Reverse Emotional Engineering: 3 tactics for creating intuitive user experience

When you are creating a product (web, program or object) there are a lot of available methods for designing the human interaction and seamless experience of using it. But let’s be real. The vast majority of products in the world are just not all that enjoyable to use. In fact many are down right annoying! So what can you do in the act of creation that will set your product apart? That will make it so freaking amazing that word-of-mouth spreads like wild-fire and people are literally begging for more? That is something I call reverse emotional engineering, which means designing not from how you want someone to feel, but from how you do not want them to feel.

Weird? Crazy? Let me explain. There are many ways to approach designing for human interaction, but I have discovered one method in particular that leads to more obvious and less abstract solutions.

This technique centers around the elimination of three common emotional responses: Frustration, Confusion and Boredom. If at every moment of the consumer experience you can eliminate these experiences – you will have hundreds of millions of sale/consumers/users in a heartbeat – I will literally guarantee that. However, there are very few products in the world that actually achieve this and I have never used one that achieves it perfectly. Human beings are about as complex as they come! It is complicated and difficult to design something people want to use – accepting this idea is the first step! Certainly not as a means of discouragement; it is more of an inspiring challenge and a way of quantifiably evaluating your product.

So let’s get into the nitty-gritty here. Frustration, Confusion and Boredom encompass every type of less-than-positive experience that someone can have using your product (unless of course your product is somehow violent and/or life-threatening). This means, that by taking these three factors into account, even by their most general definition, you will end up with a product that will rock peoples’ worlds.


#1 Frustration
This is a road block. When someone gets frustrated even on a minuscule level, they are going to start looking for or thinking about getting “outta there.” We are dealing with a world of short attention spans and little tolerance for inconvenience. One way to alleviate frustrating moments is the development of super-specific use cases and the ability to master the “curse of knowledge.”

#2 Confusion
Confusion is almost always visual and very often language-based. Frustration is about information and mental models: how to release information, when to release and how much do people already intuitively understand. This is where “frame” and “flow” come into play. Guiding people through an experience, allowing them to discover (creating interest, intrigue and excitement) and consistent understanding (what you want me to do/when you want me to do it). When Confusion occurs, it often leads to “wrong action” on the part of the user. People rarely want to admit to being confused about something, so many times they will make a “best guess” until the frustration sets in and they give up. But, the fact that they had to fail more than once does not result in an ideal experience.

#3 Boredom
This is the theater! The powerful engagement! What makes life worth living!  The avoidance of it I mean. Boredom occurs when you let the engagement drop. If you leave people hanging, they will disengage almost immediately. Getting them back is then a monumental challenge. The best way to approach the elimination of boredom is to view your product like a story or a play that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Letting people feel like they are part of a narrative; there is a motivation, a goal and a reward.

Each one of these emotions can be explored in great detail and there are many solutions. But for now, just keep these three in your mind. Insert them into your understanding. This is a practice in empathy. Go forth and feel!

FLOW! (finally – pillar #3)

Where we left off: “First off, an experience must have a very intentional flow to it; no dead moments, no awkward transitions, no obvious resets or pauses. The “flow experience” has the potential to make life more rich, intense and meaningful. You may be saying “WHOA really?!?” and/or “Yeah, right” – but a truly extraordinary experience has the ability to achieve magic. This process of flow is one of the most important elements in creating that magic.”


Flow is the optimal human experience. It is in-the-zone. It is on-fire. It is contentment, peace and productivity all rolled into one. You know the saying that time flies when you are having fun, well that is flow. This optimal state can be created in any number of ways and in all aspects of our lives, except that most human beings are not exceptionally adept at creating it for themselves.

So now we are all just bummed cause we are probably not one of the few humans who can create this type of productive bliss whenever we want it. But we want it! The key to creating a world that is overflowing with flow is for our environments and experiences to contribute its creation. When you create an intentional, extraordinary experience of flow for other people in the world you exponentially increase your capacity for impact. An experience of flow clears out the mind noise and gives you the kind of intellectual, decision making access you cannot achieve otherwise.

When you eliminate distractions, questions and frustrations, you create mind space. Have you ever experienced one of those days when everything is kind of going wrong, the trains aren’t running, your car breaks down, you have a report due, a big presentation etc and someone asks you to make a simple decision or to listen to their pitch about something – even IF you say yes to trying, you’re not actually paying attention…you’re just waiting for it to end. On the reverse side when you are relaxing on a lazy Saturday, were able to clear your schedule, everything is just moving a little slower you’re decision making power increases exponentially and in FACT you’re desire to encounter interesting information, new opportunities or spontaneous adventures is on high alert!

Imagine applying this concept to your next fundraiser….brand campaign…board meeting….launch party…(mind drift off in flow)

Impact Starts w/ Information (FLOW)

When we are talking about events, experiences or marketing, the pillar of FLOW begins with information. The media, order and density through which information is delivered to your guests is the absolute foundation for creating maximum impact. Your impact is dependent upon how a person experiences your event, which is directly correlated to the number of blocks or moments of mental checkout they experience throughout. This is your event, your product, your reputation – and you are responsible for the experience that people have when they encounter you. So make it intentional.  The goal should be to make every person feel taken care of, supported, safe and entertained – all at the same time and at every single moment (you cannot minimize the number of blocks if you fail to address all of them).

In this context, information refers to every type of communication associated with your event: From the very first invite to the “thank you for coming” and every tiny morsel in between.


Goldilocks Paradox

The amount of information delivered and at what time is KEY. If you provide too little – people are left confused or with annoying questions. You provide too much – cognitive overload – people either get overwhelmed and ignore 3/4 of what you say or just check out and decide not to even deal with you.

Don’t get stingy with the porridge and don’t give the house away!

The Matrix

In what order? This is all about sequencing. Decide what people need to know and when they need to know it. Different from above because this is not about how much information but the exact order of delivery. What information needs to be grouped together in order to make sense? When do people need to know what? How do you make people both feel comfortable and leave an air of mystery or excitement? How to you get people so excited they can’t hardly wait, without violating the Goldilocks Paradox and overloading them with facts? Make sure the most IMPORTANT information is always given first and always stands out. If people don’t know where to go….the rest is basically null and void.

Abandon the Curse of Knowledge and imagine you don’t know anything about your event, what would get you to RSVP?

Through the Looking Glass

Clarity is key. The way that you talk, the words you use, the syntax, the structure – are all sending subliminal signals and are up for interpretation. You may think you have a catchy tagline – and no one knows what it means. You may think your design and typography are brilliant and beautiful – except it’s so busy no one is going to read it. You may think you are delivering a call to action – but you are really asking people to do something without any connection to why they should.

FLOW is complex and requires EMPATHY

UPS or FedEX?

What is your mode of delivery? How many different platforms are you going to use? Note that there should be a legitimate reason for choosing one – not just because that is what most people do. Apply the pillars of Vision and Frame to inform your choices in a way that matches up with the experience of your entire event.

Email. Evite. Postcard. Eventbrite. Text Message. Poster. Facebook. Twitter. Website.

What’s FRAME got to do with it?

Where we left off: The space (frame) you set must create a sense of inevitable action. This is not just about what you see, but in what location and in what order you see it. Giving just enough information to keep people interested, while allowing for an unfolding moment to moment. Your audience is both engaged and excited about what might happen next. There is a very important difference between surprise/anticipation and worry/confusion – don’t be fooled!

The context is decisive.

To be a visionary is not usually equated to a structured, organized and realistic point of view. This is why the second pillar of experience is called Frame. The vision is the driving force behind an experience, it defines the goals, the story and the style (among others). But what leads to the plethora of messy and/or boring experiences in the world is a lack of frame. You can show someone something freaking incredible, but if they do not know the what, the why or the how – they won’t really know what they are looking at it. It most certainly won’t have the impact you were hoping for.

It is kind of like those commercials that show you this cool story or awesome message that you get really into, but then wait until the last three seconds to mention the product they are trying to sell. Prime example of vision without frame. You had no context for what you were watching, so you watched it within the general context of “something on television” and not within the context of the brand you are supposed to connect this too.

Connecting things together after the fact is rather pointless. Why do you think Romeo & Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most performed works? Could it be because the entire context and frame is laid out in advance? Of course it is! No, just kidding. But really, there may be a least a little something to the point.

Framing gives a viewer a context and a structure through which to experience what you create. Without a frame, you are just gonna confuse ‘em. Frame both makes an audience feel safe and taken care of, but it also keeps their attention. When you are within a complete frame, you don’t have anywhere else to look and if you have the content to support it – they won’t even want too.

Every experience is a creation of an alternate reality to whatever extent that is possible given the constraints. You can see frame in everything human beings use as an “escape.” The best framing = the best (movie/play/book/concert). I will bet if you go and watch/read/listen to what you consider to be the worst of those categories, you will unequivocally find a lack of frame. If you find a lack of vision…well they were just doomed to begin with.

Up Next: Order, Information, Engagement

[EXPERIENCE CHALLENGE] What Do You See, How Does It Make You Feel?

The number one, numero uno, most important thing to learn when it comes to experience design is “What do you see, how does it make you feel?” It is foundational to the creation process. Once you have mastered it for yourself, you will begin to master it for others. The ability to anticipate exactly how something will make another person feel is PhD level experience design know-how.


During the day today, I want you to begin to take notice of things that you usually take for granted. The things that are in your life, but that you do not consciously process on a day-to-day basis. (your front door, the color of a wall, a traffic cone). Then REALLY look at it. Notice the color, the shape, the texture, the size, where it is, etc. Describe what you see in your own mind. Not including the “what” that it is, not what you call it. But simply the things  that you see. (i.e. “Hard, brown, metal object that is facing away from me with pictures taped to it)

This answers the question “What do you see?”

Now “How does it make you FEEL?” When you are looking at or are in the presence of what you are seeing,; does it make you feel safe, awkward, nervous, calm, anxious, hostile, loved, content, resentful? Even if you aren’t able to articulate exactly what you are feeling, just take a moment and feel it.

When you have done this entire exercise with 10 different objects in a variety of places, you will start to understand how things affect you. The color of your car impacts you, it is not just there and it is not random. When you are creating a experience, nothing can be random.


I am not going to sugar coat it; this is exceptionally challenging, especially when you first start out. But start to notice how the placement of objects, their color, texture, the meaning they could have for you and how they are used, affect you. Everything in the world affects you in some way, but if we were always, constantly aware of it we wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. That is why an extraordinary experience is magical for most people; they don’t know why it is amazing, but they know it feels/looks/tastes awesome!

VISION : The springboard of experience design

PILLAR #1  This is where we left off last time:

VISION : Pretty simple. What is your vision for this experience? What do you want it to feel like? Look like? Sound like? What should be the first thought that enters your audience/customer’s head in the very first moment? Getting to this type of vision is best achieved through the use of metaphor.
An event without vision is like riding the subway from Tribeca to the Upper East Side; frustrating and lacking connections (<—New Yorker). The vision is the glue that holds the entire experience together. In conjunction with your vision it is also quite helpful to have a goal or a desired result. When you start with the goal, you can create a vision for how to accomplish that goal.

It should go without saying that the clearer your vision the better the results. But I said it anyway:) An experience should be crafted to guide people to exit/leave/depart having gotten what you wanted them to get or done what you wanted them to do. It is simply about creating the intentionality around every moment in a way that leads them through from point A to point Z without question.

Vision can be articulated as:
How do you want the space to feel?
How you want people to feel?
What action do you want to inspire?
What physical outcome do you want to occur?                                                                                                                                                                                             ETC

There are many different levels of vision and if you are going to be as clear as possible you ideally need to address them all:

Level 1: Mega-Vision
This is your overall vision and description of the experience as it exists from beginning to end. This includes both an overall desired result (or outcome) and a figurative description of what it feels like (i.e. a pep rally of dreams, a conference and a carnival, NASA rocket launch).

Level 2: Section Vision
This points to the different parts of an experience that may or may not be directly reflective of the whole. In a consumer store environment there is the entrance, greeting, shopping, deciding, check-out, exit. At an event you have a similar entrance and exit, but there can be any number of different sections to the event that should have their own specific vision and desired result.

Level 3: Moment Vision
A time span of 5 to 60 seconds of impact. The moment when a decision is made, something is revealed, a program is received, a special item is picked up, a person approaching the bar/buffet, a special guest enters, any and all transitions. Each of these should be considered moments and must be intentionally crafted to achieve the extraordinary. (All Moments both inform and are a part of one or more Sections)

You may need to answer only one of the questions above (“vision articulated as:”) or all of them for any given level. But process wise, you should walk yourself through all of the questions to make sure you have an answer if you need it.

One of the greatest tools when it comes to expressing a vision is metaphor. Metaphor helps you both define the undefinable and to be more specific than might be possible through literal speech. A metaphor creates a much clearer picture of what an event or experience will be and it allows you to be more clear about details (before you even know what they are!)

When you say that something IS (blank): It is extremely effective in creating a visual and experiential starting point for a vision versus describing it literally or as “like” something. When you describe a vision literally, you are skipping ahead to the details (i.e. curtains hung from windows, dark, bright or colorful). These are the things that you use to create your vision, but they are not where you should start from. Similes or “like” statements are far less powerful than metaphor, which can be magical in its ability to create something from simply stating that it IS that.

In experience design, vision is quite literally the foundation of everything. You are the director and all other players (space, program, design, colors) must follow that vision. Be careful however, because as the foundation an unclear vision can cause the whole thing to come crumbling down (I enjoy hyperbole, almost as much as metaphor). Be on the look-out for Vision Challenge #1 tomorrow. There are many skills to learn and master if you wish to become a visionary, experience making, wizard. But even if you don’t, I encourage you to stretch your imagination muscles and learn to see the world in a whole new way.


Vision Challenge #1
What Do You See, How Does It Make You Feel?


In my experience – all experiences (especially production-oriented ones) stand upon Five Pillars. These pillars are the foundation on which all events must be designed. If the foundation is partially constructed, left out or brushed over – it stands no chance of reaching the level of greatness to which we all strive. Creating an experience of any kind, is always a reflection of you/your company and is intended to produce a specific result. Even if you are lucky enough to be hiring an event planner to make an experience happen, it is still your job to make sure that each pillar is given the proper attention.

The Five Pillars are Vision, Frame, Flow, Planning and Control.

I give an overview below and will dive into more detail on each in individual entries to follow. Why? Firstly, because I want to give you all of the information that I can express in this medium and if I did that, right here and now – this entry would be the length of a short novel! In the entries that follow I will also give you exercises and challenges to test your skills and awareness of each pillar, so that you can begin putting them into practice. I have never found it useful to simply read a bunch of theory-ish mumbo jumbo: It usually ends up with an “Oh cool. I have no idea how to do that.” That is not the goal! So here we go. Your experience of experience is about to begin…


VISION : Pretty simple. What is your vision for this experience? What do you want it to feel like? Look like? Sound like? What should be the first thought that enters your audience/customer’s head in the very first moment? Getting to this type of vision is best achieved through the use of metaphor (which we will cover in the very next blog!)

FRAME : The space (frame) you set for an experience, must create a sense of inevitable action. This is not just about what you see, but in what location and in what order you see it. Giving just enough information to keep people interested, while allowing for an unfolding moment to moment. Your audience is both engaged and excited about what might happen next. There is a very important difference between surprise/anticipation and worry/confusion – don’t be fooled!

FLOW : First off, an experience must have a very intentional flow to it; no dead moments, no awkward transitions, no obvious resets or pauses. The “flow experience” has the potential to make life more rich, intense and meaningful. You may be saying “WHOA really?!?” and/or “Yeah, right” – but a truly extraordinary experience has the ability to achieve magic. This process of flow is one of the most important elements in creating that magic.

PLANNING : So much more goes into the planning an extraordinary experience than what is commonly included in our general perception. Here are just a few highlights:

  • Logistics, details, supplies
  • Playing detective with your “run-of-show”
  • Anticipating every possible hiccup
  • Moving pieces – Solving the Puzzle
  • Big picture/Little Picture
  • Staff & Volunteer Tracks

CONTROL : Military Precision!

  • People – Crowds, Management & Tasks
  • Emotions – Flow, Frame, Attention “Grab their attention. Hold it. Direct it. Do not let them look away.”
  • Information – Organizing information and the way in which people receive it [both before and during the event – both staff and guests]         “People cannot read your mind. If you want them to do something, it needs to be clear, understandable, SPECIFIC and delivered at the right time.”

There you have it. All Five. It is fully anticipated that right now you have no idea how to weave these pillars together to create a cohesive action plan. Not to worry, the information forthcoming will help smooth out the rough edges and make you an experience master. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below and I will answer them!




Superior, Awesome, Amazing, Extreme Happiness


The design, creation and execution of Dream Day with The Future Project was an inspirational launching point for what would one day become, the Experience Method. I dare you to watch this video and not be moved. In the weeks following, when you hear that the halls of the Future Schools are echoing with talk of Dream Day, dreams, new projects and awesome Future Coaches…you know they did not sit in an auditorium waiting for their name to be called:) That is not how it went down. It was four hours of you are special, you are awesome, you are loved and YOU are going to be GREAT.

The Future Project (New York, New Haven and DC) featuring Dream Directors: John-Michael Parker, Laura Winnick, Tim Shriver, Kleaver Cruz, Shantae Edwards, Maritza Alracon, Christian Shaboo and Frank Brady.

WITH Future Fellows and Future Coaches meeting for the very first time.

THIS is the Extraordinary Experience from which it all begins…

LAUNCHING: Experience Method

Your experience on this planet is a privilege and should be intentionally designed

The Experience Method’s mission is to transform the condition of humanity to a state of widespread aliveness, creativity, freedom and joy, through the ubiquity of extraordinary experiences. The experience of being alive no longer something you simply survive, but a magical place where your needs are met and you move through life with ease.

The foundation of Experience Method is creating a conversation around the intentionality of experience; a commitment to chronic aliveness for all human beings and supporting the intrinsic value of the human spirit. Founder, Megan Janel Zimmer, has made it her own personal mission to create positive, transformative intentionality about the way you experience the world. When you are taken care of, when your needs are being met, when you are not worried/trying to figure out/confused you move through life with ease.

These results are achieved through a commitment to Extraordinary Experiences. We live in a world where almost all of our experiences are mediocre to poor. Mediocrity diminishes our aliveness, it tells us subconsciously, exactly how important and valued we are. Yet, it is possible for all experiences to operate on the level of extraordinary to superior. Ultimate life-changing experiences should not be limited to every few months or years, they should happen everyday. We remain unaware that the extraordinary is just within reach.

Experience design is an emerging discipline, so integrated that it can incorporate cognitive and perceptual psychology, linguistics, architecture, product design, theater, fine art, information design, brand strategy, interaction design, service design, and design thinking. This art form has limitless application across industries and lifestyles. What if even a small awareness of this integration was permanently incorporated into our everyday experience? We are living in a time of transformation.

Experience Method is playing a big game, to champion the intentionality of experience throughout the world. With the creation of a consulting firm that will turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, a workshop series that will teach experience design, and a corporate initiative to infiltrate the consumer-facing world, we will begin to effect the lives of millions of people in an astonishingly short period of time. It will become standard practice that all experiences are well-thought out designs, with the intention to produce specific feelings and an overall state of aliveness.

The Experience Method’s goal is to create this possibility for all of humanity; experiences are 100% about people. No matter who you are, you can practice experience design in both your personal and professional life. The Experience Project is the possibility of feeling safe, important, special, respected, valued and loved, every moment of your life.

Growth/Defeat – Life/Death [or the day I took the GMAT]

No. This post is not about the horrors of standardized testing. I could write a whole book about that! Studying 4-5 hours a day for 2 months straight, cramming fractions, number properties and algebra into my head after 10 years without it and then being forced todoitallreallyreallyfastunder30minutes withthepressureofyourfuturehanginginthebalance. It is one the great joys in life. But what I really wanted to talk about was how both of these things: The Growth/Defeat and LIFE/DEATH all hit me at exactly the same time. I had a teacher at some test intro tell us to assume that it is going to rain, the train will be late, we will have a stomachache and our boyfriend will break up with us on the day of our test. That way, when only one or two of those things happen…we won’t be thrown off.

Well, I tried everything in my power to control every possible variable. But death, was not one I could get my hands on. My grandfather who had been suffering from Alzheimers for the past two years, started dying a few days before my test. I mention this part, because it turns out that the dying was way worse than than the death. To watch someone die is one of the hardest things I have ever done; the pain, uncertainty and helplessness are all consuming. I should have been taking practice tests and memorizing geometry formulas, but I couldn’t seem to get an emotional grip on the pressure of the test and the only grandfather I’ve ever known slowly slipping away. Honestly, could not tell if my tears were about my test or about him. I think I tried to make them about the test, because that felt more like it was within my control. But really, crying is not my normal reaction to pressure, if anything, it would manifest as anxiety…definitely not tears. I believe it was a combination of how hard I had been pushing myself, trying hard not to break under the self-inflicted pressure and then having something else break the dam wide open.

I am lucky enough to have extremely perceptive and ambitious friends and family. In that, I did not receive the typical platitudes on how to deal with this situation. In a nutshell, I was told that I needed to view this as a test and an opportunity to grow. Obviously, this difficult and intimidating test and subsequent MBA applications were not enough, so the universe added on. Of course, in my phone call emotional state this all seemed ridiculous. In feeling so helpless, it seemed inconceivable that I could just decide not to let this beat me. But the next day, a family member reassured me, after a frustrating practice test; ‘that my brilliance and intelligence do not lie in the quantifiable, I am an exceptional critical thinker despite what this test may say and I analyze down to the last logical detail. I am a creative person, I do it intuitively.’ Light bulb. Who knows what got through to me in that moment, but I could see that that was true. I could not have explained my brain’s process to anyone else, but to have someone on the outside do it, brought everything into focus. It is true. I solve problems with an innate logical creativity that can’t be quantified in any standard system of measurement. I can barely explain it to myself. Insight. Awesome. So no more trying to conform to the test, we’re just going to do our best and though it is only a fractional measure of my capability and potential, it is still something I have to do. I’ll do the rest…my way.

When my grandfather passed away in sleep, and I was now home at my parent’s, my father came downstairs at 6:30am to tell me the news. This was also a moment of peace. The strain and struggle were over, the worry and anguish were gone. We simply had to deal with the empty space. He died at home, with his family around him, never taken to the hospital or hooked up to machines, just fell asleep and didn’t wake up again. It is kind of the way I think we would all like to go, at 87 surrounded by family, very little pain and simply drift away in sleep. We all hope that we do not have to go before our time, but I think we all knew that this was his.

I still had to block out a lot of this in order to finish studying and prepare for test day. I certainly did not put in the effort that I had planned…which in hindsight was probably overkill anyway. So on a rainy Tuesday I spent the day at a test center and on that windy Thursday I went to a funeral. This is definitely not how I expected December to go, but I was forced to make a choice. I had to decide to grow. In any situation where you are tested, the choices come down to defeat or growth.

I choose to grow.

Your Misfit,