‘If you build it, they will come’, a biblical reference which those of you old enough may be more familiar with through the 1989 movie Field of Dreams.
But what was true for Noah’s Ark and for Kevin Costner’s baseball field, sadly isn’t true for the many poorly conceived hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses struggling to attract customers. Their buildings may look pretty, but people aren’t coming through the door. Often this can be traced back to a conflict between the architect’s focus on aesthetics and design, versus the business owner’s focus on footfall and cost. Despite in-depth conversations about the technical requirements, the designer and - perhaps more worryingly - the business owner often largely keep themselves in the dark about future guest requirements. This results in buildings which on paper may tick all the right boxes and specifications, but simply aren’t remarkable enough for the end user to step inside.
Luckily the tide is slowly changing. There’s a new generation of architects who aren’t afraid to merge design with some of the most cutting-edge user profiling and social psychology. And it’s giving them a serious edge over their more traditional competitors.
What’s wrong with the old design process?
To better understand why so many newly built hotels, restaurants and beach bars remain under-occupied, we need to take a closer look at the old design process most architects still take their clients through.
That process usually kicks off with the business owner giving designers a brief of what’s expected, including a schedule of areas and other supporting information on how the building should operate. The brief may include information about the company’s branding requirements, but this is often limited to technical requirements only. Because of the lack of information around the end user experience, it’s mostly left up to the designer to interpret the business owner’s brand and how that end user is supposed to feel, think and act once they step into the building.
Often the designer will come up with three different designs ranging from traditional to safe bet, to super modern, or a variation of these titles. They’ll then commit to creating the one the client finds most pretty.
As a result, designers end up spending large chunks of time dedicated to a series of unfocused options. Meanwhile, business owners end up choosing the option that looks most pleasing to them, instead of the one that’ll resonate most with their future customers wants and needs.
Some architects are better - or perhaps luckier than others when it comes to doing this type of guesswork. But in an increasingly crowded and sophisticated hospitality market, it’s unwise to depend on past experience or natural flair alone.
Starting with the end in mind
Those on the cutting edge of hospitality design have realised just how much they can learn by looking at big tech companies like IBM, or design consultancies like IDEO. They’re pioneering a concept called User Centred Design (UCD).
UCD is a product design approach entirely focused on the end user. It takes into account the end users’ age, gender, social status, education, current brand affinities, professional standards, building usage expectations, and a whole list of other demands these users may have with regards to a product. You’ll find a good example of this in app design where software publishers do everything to simplify and streamline the interface. They do so by following the average user’s natural flow and preference, rather than forcing the user to adapt to the design.
Applying UCD in hospitality requires turning the design process on its head, and starting with the end goal in mind. Instead of prioritising form and technical requirements, you start the process by getting really specific on who your end users are, and how they’re likely to use your building. This approach involves elements of social psychology, user flow and marketing. It forces you to dig deep into the lives of your future guests, and question why they would come and spend their money in your building and not somewhere else.
The result is a design that benefits your guests, rather than one which forces them to change their behaviour in order to suit the design.
Where to start?
UCD is based on clarity. Clarity on what your brand stands for, and clarity around the future customers you’re trying to attract. As a business owner, it’s important you encourage your designers to fully immerse themselves into your company culture, your values and your branding. This needs to happen before starting the design process.
Getting your designer immersed in your brand is of course not enough. If you want to find out what will make your guests spend their hard earned time and cash inside your building, you need to build a detailed understanding first of who those guests are. Most business owners and architects never get beyond the ‘millennials’ tag when you ask them about the target audience of the building they’re designing. But even within that one generation, there’s a huge variation in taste, socio-economic backgrounds, brand affinities and indeed spending power. The same of course applies to Gen X, Baby Boom and older customers.
The UCD approach to design encourages you to come up with a detailed set of so-called guest profiles. These include the typical backgrounds, traits and requirements for the types of guests your building is trying to attract. Guest profiles help you paint a better picture of what your customers’ world at home looks like; what they’re looking for when they visit your location - and most importantly - what they’re looking for when they visit your business. They’ll help your designers create an experience that’s truly remarkable, or at least remarkable enough for them to want to return and tell all their friends about it. See an example summary profile below.
Bob and Michelle are of course fictional characters but that doesn’t really matter.
Profiling your guests in this way helps you paint a very detailed flow chart of what their needs might be from the moment they step into your building until the moment they leave again. This allows your designer to mould the design around Bob and Michelle’s needs, and to allocate greater resources in those physical areas where they’re like to spend most of their time and money.
The more forward-thinking designers are very aware that in a world dominated by social media, you need to create buildings and experiences that are truly remarkable. That requires moving away from the traditional bricks and mortar design process, and instead putting the focus where it should always have been in the first place, the guest experience.
By adding elements from social psychology, marketing and user flow, concepts like UCD and user profiling offer an exciting new level of sophistication in hospitality building design,
Although this still feels way out of the comfort zone for many designers, some are slowly realising that in the current crowded market space, those failing to innovate their practice will quickly start to miss out on projects.