Designing for the Human Experience

By Will Craig

Working, eating, shopping or socializing—people spend most of their lives in commercial buildings. But there is often a gap between physical space and the human experience.

With the emergence of a globally connected world and new technologies, gadgets and features, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of simple human connection. We have 24-hour online connectivity at our fingertips and apps like Netflix, Google, Amazon and Uber providing every service imaginable. Technology has afforded us the convenience of ordering coffee, booking meetings and conducting business and personal relationships online.

However, we are still social beings and continue to crave those person-to-person connections. These conveniences are designed to help us save time and be more productive, but many of us end our days exhausted and burned out. Instead, our new approaches to life and work require an integrated way of thinking about how we holistically adapt and curate our existing built environments to create socially connected spaces, inside and out.

In the commercial real estate industry, we can capture the enormous potential that the power of experience-centered places can generate. There is direct value and financial rewards that can be attributed to the design of experiences for real estate. To understand it, we must take a step back, open our thinking and explore how curated experiences and deep, emotional bonds to place get constructed. Using this paradigm when repositioning or redeveloping an asset can create memorable, impactful spaces that truly speak to people.


In 1998, authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore published the article "Welcome to the Experience Economy," which argued that experiences would become a primary means of economic value creation. A similar shift in economic value occurred when businesses transitioned from the manufacturing to service economy. Think IBM, which moved from selling technology hardware to its IBM Services unit providing solutions that grew at double-digit rates annually.

More than 20 years after that article was published, there is abundant evidence that Pine and Gilmore were correct. The next shift occurred through businesses that realized the inherent value of experiences. Starbucks, according to former CEO Howard Schultz, is not in the business of making coffee but of creating experiences. Whereas competitors were charging in the region of 50 cents for a cup of brewed coffee, in reproducing the environment of an Italian coffee house and capitalizing on the experience of enjoying coffee with friends, Starbucks was able to increase unit prices tenfold.

Think about the last time you really enjoyed an ice cream cone and picture it in your head. Where were you? Who were you with? What were your surroundings? We picture our lives in moments like these, and there are important cues that compel us to keep coming back to places. You probably remember more about the place and the time than the taste of the ice cream itself. This is because the experience is not about the ice cream. It’s about the store, the environment and the whole atmosphere.

Ice cream vendors know this because their product melts quickly, so consumers must stay close to the point of purchase. Stores require small footprints and thrive on slow service, encouraging people to hang out. People need places to sit, lean and linger. Ice cream, like coffee, is often just an excuse to meet with friends. So, the important part is not the direct benefit, rather how we create experiences that impact how people feel.


Commercial real estate owners and operators who think beyond the singular dimension of their spaces can also capitalize on the value of experiences. There is inherent value in existing assets that can be captured by activating them as people-centered places, spurring human activity on the ground level. Making adaptive enhancements at the point of greatest impact—where the people are—and going beyond the built form to reflect the "software of place" that can transform even mediocre spaces into compelling "experience places."

We can think about buildings as having both hardware and software. The hardware is what makes the building run; it keeps the lights on, ensures the elevators are operating and keeps people and systems functioning well. The building will have an address and a presence on the street and usually a defined entrance to allow people to find it easily. The building may have a name or express itself through its architecture and interior spaces. This is all associated with the physical hardware.

Then there is software, which has a user interface component. You don’t perceive software as a physical thing; rather, it reveals itself over time through one’s interactions with it. It is immersive and dynamic, creating experiences that vary through the breadth and intensity of spatial transitions.

Guy Kawasaki, chief evangelist of Canva (an online graphic design tool) and formerly of Apple, is widely respected as a source of wisdom about software "evangelism," which he’s shared in bestselling books such as "The Art of the Start," "Enchantment" and, most recently, "Wise Guy: Lessons from a Life." When speaking with him, Kawasaki said, in the world of product design, to achieve a high level of humanness, you need to create something great that people will believe in. Products that achieve this through exceptional attention to detail don’t require additional marketing. "You don’t need a pitch because people can fantasize about why your idea is necessary," he shared.

Kawasaki has come up with a few traits that characterize great software products:

Deep: Becomes more desirable and sophisticated over time.

Indulgent: Luxurious and makes you feel special.

Complete: A total user experience.

Elegant: Enhanced through interaction with it.

Emotive: So deep, indulgent, complete and elegant that it compels you to tell other people about it. In the case of real estate, this can be equated to creating memorable experiences that compel you to want to come back.

Thinking about the software of place, when redeveloping or repositioning an asset, district or entire portfolio, we don’t need brand vision statements, fanciful marketing or even a new name to tell us how great the property is. The building’s identity will emerge by leveraging the human interface. Places that stimulate emotions and that are intuitive and responsive become destinations that attract more attention, generate more buzz and cause people to want to show all their friends what all the fuss is about. This creates a pull effect, which people want to be associated with. All this translates into financial benefits through the attraction and retention of tenants, accelerated lease-up, increased volume and decreased vacancy.


To deliver one-of-a-kind experiences that resonate with people, we must use the human dimension as a starting point, creating curated experiences for building tenants. Incorporating story-making with the creation of experiences amplifies the uniqueness of a place.

The author and playwright Kurt Vonnegut talked about stories having shapes and following distinct patterns. In classic storytelling, books or film, often an everyday situation is turned upside-down—a main character gets into trouble and then gets out of it again, they experience a new normal and end up better off as a result.

This resonates with so many of us because it reflects the story of the human experience at its deepest level. Homo sapiens have evolved by learning to overcome the struggle of survival through trials and tribulations that require cooperation and community building. It is the story of us, of you, overcoming challenges and realizing your core purpose.

When we think of the experience of real estate through this lens—as places for people to explore, engage and connect—the building’s human "software" becomes highly important to the story.

Crisscrossing streets, laneways, building lobbies and public plazas, people move throughout the built environment, exploring every corner and finding people and things to interact with along the way. The building as experience requires us to remap the city’s public and private domains, revealing interesting opportunities to re-envision these spaces. Attracting and spurring human activity on the ground level starts by making enhancements at the point of greatest impact—where the people are—and going beyond the built form to reflect the building’s identity.

The story meshes building identity and individual experience, appealing to our sense of why we go there, and enhancing our emotional bonds to place. Existing buildings that incorporate a program of new amenities or additions can extend their value by creating a holistic identity and curating different experiences. This extends to the soft programming of these spaces—inside and out—which needs to be part of the entire arrangement and increase the "EX-factor" or "experience factor" of the building or site.


In the business world, experience curation is primarily associated with theming. Disney does this well, creating space after space that revolves around a specific story or theme that draws people in. These experiences are manufactured to elevate us from our normal, everyday lives using mainly fictional characters and surroundings. The emotions are real, but fleeting, and the places are inauthentic. In the urban environment, we can think about curation as inserting moments in everyday circumstances that instill certain emotions and compel human behavior to create a sense of belonging, curiosity, intrigue or social connectedness.

By closing the gap between a person’s unique experience and their immediate environment, we can create more sustained, authentic experiences that deepen over time, rather than fleeting emotional responses. Finding places to expand, learn, play and interact, or revisiting the meaning of our work. Just like exploring a city helps us find new avenues and develop curiosity, we can design our environments to help build tacit knowledge, create multiple journeys and destinations, and inspire people.

Places where we can unplug and feel grounded in our everyday, to either escape or immerse, allow us to appreciate being in the moment. In-between places such as laneways, elevators, lobbies and waiting rooms are undefined spaces that become potential third places to hang out in or people-watch. Through curation, these in-between moments become key transitions that can create cues to story, at the beginning or ending of experience sequences. We can create a sense of having arrived at a special destination and elevate the appeal.


Two examples of this type of human-centered storytelling can be found in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The District at Beltline is a street-to-street intervention that redefines an existing office campus and draws from its vibrant setting. Located in the Beltline neighborhood, centered around a food hall and rotating tap room, the amenities and street-level spaces are curated to draw people in.

Likewise, the Backyard Laneway Activation was a revitalization project that temporarily increased available frontage for local businesses to create a thriving outdoor community, complete with arts and maker spaces, by repurposing existing alleyway and vacant parking areas. The experience drew from the everyday elements of "backyard living," reimagined as a place for community and made possible through the engagement of local businesses.

In both examples, the design of the spaces was not just visually arresting—it was focused around a high level of human activity. A building lobby might be beautiful, but most people are never going to give it a second thought after they’ve passed through. If they’ve interacted with the space by meeting a colleague for a drink, sampling a new kind of food, watching a film projected onto the building or playing a lawn game with their family after work, that space becomes part of their lived experience in a much deeper, more permanent way.


Within our cities are everyday places—small and forgotten—waiting to be discovered and transformed into human-oriented social places. We can turn these missed opportunities into valuable contributors to our story, while cultivating a sense of self. We can free the experience of places in our cities to become more human-oriented and empowering.

As people today are living increasingly integrated lives, we need to think about the changes in people’s behavior and how they look to synergize aspects of how they live, work and play. As technology evolves, our interactions with each other and the physical environments we inhabit must also be reassessed. There is a shift in importance from single-purpose to hybrid-use spaces. The spaces in between, where people co-mingle and socialize or look to unplug, are extremely fertile environments for fulfilling this human need for community.

The way many of yesterday’s environments were designed is not sufficient to meet the needs of today. As new forms of doing business and socialization emerge, the need for human connection increases. There is a need to design and organize today’s environments around the human experience, in order to empower individuals toward their goals for personal transformation. Whether a building, district, campus, city, workspace, portfolio of properties, brand or lifestyle, the experience is central.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Will Craig is a principal and the global chair of the Lifescape team for architecture and design firm Kasian, which operates in Vancouver, British Columbia; Toronto; Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta; and Doha, Qatar. He is the chair of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Alberta District Council and serves as a member of ULI’s Redevelopment and Reuse Product Council and the Canadian City Catalysts Council.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of BOMA Magazine.