“Architects know how buildings are designed, but they are less likely to have thought about the design of their overall service provision,” suggests Emma Parnell, Head of Design at Joy, a consultancy that combines user research, service design and brand development.
At the RIBA’s recent conference Guerrilla Tactics: Stop, Collaborate and Listen, Parnell explained the concept of service design in the context of architectural practice. It is based on understanding what brings a client joy: from “the small things that make life easier to the big wins that will lock in their loyalty for life,” as she puts it.
What is service design?
Service design places the ‘user journey’ at the centre of how organisations deliver for their customers or, in the case of architecture practices, clients. This recognises that a client’s perception of the service they are paying for involves much more than one specific deliverable such as a building.
“It requires mapping out your service from end-to-end and understanding how your clients experience it,” Parnell explains.
This is a journey that begins with the client’s first browse through a practice’s website and continues well past completion is signed off.
“Design is often correctly thought of as the solving of problems,” she points out. “But it can be fruitful to turn that on its head: how can that be more positive? Rather than starting with a problem, why not start with anchoring a business around the things that bring a client joy?”
Susie Lober, marketing consultant and Director of Lo Marketing, echoes Parnell’s advice.
“It is not just the final building, it’s the whole process,” she states. “A practice should put themselves in their client’s shoes and ask themselves what it is really like to work with them.”
The protracted length of time that a project can take makes these considerations all the more important.
“You might have a working relationship with a client for months or even years before you get to the construction stage,” points out Lober. “Think about ways to celebrate project milestones with clients over those periods.”
The importance of regular client feedback
Given that repeat clients can be an extremely valuable source of revenue for a practice, such considerations should not be taken lightly. The RIBA’s 2020 client survey, Working with Architects, revealed architects were rated least highly for their understanding of their client's financial and commercial concerns: the survey found client expectations were often disappointed when it came to “designing to budget”.
Susie Lober encourages architects not to be scared of client feedback. This is what can help them be better architects.
“If you want to build a better client experience, you should be talking to them at different stages from the outset. Not just to discuss project progress or business matters but about how they feel,” Lober urges.
“Solicit feedback, is there anything you could be doing better? Are you meeting their expectations? You will never know what you are getting right or wrong.”
Lober acknowledges that this can be quite an awkward conversation. She herself has been the third party intermediary for this purpose, conducting client interviews about what they appreciated and what they did not. This can prompt clients to be more forthright.
Is there an experience gap?
Without client feedback, organisations can make promises and not realise they failing to keep them, points out Parnell. She is not referring to legal or contractual obligations here which, it should go without saying, all professionals must be attentive too, but to the overall client experience.
“Too often there is a disconnect between the experience clients are expecting and what they are actually receiving: the experience gap.”
Parnell illustrates this with reference to the fast food industry. The glossy image of a perfect burger and the actual product people might be served. To head off any such experience gap, you can head off the experience gap by undertaking user research with your clients; and mapping out their service experience from end-to-end to understand their pain points.
“Service design is a team sport. Everyone should take part whatever their discipline, the more perspectives brought in the better. No one should be afraid to be the person who calls out a potential problem.”
One of the approaches adopted by Tomas Millar, Director of Millar+Howard Workshop, suggests a way of closing any experience gap.
“We have been using several ‘user experience’ techniques in our own practice – mainly borrowing from the software industry,” Millar explains.
“In the software industry, you frequently encounter the idea of ‘gathering user stories’, as opposed to receiving a fixed client brief. These stories can be added to and changed over the lifetime of a design process, allowing a diversity of perspectives to input into the process.”
He points out that architects are experts at dealing with multiple conflicting views and are used to iterative processes.
“Clients are always pleasantly surprised that they do not have to give us a wholly coherent brief at the start, and that we do not mind receiving conflicting user stories.”
Thanks to Emma Parnell, Head of Design, Joy; Tomas Millar, Director, Millar + Howard Workshop; and Susie Lober, Director, Lo Marketing.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.
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