Is architecture a product or a service? Can it be both? This week a number of different conversations got me thinking on this topic (again). Whilst I have written before about the idea of a workplace as a product indicating status, the conversations I had this week came from a different angle. Are our clients actually interested in the process of architecture or design – or do they just want a product at the end?
A friend had been asked to ponder the suggestion that architectural clients do not actually care about the process of architecture -its only architects that think they do. As so often is the case in conversations about design as a product, the suggestion was framed based on Apple. Do we as the consumers and purchasers of Apple products care about the design process behind the Apple products? Or do we just care about the product that we find innovative, beautiful, simple, elegant and easy to use? Biographies and movies about Steve Jobs aside, I would agree it is the product that we are buying and not the process. (I’d say our interest in Steve Jobs is more about celebrity than about the process of design).
When this suggestion was made – that our clients are not interested in being part of our design process – I immeadiately responded that this was not true in my particular area of specialty – workplace design. Most of my clients feel deeply about the workplace – and quite rightly given how much time most of us spend there. For me as a workplace designer, I do feel that the client has to be part of the process. For me to give them the best design solution for their staff and business I need to understand them, their culture and the work that they do. This is a key part of the design process. Not just for office fitouts but for any type of space which is to be designed for people to work in…and to me that really that means just about every kind of space.
Whilst you might be shopping or eating out, or seeing a movie – there are people working in all of these environments. Schools, universities, hospitals and laboratories are all workplaces too. These days so are our houses. So the kinds of buildings that wouldn’t be workplaces are pretty limited. How can our clients not be part of the process of design, when we are talking about understanding what they need and how they work? Even landlords or developers should be part of the process defining quality and expectations, and hopefully working towards ensuring better outcomes for their tenants – whose needs they might understand better than the architects.
But the design process is not just about functionality. It’s also about creativity and aesthetics. It’s about us as architects and designers taking the functional brief and turning it into something special, something unexpected. Do our clients want to be part of this process? Do we want them to be? This to me becomes a more difficult question to answer. There are some clients that I have enjoyed engaging with as part of the whole design process, there are others who are quite happy for us to come back with design concepts based upon their functional needs that they will comment on in relation to function in an open minded way, giving us full responsibility for the design itself . Both of these kinds of clients I am happy to work with, and I enjoy the project process.
There is another kind of client that is much more difficult. The kind that makes it difficult for the design process to happen. They are the kind who criticise without understanding, who direct the design process so closely but without regard to design, who value process above outcomes and who actually end up sabotaging the design of their own projects – even if its unintentional. The behaviours and examples of this kind of client differ widely but one example would be the project manager who tries to change the breakout chairs, because he just doesn’t like the look of them. Firstly he hasn’t even sat in it, and secondly, he isn’t even someone who is going to work there. (It was quite pleasing when the project manager who sat next to him told him to stay out of something that wasn’t his job). Another would be the client who requires endless reports but doesn’t allow enough time for both the reports and the design process as well.
At the end of the day, whichever kind of client we have, it’s still our job to deliver the project. We have been engaged to provide a service. This customer service aspect of our role was raised in my office last week during a lessons learnt workshop. One of our clients had suggested that the design team might need to take some happy pills. I am sure you are all familiar with that point on a project where everyone is working long hours, stressed and has just had enough. Most of us are not at our best perky happy customer service mindset then. It was this that our client was commenting on. For us, it raised the question, how often do we think about architecture as a service industry? Whilst we frequently refer to Apple in conversations about design, how often do we compare ourselves to Amazon?
Amazon has products too, but their focus is on customer service. If you have ever contacted their customer service department, you will know what I mean. The way they communicate both by phone and email is all about how can we help you and solve your problem as easily as possible. Their email ends tagged with “Your feedback is helping us build Earths Most Customer-Centric Company” which I think is a great aim and encourages customers to engage in providing feedback. This customer service oriented culture is integral to the Amazon brand.
And actually the customer experience is central at Apple too. The philosophy behind the design of their products is all about the customer experience. The Apple store, is also all about the customer experience, different to many other brands due to the level of staffing and the amount of space given over to allow customers to try out and learn about their products.
So maybe we shouldn’t be worrying about if our clients are part of the process, but we should be framing the question differently. What’s your client experience? While we bend over backwards by working long hours trying to make our clients happy, are we actually achieving it? Do we survey our clients and ask for feedback about their client experience? Do we need to be smarter about how we create our client experience? The language use, our website, our meeting environments and our staff all contribute to our clients experience as well as the design and contact deliverables we prepare. Do all these things send the same client service message? And are we even aware of the messages we are sending? It’s certainly something that has got me thinking.