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Experiential Value of a Place

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

We all have that go-to place, which makes us feel good, and we like its vibe. But what is it that we want to describe about the place by words 'feel good' and 'vibe'. Is it the perfect lighting, apt space organization, the right type of crowd, maybe all of them, or altogether something else. Or perhaps it merely conveys the emotion that something is right about the place, making being there memorable. Indeed, all places with great 'vibe' do not have the same characteristics. So what is it exactly about a place that makes it likable or dislikable?

We use the term "experience" as a verb and a noun to convey our perception of an event/occurrence as well as sometimes the event itself. We are constantly involved in some activity- walking, working, watching a movie, or even sleeping. Not every activity is an experience, but any activity can become an experience. Watching a movie on a laptop is an activity, but in a boat cinema, it's an experience! Sleeping in a room is an activity, but sleeping under the stars is an experience. An activity becomes an experience when it leaves a strong impression on one's mind. Different surroundings contribute incongruously to an activity, thus generating different experiences. Every place, hence, must have some 'characteristics or 'attributes' that determine the quality of experience it can create for its occupant. This is the Experiential Value of a place.

The term experiential value or Experiential Value Scale (EVS) is widely used in Marketing and Manufacture. Its definition is "perceived, relativistic preference for product attributes or service performances arising from interaction within a consumption setting that facilitates or blocks achievement of customer goals or purposes" (Mathwick, Malhotra, and Rigdon 2002, p. 53). Concerned with the liability of a product, the experiential value measures the consumer affinity for the product. In the architectural context, the experiential value determines the people's affinity for a place with regard to the nature of their experiences. Both tangible/intangible characteristics of a place and known/unknown socio-psychological parameters can affect it.

Humans generate an experience for themselves when they interact with their surroundings. Human behavior, though diverse, is often stimulated by the configuration of the surroundings. Some actions, if not all, are guided by the things and happenings around people. Consider the following scenario that illustrates how surroundings stimulate interaction between two people in a park:

John is sitting on a bench in a park while Will is jogging around. Will halts when he is tired and looks around to find an empty bench. The benches in the park are placed at a considerable distance, and the nearest one is the one where John is sitting. Unable to walk any longer, Will goes to John and politely asks if he can sit and takes a seat there. This mere exchange of sentences triggers a conversation between them and they both have a memorable time at the park.

In this example, the outcome might have been different if the seats were placed nearer to each other. Will could have had the option of occupying an empty bench without having to walk much further, and they would have never interacted. Hence, the placement of benches in a park unconsciously directed the actions of people present there.

Terrence Lee, a professor of psychology at the University of Dundee, UK, writes in his paper “Effect of the built environment on human behavior,”

Psychology proceeds from the assumption that human behavior is lawful; that it is the response of a genetically determined organism to stimulus input from the environment. Behavior would be completely predictable from full knowledge of all the variables but may be predictable in probability terms from knowledge of a smaller number of variables. What environment psychologist hope to achieve, therefore, one day is a system of interconnected, hierarchical postulates, that might one day deserve the grandiose title of theory. The inputs will be parameters of physical environment and the output- human actions.

One of the most significant obstacles in realizing this theory, as Lee states, is that the main techniques for the analysis will remain observational rather than experimental. Thus, the inferences from the analysis will not be definitive. Also, in a particular environment, everyone might not simulate similarly. Their response, along with being dependent on their surroundings, also relies on their unique past experiences. Therefore Lee rightly states that the theory to predict human behavior cannot be a one-step stimulus-response model.

In the above example, placing the seats far away does not guarantee interaction but instead provides an opportunity for one. Had Will been a misanthrope who avoids any form of social contact, he would have preferred to occupy an empty seat, however further it might be. It might also be possible that Will sits beside John, but they don’t interact. These are variables that do not depend on surroundings but on the personal predilection of users, which can be based on uncountable factors having their origins in the past. It is not possible to comprehend the predilections of users unless one personally identifies with them. So, these factors will mostly remain unknown to the designer for a public place. However, considering their value to be nil (which is the case when people do not have a personal preference and do whatever they are prompted to do), in the above example, the more likely outcome of placing seats farther apart would be an initial conversation between people.

A person likes the vibe of a place when it prompts them to do something they are fond of. So, for someone who enjoys meeting new people, they will like to go to the park mentioned in the example, as they get to interact with plenty of new people there. They will have this mental image that the park has a lively vibe. When the design encourages a certain behavioral trait in a place, and enough people are prompted to behave in that manner, then that trait becomes the intangible characteristic of the place. Various intangible characteristics together form the experiential value, which the user experiences when present in the place.

However, the next most important question now comes up, how to design the Experiential Value. Because in real life, people have preferences based on their unique past, and they will not always behave as prompted by their surroundings. In fact, different people will behave differently. How to then consciously design to get the desired experiential value of a place?

To be continued in the following article!

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