How Musical Theater Relates to Experiencing A Product

Hank Adams, global director for health at HDR in conversation at the Cleveland Clinic Patient Experience Summit with Garrett Miller, vice president of strategic marketing and creative director for healthcare, education and government with Herman Miller; Peter Ruppe, senior vice president of footwear at Under Armour; and Matthew Von Ertfelda, senior vice president of food and beverage for the global operations of Marriott Corporation.

Adams:  What does experienced design mean in the context of your industry? How do you actually do that and how would you recommend going forward?

Think Macro, Think Micro, Think Musical

Miller:  We think of experienced design both on the macro and the micro sale. You can look at a furniture company … in terms of needing to solve a problem and somebody might have an experience with this product and that is a micro way of viewing the experience. But, the truth is, we have to spend much more time thinking macro, thinking about what the overall experience is today for patients, guests, providers and staff, and what that experience is going to look like in the future at a macro scale.

How can we get new solutions from that experience? Anyone who has lived through the process of building a new facility in healthcare knows it’s a long, arduous process that often ends in a completely different place than where it started. The people and processes occurring at the end of that journey are very different from where they began. It is important to think longer term and about where the overall experience is headed and how we solve for that future stay rather than just thinking about a product and designing just an experience just with a product.

I started my career as a Broadway performer and choreographer and I studied musical theater. All of us in our careers are an accumulation of our experiences and one of the things that I’ve translated for my teams and has resonated well is this metaphor from musical theater.

The golden age of musicals was in the 50’s and 60’s. In this time there were certain elements of musicals that were refined and well-crafted. They were a pattern or formula that you could follow to make a great musical and tell that story. Two parts of this are the first two parts of a musical.

The first is the overture and the second is the opening number. These are the things that, more often than not, were very well refined over time when they would do out of town tryouts because they are so critical to the overall experience of somebody in a show. And they actually equate a lot to thinking about the experience even with products.

In the overture, what are you trying to do? You’re trying to prepare somebody emotionally for what they’re going to experience. You need to set the stage. Is this going to be funny, sad, dramatic, light-hearted? Where is this going to take place? All of the light motifs and different musical genres that are going to be represented in the show take you through a mini-journey like a trailer for the musical right before you go in — to prepare you. That is very important — set the right grounding mechanism for what experience you are going to have.

Then the opening number is a very important story-telling component of a musical. This is where you’re introduced to all the main characters, the general environment, and who these people are and what they care about. But you’re also introduced to the key tension. If you just listened to an overture and just watched an opening number, you should have a pretty good sense of the entire show.

I come across this in product design often because I equate the overture with the moment when you’re first in front of a product, before you get close up, you don’t really see all the details, but you have a general sense of purpose and emotion that is a part of that experience. It helps to contextualize where you are. It is why, if you think about a healthcare environment, you’re not just going to put a recliner that somebody sits in at their home, a luxurious recliner in the middle of the exam room, because different products have a different overall aesthetic, look and feel with an emotional context. It is important to ground a consumer and make sure they feel like they’re in the right place at the right time.

The second component, the idea of an opening number in product design, is the intuitive nature of the first time you actually interact with this product. Does it tell you all the key components of the product in that one moment? Because that is the moment where you could actually teach somebody how they’re supposed to use this, what is it supposed to do, is that design intuitive? Because if it isn’t intuitive, it doesn’t matter how functional the thing is, people aren’t going to use it in the right way and they’re not going to have an optimal experience.

Designing that first interception with the product and thinking of that as a story-telling and teaching moment is critical. We always use those kinds of lenses when we’re looking at product design and are already in a conception phase to make sure we’re telling the story that we need to tell of that product and make sure it’s going to become a very intuitive experience.

Ruppe:  Really good creative directors think like that. They see the play before, understand the whole essence of what’s going to be brought into being. It’s not just the sharp edges of an object, but all of it that has to be wrapped around it.

Hank Adams | Healthcare | HDR
Global Director, Health