Jean Baudrillard and the Forward March of Customer Experience Design

Last week, Jean Baudrillard, the French thinker who will most certainly be remembered in the states as having provided a convenient prop for Neo to hide his illegal software in the Matrix series died of cancer.

Throughout his academic career, he consistently maintained that the best representation of his thesis on Simulacra and Simulation was Disneyland.

Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: pirates, the frontier, future world, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But, what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious revelling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. You park outside, queue up inside, and are totally abandoned at the exit. In this imaginary world the only phantasmagoria is in the inherent warmth and affection of the crowd, and in that aufficiently excessive number of gadgets used there to specifically maintain the multitudinous affect. [...] By an extraordinary coincidence (one that undoubtedly belongs to the peculiar enchantment of this universe), this deep-frozen infantile world happens to have been conceived and realized by a man who is himself now cryogenized; Walt Disney, who awaits his resurrection at minus 180 degrees centigrade.

Now, I’ll take it a step into the present and say that the last time I was at Universal Studios, the hyperreality Baudrillard helped to coin was simply off the hook. Everything about the place, from the restaurants to the bathrooms, was an exercise in some other virtual experience.

Waiting in line for the Spider-man ride, itself a masterpiece of cutting edge simulation technology, was not just the experience of waiting in line. Instead, the entrance to the ride was transformed into the Daily Bugle — complete with desk cubicles, ringing phones, and pictures of J. Jonah Jameson and news clips of the villains who would soon appear in 3-D to scare the socks off of my mother-in-law. Every sight and every sound was manufactured to shepherd the masses into a pre-conceived psychological experience.

And the ride hadn’t even started yet.

Clearly, since every ride at Universal Studios, and in fact, every surrounding place of business in Orlando, utilizes the same techniques to transform cognitive awareness into heightened sensation, the park designers are hip to what Baudrillard spent much of his life arguing, albeit to a lesser degree of pessimism.

Indeed, his life’s consternation has become, what I would argue, is simply good Customer Experience Design. Since perception is so much a part of measuring success in that discipline, it only makes sense that postmodern concepts such as hyperreality and simulation make up a few of its parts.

In fact, what caused me to make this connection was hearing the news of Baudrillard’s death while I was working out a design-related issue in my head. I had been discussing a screen I designed with some software engineers. Without getting into the details too much, I was arguing that there needed to be a “transitional” page between one screen and next. Since the two layouts were so similar, I wanted to reinforce to the user that a separate event was about to happen. The solution I proposed was to use a sub-modal dialogue usually reserved for communicating system updates. The developers didn’t see the point of this. They argued vehemently that “slowing down” the application for a static screen which updated nothing didn’t make any sense.

Well, of course, as a Customer Experience Designer, I’m not always interested in making programmable sense. I sometimes have to go beyond logic and even reality to fashion a good design. We are talking about an experience after all.

And so I realized, as I thought and listened to the news on my car radio, that those same observations had already been articulated, more or less, by Jean Baudrillard. In a way, I believe his heavy-handed scrutiny and social criticism ironically paved a clearer way for people like me to do our jobs more effectively.

That is, if we can resist the urge to harvest the human population into our own source of energy.

And down the rabbit hole we all go hopping.

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