6 Best Practices for Designing Experiences in Public Spaces

by Darren David, CEO and Nathan Moody, Design Director of Stimulant

When asked what Stimulant does, one simple answer is that we design and develop software. But this software powers site-specific installations and experiences for people in physical spaces.

We strive to reach people literally where they live, work, play, and visit, rather than online. Site-specific experiences can connect people to ideas, brands, and each other in ways that are impossible online. The often-unexpected presence of digital experiences in the real world allows the designer to have a greater intellectual and emotional impact on the end user.

That’s why it’s incredibly important to understand the nuances of public spaces and the considerations for designing experiences within them.

#1: Design For Different Levels of Engagement

When designing within a public space, you have to take into consideration that people have various attention spans. Some may want to spend time engaging with your environment, while others may just be passing through. Despite their motives, you should be designing all experiences for different levels of engagement. That means having short, impactful experiences that reward longer interactions but don’t require them.

What does engagement mean experientially? It means that the audience should forget that they are an audience. While designers should aim to capture attention, you don’t necessarily need people to be fully immersed. For a brand, you should be aiming to put a smile on someone’s face, which could change a brand perception within just a few seconds. For a museum, you should instill a sense of discovery and wonder in order to improve information retention and insight.

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Numbers in Nature” – an interactive exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry

#2: Be Spatially Literate

No matter how much some people try, some things just don’t naturally fit with other things. This rings true in physical spaces as well, which is why it’s crucial to design experiences that are spatially literate: they leverage patterns of past use, user expectations, cultural norms and architecture to be true and appropriate to their physical context. And, you must understand not just the space in which the experience is happening, but also the design intent behind the space. How are people moving throughout the space? Why is the entrance on one wall versus another? Everything you do should support the visitor narrative, which underscores the larger journey that the architect has created within this space.

A few years back, downtown Montreal had a pedestrian “black hole” in its entertainment district, and area that was underused and actively avoided just because of the layout of its surrounding streets. To help solve this issue, French Canadian design group Daily Tous Les Jours placed 21 swings within the empty landscape. Each seat acted as a musical instrument, and, as people began to swing, prerecorded sounds from pianos and other instruments would fill the air. The more neighboring swings that worked together, the more melodies and harmonies were formed.

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This is spatially literate by virtue of the project’s deep understanding of the dynamics at play (no pun intended) that led to pedestrian avoidance of the site, and by devising a solution that rewards curiosity and facilitates inter-personal connections.

#3: Give People Super Powers

People can be made to feel powerful by having a clear cause and effect on their immediate environment. Even the smallest of inputs can result in impressive outputs. When designing for physical space, the key is to create moments where a minor interaction results in a major moment – people love to see that they’ve make an impact.

For example, at CES in 2012, Stimulant partnered with Intel to create the “Connect to Life Experience,” a 168-foot-wide interactive 3D virtual life simulation that spanned the entirety of Intel’s booth.

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Conference attendees could use any of six stations around the perimeter of the booth to create a shape using their hands, phone, keys — pretty much anything — and the silhouette of that object was used to generate a unique bioluminescent life form on the massive projection surface overhead. The animated lifeforms interact with one another in playful ways, dancing with one another or chasing other lifeforms around the ecosystem. All in all, the experience design was physically larger than the people using it, providing a big, outsized result.


In Beautiful Users by Ellen Lupton, discover various practices of user expereince design — an approach that prioritizes studying people’s behaviors and attitudes in order to develop successful products.


#4 – User Failure is Not an Option

Most adults hate to fail, and it’s most damaging when you fail in front of other people, particularly strangers. Thus, when designing experiences, you should aim to guarantee success for participants at every turn. Every interaction should be construed as successful, even if it’s not the correct action at that moment. When something doesn’t work in the way it’s supposed to, it’s the fault of the experience and its creators, not the person interacting with it.

We approach design with the mantra of “garbage in, beauty out.” Even if a person swipes a touchscreen the wrong way, something unique and beautiful should still happen. This requires extra work for the designer, since they are creating interactions for a broad set of unusual use cases, but every interaction should reward the participant for their engagement.

#5 – Be Concise

There is a lot of wisdom out there showing how little people read when they are online, and this is when they are sitting. For us, we are designing for when people are on the move, standing up and not planning to interact with us. So we need to achieve a new level of simplicity and immediacy in order for people to “opt in” and want to engage with our experience design. You must be ultra concise in your design to reach the people who will just breeze by. But, even a breeze by can result in a good impression.

#6 – Don’t Get Hung Up on Technology

We see a lot of clients get fixated on specific technologies and approaches, but the truth is, nobody pays to see technology, they pay for an experience. They want to know what they are getting out of it – the emotional response and level of immersion are some of the key components. Pixar gets this right by truly understanding what their audiences want: if you shot their movies with actors instead of all-CGI characters, or could only experience the story through early storyboards or hand sketches, the narrative is still engaging.

Random International’s acclaimed Rain Room is a great example of a technology-driven experience whose central premise is so compelling that the technology ceases to matter.

It’s raining indoors within a dark room, yet you can walk through the room and stay completely dry. Sure, this is powered by depth sensing cameras, computer-controlled pumps, and a high-tech water recirculation system. It couldn’t be done without those components. But the juxtaposition of a natural outdoor phenomenon indoors, that seems to defy common sense and physics, is mysterious and wondrous.

Physical experiences offer rich opportunities that the Web can’t offer. These experiences provide impressions that create shareable stories that users tell through word-of-mouth and social media. With new technology debuting every day, it’s crucial to keep these best practices in mind because the convergence of public and digital spaces in this Internet of Things era shows no sign of slowing.

Learn more about Stimulant’s site-specific experience design at the Seattle Space Needle.


Stimulant is a smart space design firm that uses emerging technologies to transform static physical spaces into dynamic interactive environments. They craft any-scale, site-specific digital experiences that tell stories in unique ways, drive face-to-face interaction, and create lasting brand impressions.


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