Experience Design For Dog Sledding

By / April 08, 2013

About a month ago, while we were still in the throes of winter, some friends and I headed north for a quintessentially Canadian adventure: dog sledding. On the whole, it was a fantastic experience, and one I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to experience the Canadian wilderness in the winter months. But as great as our excursion was, I couldn’t quite turn off the experience design part of my brain just because it was the weekend. So, on the drive back, my friends and I had an impromptu storytelling and brainstorming session about our experience. Here’s a quick-and-dirty experience map that summarizes the key elements of our dog sledding adventure: Dog Sledding Experience Map

Insights and Bridge Principles to Inform Experience Design

Looking at the map, a few things jump out. The high point of the experience is incredibly high for everyone in the group.  Dog sledding across a frozen lake in the Canadian Shield is a transcendant experience. There is something elemental and primal about making your way through an inhospitable climate on a wooden sled pulled by animals. There is a romance there. From this insight, we can derive a Bridge Principle along these lines:

Bridge Principle for experience design: Reach people on an emotional level; build in ways for people to feel connected to the dogs, the wilderness, and their own primal selves.

A second insight centres around awareness.  People really have very little idea of what dog sledding entails, and aren’t even necessarily aware that it’s something you can do.  It’s not represented on the map above, but many people I spoke to were surprised you could even try dog-sledding without venturing to places like Labrador or the Northwest Territories.  Interestingly, people who aren’t from Canada seem much more motivated to seek out dog sledding experiences. @bridgeableSusan A practical implication of low awareness is that very few people have actually done an excursion, so there aren’t informal knowledge networks you can access to find out what to expect.  There are a lot of unanswered questions and uncertainty leading up to the excursion, especially around logistics (what to wear, what to bring, etc.).  This uncertainty persists even as we are prepping to take the dogs out — uncertainty about the sleds, the route, and the dogs themselves. We might capture this idea with another Bridge Principle:

Bridge Principle for experience design: Over-communicate about the experience so that people know what to expect and can prepare themselves physically and psychically.

The final part of the journey that really jumps out is the low point.  Thirty dogs barking fiercely raises anxiety, even for “dog people.”  Intellectually, you know the dogs are just excited to pull the sled, but instinctively, you feel tense.  From a purely practical standpoint, it’s just difficult to hear the instructions.  You’re about to take control of a crude wooden sled pulled by six of these animals and it’s difficult to feel confident given the environment.  This becomes extremely problematic if you are not a “dog person,” because anxiety and a lack of confidence can quickly escalate to being terrified and a desire to abandon the trip.  When we try to incorporate this finding into future design work, we might formulate a Bridge Principle like this:

Bridge Principle for experience design: Build in environmental cues to help people feel comfortable with the dogs and well-prepared to navigate the sled.

A Concept for Better Experience Design

Naturally, that low-point on the journey map was the focus of our brainstorming session in the car.  We came up with the idea of having a welcome lodge where people could receive their orientation and instruction in a more calming environment.  Here is a quick concept sketch:

Dog Sledding Concept SketchThe warming lodge itself provides a quiet, safe environment where people can go through the orientation and get comfortable with the sled.  This overall concept is inspired by the third Bridge Principle.  However, from an experience design perspective, the important thing to notice here is how individual features of the welcome lodge align with all three of the Bridge Principles.  The power of an experience design approach is that it doesn’t just help you come up with general ideas—it provides a basis for identifying the details of the experience design that will help make it a success.

General Applications for Experience Design

Of course, this is just some thoughts collected after a personal experience.  This post gives you a good sense of how we approach experience design here at Bridgeable, but in a real project you would want to go much further.  For instance:

  • Expand the ethnography to include more people and cover a wider range of experiences.  That will produce a more generalizable set of insights, and help us understand how variables like the guide, the weather, or the dogs affect the experience.  
  • Conduct a social science investigation so we could inform our work with theoretical constructs of how people relate to animals or to the wilderness.  
  • Generate many more concepts that address the full range of the experience journey, ideally co-creating the concepts with employees and customers.  
  • Prototype the concepts and validate them with customers so that the concepts can be iteratively improved.    
  • Seek out quantitative data for the tourism industry and the dog sledding operation so that we can identify the opportunities that will generate the best shared value for both the customer and the business.  

Nonetheless, this small example can inform experience design for any service offering. First, it’s important to consider your customers’ emotional relationship with your service.  It’s especially pronounced when your service involves animals and the wilderness, but it applies to much more prosaic encounters, like line-ups at the grocery store or the packaging on your medications.

Enjoying a hot chocolate on the trail

Enjoying a hot chocolate on the trail

Second, it’s important to consider the whole experience, from earliest awareness to the final touchpoint.  While organizations naturally tend to focus on the core of their service or product, the lead-up and the wrap-up are critical in shaping the overall experience of your customers, whether that’s the way your parking system is set up, or the artifacts you give customers at the end of a face-to-face interaction.  Capturing the end-to-end journey on an experience map is a great way to identify the points where improvements can have the most impact.  Armed with an experience map, the folks up in Haliburton can recognize the lead-up and wrap-up points that aren’t living up to the wonderful experience they deliver out on the sled, and work to improve it.