there may be plenty of creative, imaginative input into what goes on stage, many other areas of the audience experience offer has improved incrementally at best – and most often remains unconsidered. Moreover, employees (who are custodians of the theatre) satisfy themselves with managing and maintaining the status quo because that is the path of least resistance.

The capacity to re-imagine, experiment and take risk beyond the limits of the stage has been undermined by the many economic, managerial, policy and societal challenges facing the arts today. We need to re-acquaint ourselves with the art of possibility for its own sake, regardless of do-ability. Without imagination and disruptive thinking to keep our offer fresh, appealing and relevant we run the risk of being blindsided by other sectors that do.

So … back to the programme. 

Having reached the point of developing a Family Experience Plan, with clear, aspirational objectives, we needed to undergo four specific processes (based on the principles of Design Thinking) to realise the plan:

1: Optimise what we already have.

2: Innovate and create new platforms for value delivery.

3: Prototype, test, refine and deliver.

4: Evaluate and learn.

1. Optimise what we already have

Customer Journey Mapping revealed areas of mediocre performance (satisfaction points), unacceptable performance (pain points) and ‘hugs’ (delight points). All of these needed optimising. Ideas included:

ŸQueue busting: more service points for buying refreshments, a safe place for families to relax whilst one family member became the ‘go-for’ and a walking sweet shop that approached customers rather than expecting them to queue at a static sales point.

ŸSafety and security: a policy where no child is allowed to exit the building unaccompanied, and a dedicated meet up point for lost children.

ŸWelcome: a personal greeting and goodbye at entrances, security guards dressed in friendlier uniforms and character hand puppets for ushers to welcome and interact with children.

ŸAffordability and value-for-money: more varied catering options at different price points together with free activities.

2: Innovate and create new platforms for value delivery

Having optimised the existing offer, we needed to push performance further and think beyond the easy and the obvious. The team needed to cross over into new territory and create additional value, and so I facilitated them through a process of Creative Idea Generation designed to stimulate fresh thinking in answer to the question: In what ways might we deliver on our Family Experience Plan?. This session combined creative thinking games and classic brainstorming with SCAMPER techniques ( in order to unstick the team’s thinking. Over 150 ideas flowed out from this session which were clustered, evaluated and voted on until we landed on the following 7:

ŸProp Shop: a place where families can creatively experience what really happens in a producing theatre,

ŸWardrobe: where families can have fun dressing up, creating and playing characters, again referencing 'theatricality',

ŸScene settings: a series of changeable backdrops where children can role play and act out in costume, more theatricality,

ŸMake a Play: a simple set of dialogue sheets children can mix and match to act out stories, even more theatricality,

ŸRat’s Lair: a chill out zone where families can relax away from the pre-show Front of House busy-ness,

ŸFamily Welcome Trail: a dedicated route where families can discover the building’s unique architecture and history,

ŸFood Emporium: a beautifully designed food service area to help the queue-busting effort and complement the overall brand experience.

These are what I refer to as new service delivery and audience enrichment platforms. These particular ideas provide opportunities for families to experience ‘aliveness’, ‘pleasure’, and ‘creativity’.

The planned interventions also created a unique sense of Brand RXT. Making props, trying on costumes and role playing would connect audiences more fully with the ethos of this creative, artistic, producing theatre. The unique beauty and history of the building would be experienced more fully, directly and intimately via the family trail. Moreover, audiences would also encounter the thrill of discovering which famous faces had ‘trodden the boards’.

Advance marketing would encourage families to arrive earlier, play longer and thus potentially be willing to spend more. The concept of ‘memory making’ was also adopted: creating opportunities for families to take photos of themselves to keep and share with others via social media, thus augmenting awareness of the show and the amplified experience offer.

Then came more ‘fun’ as the team brought their ideas alive. Visual thinking, group dialogue, team challenges, Play Dough modeling and even Snoopy figurines populated a 'design playground' where the team could creatively develop the customer story.  Paper prototypes were made and pitched to members of the Creative and Senior Management Team. Winning ideas were selected and a budget was assigned. Given the time and modest budget available for what was to be a pilot project we had to cut the cloth to fit. That was probably one of the biggest challenges of the whole project given the quality and breadth of the team’s aspirations.

What happened next? Part 3 will follow soon with details of Steps 3 and 4 - what was tested, what was delivered - together with an overview of what we achieved and the value of this approach.

Click here if you'd like to see images from the creative and prototyping worshops.

Focusing on the Blind Spot Part 1: The Royal Exchange Theatre ‘Family Experience Programme’

8 Mar 2013

This series of 3 blogs is about a project I recently delivered at The Royal Exchange Theatre (RXT) in Manchester. It provides a useful example of how to create enhanced audience value using Design Thinking and Experience Design principles … even on a modest scale.

I’ve called Part 1 of the blog Focusing on the Blind Spot’ because, whilst most theatres believe they offer quality customer experiences (through customer care, safeguarding and Health and Safety), they remain ‘blind’ to the riches that are possible.  From my experience in the arts and cultural sector during the past 20 years I've come to the conclusion that the potential of our theatre buildings to create and deliver augmented experiential value over and above what occurs on the stage itself is woefully under-utilised. As a result, our communities are losing out which in turn means the theatres are. Our theatres need to become be vibrant, creative focal points that deliver enriching experiences beyond the performed work and its outer walls.

And so to the programme …

In the Autumn of last year, I was invited by RXT to create and deliver a programme of extended Family Experience Design around their forthcoming production of Rat’s Tales, the venue’s first family Christmas show in a number of years, aimed at people aged from 8 to adulthood.

The aim was deliver a theatre visit that was enriched and extended in unexpected ways, creating a memorable family experience over and above the performance itself with a view to yielding loyalty.  

I worked with a cross-functional team of audience-facing staff - from Operations, Front of House, Retail and Catering to Box Office, Education and Marketing – none of whom had previously worked together on a collaborative project.

Unfolding as a series of internal workshops, the first part of the Family Experience Programme was an exercise in classic Customer Experience Design: developing family personas, touch point analysis, mapping customer interactions and identifying key themes and issues. The perspectives brought to bear from this ‘coal-face’ team were rich and valuable and we unearthed some key areas for consideration:

1. Ÿthe need for families to feel safe, secure and welcome in a potentially confusing building,

2. Ÿthe importance of ‘ease’ in relation to the practical elements of their visit,

3. Ÿthe proliferation of stress points, queuing in particular,

4. Ÿthe desire for autonomy and a sense of belonging whether new to or familiar with the venue,

5. Ÿthe long-term value of creating positive, emotional experiences throughout the customer journey,

7. Ÿthe absence of RXT generated high quality family interactions to enhance an already ‘special night out’,

8. Ÿthe opportunity to contextualise a re-imagined customer experience within a larger RXT Brand Experience.  

As the discussions continued the team began to discover how fragmented and reactive customer care had become and questioned the level at which the customer experience bar had been set.

Is customer ‘satisfaction’ really the goal? How memorable does satisfaction make a venue in the face of increasing competition for people’s time, attention and money? Our aim became ‘customer delight’, and for that to happen we needed to push performance and the team’s collective aspirations far above the original bar.

Key to the growing movement of Customer Experience Management in the commercial sector is the concept of the Experience Plan; a strategic document that redefines all organisational outputs in relation to value-to-customer rather than solely value-to-business, and which informs the total quality management of the whole customer experience at every touch point.

From the perspective of the theatre sector this value does not reside exclusively in the ‘performance’ but in the whole Brand Experience; every customer touch point from ‘first contact’ to the present day. It is this over-arching Brand Experience that we need to conceive, craft and manage in order to push performance. Why? Because without a clear understanding of what our intended experience offer is how can we plan for it? How can we inspire our teams to deliver it? How do we know to what degree we've succeeded? And how can we communicate our value to our stakeholders and communities? 

Returning back to the RXT we created a set of core family personas, empathy-mapped their specific needs, concerns and expectations (from the perspectives of the adult, the child and the group dynamics), and created a Family Audience Experience Plan - a series of intended experiential objectives that would enhance customer value around the specific production of Rat’s Tales. These objectives were:

1. Families should feel well looked after and special

This translated into: a ‘great welcome and a great goodbye’, the anticipation of needs, proactive help and support delivered with ‘the personal touch’.

2. Families need to experience ‘Ahh!’

This translated into: a sense of comfort and respite from the world outside; ease, safety and security.

3. Families regard RXT as ‘for the likes of me’

This translated into: a feeling of belonging, autonomy, and empowerment.

4. Families should experience ‘aliveness’

This translated into: surprise, excitement, pleasure, discovery and anticipation.

5. Families should encounter a unique RXT Brand Experience

This translated into: a fusion of artistry and magic, and enthrallment with the building’s unique  architecture and history.

The RXT Family Experience Statement became our North Pole for everything that followed, keeping us on track and astutely focused on the intended family experience at all times. We rolled up our sleeves and got stuck in; a motivated team of ‘Experience Engineers’ tasked with creating customer delight by focussing on just one particular 'blind spot'

Here some images from the first session. Read what followed in the next installment … 

On Being the Creative Producers of Your Brand

27 Jul 2012

Danny Boyle Olympics

I’ve been thinking about brands recently. It’s something I do often and I always get a kick out of it because brand development is such a creative act.

I recently worked on the brand development for the new National Football Museum. Not the logo. Not the design. Not the guidelines. The brand. Our starting point was re-connecting the team with their passion for football and for museums … and thus their Mission. Then came a process of connecting, understanding, empathising with visitors: their passion, drivers, experiences, aspirations and needs.

What emerged was a detailed Visitor Experience Blueprint; a roadmap that provided the means with which National Football Museum could design differentiated experiences for intended visitors (from die-hard football fans to museum visiting families) that were targeted, relevant, resonant and enjoyable. The Visitor Experience Blueprint served another purpose …

… it became a roadmap for brand.

Taking a step back, my thinking behind this approach was that the arts sector operates in the Experience Economy. Our product therefore is not the ‘art’ per se but people’s experience of it. It follows then that the audience experience is ultimately the brand experience. They are one and the same thing. This is a game changer. Aligning audience and brand experience at the heart of the process at a strategic level creates potential for positive, exciting change at an operational level:

Relevant shared purpose

A focus on brand/audience experience has higher potential to galvanise staff because they are all, in some way, responsible for ‘experience’. Brand becomes professionally relevant for everyone; from Box Office and Fundraising, to Programming and Communications, Engagement and Catering to Retail and Volunteers.

Astute Audience Focus

Rather than messaging the brand (its all about me), the focus changes to shaping brand experiences for audiences that deliver genuine value (its all about you). This brings the audience into the heart of the organisation because everyone is on ‘audience red alert’ as caretakers of their experiences.

The Brand Develops Wings

A fixation on consistency relaxes.  Rather than slavishly adhering to rigid brand guidelines the focus becomes more about managing coherence. Working to a mission-driven, customer-focused experiential blueprint (sorry – that was a mouthful, let’s call it ‘a set of guiding principles’) gives the brand wings because individual staff members have more latitude to shape and deliver tailored experiences to serve the different needs of the audience.

You Become More Creative

Once audience experience is the focus organisational ‘creative juices’ will begin to flow, shifting the culture from compliance to inventiveness. Imagine the injection of energy that would flow from the following core question: “In what ways might we continually deliver the best possible audience experiences to keep our brand fresh and alive?” Rather than being the Brand Police or Guideline Gurus, we all become Creative Producers of the audience experience. Now that, for me, is the most exciting thing of all.

Back to the new National Football Museum, this approach meant – at design stage -  that everyone had their eye on the prize: curators, interpretation specialists, architects, gallery and interactive designers, film makers, marketers, operations and recruitment, retail. Across the whole of the museum there now exists an invisible network of intended experiential threads that will strike a chord, meet the needs of, engage and delight its diverse visitors.Andnow that the museum is up and running each staff member is responsible for delivering on an intended visitor experience that delivers on its brand promise.

Finally … why the picture of Danny Boyle? Well, because today he will be sharing his version of Brand UK by delivering a spectacular global audience experience. I’ll be glued to the set, gunning for him and hoping it lives up to its promise. Just remember, that is similar to what our audiences are thinking whenever they cross our thresholds.


Brand, Experience Design