5 Top Mistakes Experience Designers Make

by Jenny Sauer-Klein


In the world of experience design, there are so many wonderful ways to gather a group and create a meaningful event. Ultimately, there’s no absolute right and wrong. 

However, over my 20+ years of leading experiences around the world for hundreds of thousands of people, I have noticed certain approaches tend to work better than others for engaging, connecting and transforming groups. 

Here are the top 5 mistakes I most often see experience designers and event leaders make, with some suggestions for how to mitigate them.  Enjoy!


1️⃣ Starting with logistics 

Have you seen an event begin with the host or leader telling the audience where the bathrooms are, thanking sponsors, or going through a very detailed agenda of the entire program? This puts people into passive observer mode, and fills the brain with information that is not important to know at that very moment. Most importantly, it is a missed opportunity to connect and engage your participants right from the start.

The beginning sets the tone for everything to come, and you never have a second chance to make a first impression.  

When people are in a new situation, they are on alert and more perceptive than usual. The brain is a meaning-making machine, and it is constantly interpreting the signs and signals to figure out how the universe of this event works. Research around the concept of “primacy bias” confirms this, stating that we are more likely to remember things that happen towards the beginning of an event or experience rather than what comes in the middle.

The primary thing we want to do at the outset of an event is acknowledge our audience. This means acknowledging who is in the room, where they are coming from, and what it might have taken for them to be there. This helps your audience feel seen, heard and valued in a way that creates instant trust and rapport.

2️⃣ Too much content

In our desire to provide a valuable experience, the mistake most experience designers make is to pack too much content into too little time. This leaves us and our participants feeling rushed and overwhelmed.

When we look at our plan on paper, we will almost always underestimate the time it will take to deliver it. That’s because it reads like information, and information is fast. 

However, experience is slow, and almost always takes more time than we think. When our material is interactive, we have to share less content and allocate more time to experience it. It is more effective and impactful to do fewer exercises and leave more time for integrating them.  This creates space for impromptu conversations, questions and inspiration that will arise in the moment. 

One technique I recommend is to design your event, and then cut 20% of your content to give the most important parts time to breathe. This will also help you to get to the essence of what is most critical for your event to be successful and achieve its promise. Remember your audience won’t know what you didn’t end up including!

3️⃣ No time for integration

We often ask attendees to sit through hours of monotonous content with no break and then wonder why they are disengaged. If we continue to roll through content with no time for participants to make sense of what they are learning or how the content is relevant to them personally, we lose the opportunity to create meaningful change.

The time for integration and debriefing is so crucial and often overlooked! Here we harvest wisdom from participants and help them process their experience in between exercises. It is an opportunity to reflect, analyze and implement what has been learned.

Rather than waiting until the end of your event to do one major debrief, create a buffer between all your major segments of content to allow for the digestion and assimilation of what has been shared. Without this critical time, participants are likely to become overwhelmed and forget what they learned, reducing the impact of your event. By the end, they should leave the event changed in some fundamental way, or else we haven’t done our job as Experience Designers.

Look at your agenda and imagine how it would feel to experience it – would you feel excited, bored, overwhelmed, energized? How is the balance of content and integration? Do you need more break or transition time? How can you help participants digest the exercises and retain the learning? 

4️⃣ Happy Hour = Community Building 

At most in-person events, attendees connect at a lunch break, while waiting in line for the restroom, or at a casual happy hour. We assume these moments of serendipity will be enough to check the boxes for “networking ” and “building community.”  However these unstructured moments can be particularly challenging for introverts, folks with social anxiety, or anyone having an off day. 

If we consider the practice of connection in a virtual context, there is no opportunity for connection by accident – we must design for connection on purpose.  Priya Parker, the author of the seminal book on experience design called The Art of Gathering, refers to this as “Don’t be a chill host. ” It means that as the convener, you can’t just sit back and let things happen. You have a responsibility to intentionally guide attendees through the process of building trust and rapport, so they get the full benefit of attending your event. 

We have to make connection a priority, and at times be willing to prioritize connection over content. 

Connection reminds us of our humanity, and invokes our empathy, understanding and compassion. It is a foundational element of psychological safety, which helps to unlock a group’s highest capacities and collaborative potential. 

As an experience designer, you need to create structured, facilitated opportunities for people to connect in meaningful ways, otherwise you risk that it may not happen at all.

Low on ideas or bored with your current connection repertoire? Check out our curated video tutorial library Play On Purpose, for instant access to over 80 in-person and virtual icebreakers and team building activities to increase connection and engagement at your next event. 

5️⃣ The right things in the wrong places

Oftentimes, event leaders have all the right elements for a successful event, but they have been placed in the wrong order.

Perhaps you are trying to go too deep, too early in your event and the audience feels like there is too much forced vulnerability and it backfires. Or you haven’t laid a strong foundation to understand a complex topic, and the content just goes over the audience’s head, creating confusion and overwhelm.

One of the most important aspects of an event is the sequencing, or the strategic order of elements. This is a critical aspect of the emotional and psychological journey we are taking participants on. It’s simply not enough to have great elements, like talented speakers, a relevant theme, and interactive exercises. It’s the ORDER we place them in that makes all the difference. 

Through your event, you are telling a story. In this story, we are breaking the 4th wall between the stage and the audience. In fact, we are flipping the script altogether. In our events, the main characters and protagonists are not the people on stage – the participants are the heroes. We are telling their story, and they will need to participate and contribute in order for the plot to be fulfilled. 

To help you to strategically sequence your event design for maximum impact, we teach you how to apply our Dramatic Arc Event Template. This model borrows the dramatic arc from storytelling, movies and theater and applies it to an events context, which helps you to develop a cohesive narrative that leaves your attendees feeling connected, inspired and part of a community. 

These principles and practices form the foundation of our approach here at The Scaling Intimacy School of Experience Design. If you want to learn more about how you can enter this field or uplevel your existing skill set, join us at one of our upcoming programs our flagship Designing Dynamic Experiences course or the companion training, Facilitation Finesse

Culture Con 2017 Day 2-3331