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Engagement design. Experience design. Design Thinking. Focusing on experience IS the future of successful retail strategies, of brand building, of service and of product design. There are extraordinarily talented practitioners of experience design and some great examples happening right now, mapping everything from a diner’s eating experience to a kid’s Lego play.

But the strategic process for most design begins only at the front door. It starts with the foyer of a hotel, the hatch of an airplane, the sliders in front of a grocery store or hospital or the turnstile gate of an amusement park. But here’s the thing: If we think about the beginning as the front door, we’re starting in the wrong place. Beginning design strategy at the click of a turnstile serves to treat the symptoms, but not the cause.

UX is a given. And now, Patient X, Guest X, Visitor X are all ever-finer slices in this growing field of study. These labels are useful in focusing attention on the consumer at the heart of a company’s business. But the research and design process must begin from a different place in order to finally get to the amazing maps and successful business journeys.

In a recent Fast Company article, Rick Wise, CEO of the branding firm Lippincott, suggests a new approach, even coining the term “experience innovation” to distinguish his company’s work. He and I agree that experience innovation “isn’t driven by specific product features or design, but by reimagining the broader experience of how customers might use the product or service. By looking beyond the product to take a broader view of customer issues and activities around the product, companies can find new ways to address unmet needs, create talk-worthiness, and fuel differentiation.” But I propose a first step at the front end.

Ghosts of experiences past

Patient, shopper, and guest expectations all emerge from the specters of their – and our collective – experiences. These expectations are formed OUTSIDE the hospital, store, or hotel, but they get played out INSIDE those venues. An understanding of both the consumer AND the culture that informs his or her mindset is the essential starting point for designing an experience, and it’s the foundation on which we can build successful strategies and develop new products. Ignore this step and it won’t matter how beautiful or clever the design is.

This is the true front end of experience design.

Moving through concentric circles

If you consider users and their experience holistically, the first question you need to ask is: What’s shaping the culture? That’s the outermost of our concentric circles, and it’s a starting point.

So examine the culture; it’s made up of external influences, large-scale forces and small-scale cultural trends that are all nudging consumers in areas related to your business. These movements apply pressure to the cultural landscape and they change and frame consumers’ expectations wholesale.

This is where expectations for your experience originate, and it’s the context and foundation for the strategy you build.

Example: Charity: Water is a nonprofit working to bring clean, safe water to water-scarce parts of the world. Charity: Water understood that the ubiquitous nature of technology extends to non-profits, creating a challenge in attracting the digitally savvy supporters who now demand access and transparency to everything. They leveraged this knowledge to create a new philanthropic experience. Charity: Water developed an open format that documents all of the project’s details—costs, equipment, people served by the well, photos of the activity, donor names, and money contributed. When the project is completed, it’s cataloged with GPS coordinates on Google Maps.

Who’s out there

The next circle is where you get closer to the consumer, to locate the internal drivers and the consumer context for an experience. Research conducted with and on your patients or guests should be designed with the bigger picture (the cultural context) in mind, but it shouldn’t be restricted by them. Research techniques should examine consumer’s lives and what they are actively engaged in. Consumer trends should yield insights about your business, but also about businesses like yours.

Example: Men shop. Who knew? Bonobos knew. Bonobos got men to buy brightly colored, expensive pants by understanding how and why they shop. They founded their store to create a better shopping experience for men. They knew that men wanted better fitting pants and that they would pay more for them. And they knew the shopping experience had to be simple—simple pricing, simple styling, simple online process. They wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without understanding that selling pants to guys online was a fundamentally different event than selling shoes online or even selling pants in real life.

Don’t stop; keep talking

The next ring in is your customer. Finally, right?! Now is the time to get inside the mind of your audience. Talk to them. And keep talking to them. Use this communication to reveal insights and make an emotional connection. Continue the feedback loop to enhance and refine the experience design.

Example: Customers everywhere now believe that it is their right to be involved in brands they embrace. Nail salon, Julep, grew their ravenous fan base built on a “girlfriend” strategy soliciting product ideas online from appointed “mavens”. This approach keeps a direct line of conversation with customers, engaging them in the development of products. CEO Jane Park has made this customer experience central to the success of the business saying, “Our mission is to connect girlfriends through beauty to inspire growth. The next beauty line will be built online.”

Now it’s time to get real

The inner circle: Conduct an internal audit of how your business operates and what defines your customer’s current experience. Once you’ve taken an honest look at yourself, revisit the two outer circles and see how the consumer and the culture align with your internal audit. Get clear about the areas that are out of step with consumer expectations. The gaps you locate are the areas where there’s opportunity for improvement, elimination or innovation.

Example: The highly acclaimed Cleveland Clinic got a big wake-up call when performance scores came in dismally low in 2009. “Patients were coming to us for the clinical excellence, but they did not like us very much,” CEO Toby Cosgrove admitted. He came to the tough conclusion that they could no longer depend on medical excellence to attract patients, that the anticipated patient experience trumped all. Cosgrove led the organization through a multi-year, multi-million dollar program to improve their patient experience, returning the clinic to its highly regarded status.

Finally, have realistic expectations about how to use this research. The approach I’ve outlined is not the answer to the experience question, but it’s essential to ensuring alignment with your audience. It’s a reality check and a foundation of understanding that will make you smarter, and help you make better decisions about work to be done with the experience designers.