Designing possibility spaces for experiences

Games usually start at a well-defined state (the setup in chess, for instance) and end when a specific state is reached (the king is checkmated). Players navigate this possibility space by their choices and actions; every player’s path is unique. Games cultivate – and exploit – possibility space better than any other medium. In linear storytelling, we can only imagine the possibility space that surrounds the narrative: What if Luke had joined the Dark Side? What if Neo isn’t the One? In interactive media, we can explore it. Like the toys of our youth, modern videogames rely on the player’s active involvement. We’re invited to create and interact with elaborately simulated worlds, characters, and story lines. Will Wright

I’m intrigued with the concept of a possibility space from game design. What is a possibility space? And can it be applied to the design of other types of experiences?

A possibility space defines what’s possible in a game. The space in which players can experience all possible outcomes. This sounds simple enough on the surface. But if you want to elevate a game, or any experience, beyond the ordinary, expanding the possibility space to deliver something out of the ordinary is a tough challenge.

In some games, the space is tightly constrained and there are a limited number of carefully scripted paths through the space (think tic-tac-toe). In other games, the space is tightly constrained but there are a large number of possible paths through the space (think chess). In yet others (SIM series, World of Warcraft), the space is a story-driven universe where, rather than following a predefined script, players build the story of their world.

Think about the difference between a pile of Lego blocks versus a Lego kit designed for a specific purpose. The possibility space of that pile of Lego bricks is infinite. The possibility space of the kit very narrow.

“What would you create? At SXSW Interactive, creativity is the word. So, take us up on it and make something. The sky (or the roof) is the limit!”
A Visit To The South By Southwest Lego Land, David M. Ewalt, Forbes

Step inside a well-designed game and you enter a large possibility space.

A space where players co-create the story. A space for finding flow, discovery, engagement, connection, and mastery.

Stores as possibility spaces for experiences

People come to the Apple Store for the experience — and they’re willing to pay a premium for that. There are lots of components to that experience, but maybe the most important — and this is something that can translate to any retailer — is that the staff isn’t focused on selling stuff, it’s focused on building relationships and trying to make people’s lives better. That may sound hokey, but it’s true. Ron Johnson 

Many bricks and mortar retail stores are struggling, causing some pundits claim retail is broken.

Innovators like Ron Johnson, former header of Apple Retail, disagrees arguing that retail isn’t broken, stores are. “You don’t need to stock iPads to create an irresistible retail environment. You have to create a store that’s more than a store to people.”

To create a store that’s more than a store to people, think of a store as a possibility space.

How many retailers see their stores as possibility spaces for experiences?  A possibility space designed with:

  • a clear understanding of the customer, their aspirations, and the challenges or conflicts they’re striving to overcome along their journey
  • an overarching narrative (informed through purpose and values)
  • a carefully crafted set with props and emotional or sensory cues that help weave the overarching narrative
  • an empowered cast with a deep understanding of the overarching narrative
  • rules to guide the interactions between the players (think improv, “yes and…”)

In no scene that doesn’t turn I suggested that for an interaction to elevated to a moment of truth, the customer needs to be changed in some way. Has a visit been elevated beyond the ordinary into a memorable experience? Did the customer leave the store with a story? Did something happen during their visit that changed the customer, moving them closer towards being who they aspire to be?

Non-linear storytelling.

Player-centered content.

Emergent play.


All of these elements from game design can be applied to retail store design.

We usually don’t think about story when designing retail spaces or experiences. And yet, borrowing from game design when designing retail space can expand the possibility space, elevating shopping to an experience that’s remembered and shared as a story.

In my next post I’ll share a few examples of stores who are delivering delight by treating their retail store as a possibility space.

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    2 Responses to “Designing possibility spaces for experiences”

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    1. Stuart Boardman says:

      Great stuff Joyce. I’m intrigued whether you’ll cover the new Waterstones in the next post. Not living in the UK anymore, I’m not sure how the new model is working out but I found the ideas behind it smart and inspiring – and I like bookshops and books, so I’m biased.

    2. Joyce Hostyn says:

      Hi Stuart, I’m Canadian and we don’t have Waterstones here. Is there someone from the UK (@tetradian maybe) who could comment on the new Waterstones experience?

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