Experience = Stuff / Time

The real value in creating new businesses is in delivering customer experiences. The ubiquitous nature of the web, devices, and social networks means successful companies in the future will understand this. The question is “what do people mean when they say ‘experience’”? This post provides an answer.

Over the years, I’ve developed a mental model that helps me and my teams think about new businesses from a very customer focused perspective. I refer to it as the “Experience is Stuff over Time” model.

This post explains this mental model. I hope you find it useful.

Experience, Experience, Experience

My definition of “experience”:

An end-to-end user experience is a cohesive combination of devices, people, brands, channels, services, and content that improves over time.

I visualize things graphically, so when I read the above definition I have this “formula” in my head:


Read this as Experience is Stuff over Time, not divided by time. This is not math, just a mnemonic.

The only sane way to think through an end-to-end user experience is from the end-user’s perspective. The Experience is Stuff over Time model works because it takes the customer/user’s perspective. Please put on your customer empathy hat before you continue reading.

I use the word experience carefully and consistently as a synonym for end-to-end user experience. I do this because, like most terms in our industry, the word “experience” has many definitions. Being clear on lexicon is critical to having a useful mental model.

American Idol is a great example of an experience. From my daughter’s perspective American Idol is a “cohesive combination of devices, people, brands, channels, services, and content that improves over time.”

She, of course doesn’t actually think of American Idol this way; she is, after-all, a typical teenager who just thinks Idol is fun entertainment. If I were to ask her to break down all the things that Idol is composed of she would say:

  • It is a TV show that’s been on for, like, 11 years. (time)
  • Each season there are a bunch of contestants and one wins in the end. (time)
  • Idol is TV show that we watch on TV while sitting on the couch. (device)
  • I love watching it with you, mom, & CJ and talking about it with my friends. (people)
  • It is on Fox, and there are a lot Ford commercials, and everybody is aware of “American Idol”. (brand)
  • This summer the Idol finalists will play a concert in Seattle (time, channel)
  • I watch Idol on TV (device, channel, service)
  • There’s also a website with tons of music & videos I can get to on my PC (device, channel, service, content)
  • I can buy the contestant’s songs on iTunes. (channels, services, content)
  • There’s an American Idol iPhone app I can use to access content. (device, channel)
  • There’s a Facebook game I can play. (channel, services, content)
  • I can text message from my phone to vote (device, services)

I love Idol as an example because it really highlights how important “improves over time” is. Think about it in “app” terms: The Idol “app” has existed for over 11 years. Every year there is a new major version and are about a dozen minor versions (episodes). Within each show the producers (developers) are pushing continuous improvement as they react to live performances and user input (votes).

My daughter’s perspective on Idol illustrates the “numerator” of the experience including devices, people, brands, channels, services, and content. I’ve also written a post describing what we mean by brands.

Note how each of these aspects is plural?  

  • Multiple devices(with “apps”) including the TV, the phone, and web browser.
  • Many people(my daughter, her family, her friends, J-Lo, and millions of others).
  • A primary (Idol) and secondary brands.
  • Many distribution channels from Fox TV to iTunes and Facebook and concerts.
  • Different services such as text messaging and a satellite TV subscription.
  • Tons of content (music, videos, desktop wallpapers, even coffee mugs).

Finally, Idol is a great example of an experience because the producers have done a great job of combining all of the aspects cohesively. Regardless of what device my daughter uses (TV, browser, phone) or channel Idol is exposed through (TV, web, iTunes, Facebook) everything fits together in a nice cohesive way.

Why is this so important?

I’ve been quoted as saying “apps are dead”. I stand by that statement: the companies that understand how to build cohesive combinations of devices, people, brands, channels, services, and content that improves over time will be the winners in the next phase of the consumer technology industry.


I know this “formula” has a lot of “variables” and seems complex. If this were easy everybody would be doing it well. Future installments will cover each “variable” in much more depth. Please let me know if there is something you’d like me to elaborate on more. I’m trying to create an end-to-end user experience here, and you are the end-user…

Other posts in this series on Experience is Stuff over Time:


  1. Ben Reierson says:

    This is a useful way of looking at things. I’d be interested in more of your thoughts about how to smooth out the barriers and transitions between these various aspects of experience. 

    For instance, how do you go from watching a tv show to interacting with it on a device? How do you find the song your friend recommended? How do you remember to research the product you happened across in a store? 

    There are a host of technologies that attempt to make these things easier (qrcodes, OCR, shazam, bump, etc), with limited success. They usually seem to be 3rd party efforts bolted onto brand marketing, rather than consciously integrated into the overall experience. 

    1. Great questions, Ben.

      Here’s another example where the transition is handled elegantly:

      I’m reading a book on my Kindle Touch. It’s a really good book and I’m totally into it.

      But I have to put it down mid-chapter because I have to pick my son up at Lacrosse. 

      I drive to pick him up and practice is running late. I have 10 spare minutes.

      I pull out my phone, launch the Kindle app and I’m magically taken to the precise location in my book where I left off.

      Amazon is building an end-to-end user experience for book reading with the Kindle.

      1. Steve says:

        “Amazon is building an end-to-end user experience for book reading with the Kindle”.

        Actually, you get this same sync experience if you use the Kindle App running on the iPhone or iPad. So you can say that Amazon is building an end-to-end user experience for book reading.

  2. Mark212 says:

    the problem with “over time” being a denominator means that the quantity of experience actually shrinks as Time grows larger.  And that’s the opposite of what you mean.  Wouldn’t a more accurate expression be:  E = (Devices + People + Brands + etc) x Time?  Each of these grows and becomes a greater experience as the time increases, and is a multiple more powerful as a new device, person, brand, etc. is added.

    Maybe I’m taking “over time” too literally.  Or not remembering my algebra from 7th grade.  Or both.

    1. I hated algebra. This is not real math.

      1. Info Dave says:

        Yeah, but you wrote it as an equation. That’s where the trouble starts. Perhaps it would be better represented using Sigma notation to identify it as a summation. Summation is a better representation of “over time” than division. Sorry, I was a math major (most of which I’ve forgotten.)

    2. Stefan says:

      Good post! And I too agree that the formula should be “x Time” not “/ Time”. I tried to imagine what the formula meant prior to reading your post and came up with “experience is better if it delivers more value in less time or with less effort” which happens to also be true :-). In the sense that a product team which doesn’t require the user to make all the stupid little decisions required to complete a task (this is the less time or effort part) will always deliver a better experience.

      1. Jeff Kibuule says:

        That seems to imply that things automatically get better as more time passes were nothing else to change, which clearly isn’t true. But making it division is great because the stuff on top has to constantly keep getting better in order to outpace the fact that time is passing.

  3. johnmullinax says:

    Hi Charlie, I’m glad to see your post raising awareness on the opportunity for experience creators.  I’ve been using a somewhat similar mental model for a few years now, and I agree the “over time” piece is critically important. To me, the key idea boils down to respecting user *context* (in various forms).  

    Specifically, experience creators can make life better for users if they recognize that context exists, and respect it.  It can be challenging, because the context can be outside of the solution scope originally envisioned.  Once people shift their frame of mind away from “I’m building an app that does x” to “I’m helping people doing y” they usually find there is quite a bit of context available.   (BTW, here’s the corollary: Ignoring context is disrespectful to users.) 

    As I break it down, there are at least three important dimensions of context that should be
    respected: the context of relationship, context of device, and the context of situation.

    – Context of Relationship – what have been the user’s previous interactions with the experience provider?  What interactions has the user had with related experience providers? What in-process workflows exist for a user?

    – Context of Device – What device is the user on *right now*?  Do they use
    more than one device to access the experience at different times?  What are the priority user scenarios for your experience on the current device?  What interaction modes (voice, touch, steering wheel buttons, stylus, mouse, keyboard, gesture, mind
    control, whatever) does the device support?  Also, every device is also a sensor – what can you sense from the device (without making users unhappy)? 

    – Context of Situation – What is the user doing right now?  What are they trying to accomplish?  What useful information – clues – can you use for inference (location, speed, altitude, battery level, features used, existing workflows, friends, friend activity, more) that can help you help the user succeed in what is important to them? 

    This last one (Context of Situation) always seems a little harder to understand, or maybe I’m just not great at explaining it, so here are a couple examples to illustrate:

    – Example #1: When my wife calls me on the way home and says pick up a jug of milk, I’m not shopping.  I’m commuting.  I will pay double to get the milk at the convenience store in 3 minutes vs. get the milk from the back of the grocery store in 12 minutes.  When I am going to the grocery store for shopping, I will get the best deal I can.  The store that recognizes what I’m trying to accomplish in my life at different points in time (get home vs. buy groceries) and offer me the experience I want at each point in time, will
    generally get my business. 

    – Example #2: I have a 2012 Ford Focus that alerts me to text messages.  It will also read them to me when I’m driving and prompt me to respond by voice.  It’s good, but it could be better.  I’d prefer if it would pay attention to my location and not alert me to text messages when I am approaching a busy intersection.  I would also prefer if the system would not turn down the audio on my favorite radio program to alert me to the fact a text just came in, and ask me if I want to respond.  A simple chime would suffice.  If the radio is off, or if I’m not listening to a favorite program, then I’m happy to have the more interruptive alert. 

    Just my 2 cents, of course – and I appreciate reading your thoughts on the subject.  With the pervasive nature of computing and cloud technologies, we have an unprecedented opportunity to use technology to help make life better.  (I say this every year, and every year it’s more true.)   In my mind, we’ll collectively make the next big leap in the quality and utility of experiences when we provide cohesive experiences that vary for the user throughout their day, so they are always “just right” for that moment, for that user.

Debate this topic with me:

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