MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Filtering by Tag: experiential design

How car dealers uncovered a surprising key to greater customer satisfaction


One of the more active and heated debates on the value of design to business is over what are called "factory image programs" for car dealerships.

Most car manufacturers, concerned about the alignment of dealership appearance with their product programs, periodically impose or strongly influence updates to the physical quality and character of dealers' facilities. Most dealers resist the programs because they are unable to link a measurable business benefit like increased sales to the high cost of these programs.

So the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) commissioned an independent study to uncover and identify the value in the programs and recommend a resolution to the ongoing conflict between them and the manufacturers. The study was just released at the annual NADA convention a couple of days ago.

I expect I'll return to comment further on the study in the near future. But I did want to offer an initial and very interesting out-take from the study.

After discussing the diverse and complex array of considerations and influences that made solid conclusions almost impossible to derive, and especially after uncovering that the annual costs of billions of dollars spent on dealership facilities meant very little, if anything, to people buying the cars, the study uncovered an unanticipated yet solidly expressed value in the programs.

…dealers expressed pleasant surprise that, after they completed a store upgrade, it became much easier to attract, retain, and motivate good staff. One multi-point dealer even told us that "I modernize as much to attract good staff as to impress the customers." Another pointed out that with improved employee morale came improved CSI scores, which makes sense. The impact seemed especially powerful in the service area: as one interviewee put it: "A dropped ceiling in the service bays will do wonders in attracting and retaining good technicians, who are pretty used otherwise to being ignored."

Despite the experiential evidence that there was this direct link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction (CSI = Customer Satisfaction Index), there apparently has been no survey by the manufactures or the dealer association to uncover and verify these anecdotal, and logical, findings.

And I think that's where I'll return in future commentary. I have some significant experience in factory image programs and have consistently been surprised with the fact that they align things (store fixtures) with things (car designs) but not the real experiences with and in these things.

That to me is the most important point of this study, affirming what we know from other places. The real power of workplace design lies not in the "brand image" but in the experiences of work. The quality and character of the workplace directly links to attraction, engagement, morale, motivation and performance of good employees, and that directly links to quality and character of the customer's experience with the organization.

The NADA has, in other words, discovered what we've said in so many other places – the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who "own" the experiences of work.

The office as an App, redux

David Galbraith offers an interesting vision for the transformation of thinking about and designing houses. My interest is less in the specifics of his design, but more in the consideration of this approach to almost any space where we live or work.

We continuously accept a lexicon of form – “living room,” “dining room,” “office” – that no longer appropriately serves the way that we live. We accept these forms and functions because they may be the only choices the market makes available to us, or because of social norms that we feel we cannot challenge or do not know how to challenge, or because they are imposed upon us by another authority.

Considering how what we do would be expressed in a web app offers a context for insights into how work and life could flow better and satisfy more.

The web apps we select to download or use are those that are well designed both in visual and functional character. We appreciate mostly those that are agile in character, that reduce complexity, that are light in system demands, that have a simple logic at points of decision, that flow well. We appreciate those that provide, when we want or need it, a link to augmenting or amplifying information or features. We choose the ones we like because of the quality of the experiences we have with them, which are mostly engaging and efficient.

I don’t recall that we’ve had a client who has approached us with an initial and core request to provide a better experience. Most typically, the language that accompanies the commission is an oblique goal metric like reduced square feet per person that occludes the real goal of the organization to become more engaging for the people who do its work and more effective in achieving its purpose.

Many of the tools and techniques our profession has attempted to use to move our client’s language into experiential considerations work only where experience is the business – in retail and hospitality contexts, for example. Clients in corporate, scientific, or institutional domains typically squirm at the imprecision of an experiential parameter.

Why do  people who carefully choose and use web apps use an entirely different language and criteria when commissioning the places and spaces where they live and work? Why is more thinking and emotion invested in an app that costs next to nothing, but nothing of similar critical thinking applied to the experiences in the spaces that cost millions? Could the use of the Web App metaphor be a more effective tool in transforming thinking, perceptions and investments?

(See also The Office as an App, part one)

The office as an app

Office as an App (OA) is an exploration of the potential to reverse the conventions of supply and demand in the design and delivery of real estate where what we call work is done. It is also an exploration of an emerging context in which the corporation’s real estate and the corporate real estate function have lost relevance, and therefore value, through its own active and passive actions. It is, in the end, an exploration of the implications of social media, the trend in dumping corporate real estate, the rise of work swarms, learning from Nonaka, and the transfer of value from centralized and controlling organizations to agile and networked clusters of individuals. The “app,” as an expression of a “programmed” tool cleverly designed to deliver customized experience and value to its user well beyond its cost, seems like a good device to frame this concept of transformation.  

I am very interested in developing a new “killer app.”

Over the past several years, the “content” of data informing the planning and design of the workplace progressively increased, yet the value of the resulting corporate real estate to the people who worked there dramatically plummeted. It seems that just as place-makers’ apparent interest in the user was increasing, the users’ interest in the places-made declined.

Now, hordes of “knowledge workers,” frustrated with corporate “mobility” programs that spun them out into the stunningly unsatisfying Starbucks-branded “third places” of the world, roam the planet seeking places and spaces to support the kind of work they want to do to generate a new economy and new prosperity in the world.

Even as their demand for new kinds of working spaces increases urgently, nowhere, it appears, is anyone stepping up to provide a solution for them. This is because the physical infrastructure of the workplaces of the past half century was shaped by a “big capital” business model that generated a huge oversupply of now irrelevant real estate led by professions who have no service application of value to emerging organizational models and new ways of working.

My new AppOffice will radically invert the currently stagnated supply and demand system, act as a catalyst for the design and delivery of new types of workplace, and reshape city planning and development, enabling a new global real estate economy based on the premise that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experiences of working.

Some recitations

In recent years, there have been a number of developments that had the potential to change the way that designers responded to workplace needs and trends.

There was, of course, the often cited evolution of technology that made equipment progressively lighter, eventually more mobile, and, with corresponding evolution in communications technologies, eventually raised questions as to whether place had meaning any longer. The impact on workplace policy, practice, program and design was the rise of mobility programs and their apparent overnight acceptance as the preferred way to work after initial resistance based on the older management value of attendance.

Additionally interesting was the growth of the involvement of the users or occupiers of space in the process of programming. Those who designed, planned and provided space were interested in how the user of the space actually used it. The information gathered in these processes of direct engagement, however, were frequently discounted (“wish lists”) or ultimately generalized to such an extent as to universalize the workplace and remove individual imprints.

Further evolution of this trend was brought by insights from other professions like ethnography, and the utilization of more sophisticated technology borrowed from security, each providing a richer an more nuanced view of how space was actually used. Ethnography provided certain tools and disciplines like direct observation to illuminate things not otherwise in the direct expression of those who used the space. Presence technologies, registering who was in a space, for how long and engaged in what activity, provided further information that could be read either to provide data on what kinds of spaces actually worked, or to prove a growing tendency to discount the value of corporate space.

The latter turned out to be the dominant insight. Corporations, more interested in reducing the costs of operations in the great economic collapse, saw the fact that staff were not using the space they had provided them, now wanted to dump that space as quickly as possible.

Ironically, as greater information and insight was being gained about how people used space and how space affected their performance, and as the potential for real innovation in workplace design was at the threshold, the power for spatial planning and decision making was transferred from the occupiers and users of space, and from corporate facilities professionals to the finance suite and the corporate real estate function.

While one segment of the workplace domain was finding a way to provision it more effectively, another segment was challenging its very existence. The change was also occurring so rapidly that those in the middle, snagged by jargon, fell in behind the trend and facilitated the rollover through “alternative work strategies” into “mobility” programs and out the door.

From shift to drift.

Instead of “shift” taking place, “drift” was taking over.

“Shift” seemed to be a value developing at the beginning of the century that accepted that new ways of working were at hand and that design needed to be responsive to this change. “Drift” occurs, however, when the policies put in place fail to keep up with the change that generated them and their implementation falls short of or even subverts their intentions.

That is, while the time was ripe for challenging the conventions of workplace planning and design, the philosophies, policies and practices that could enable change drifted from critical relevance into destructive subversion. Corporate management having become comfortable with counting something else rather than heads in cubicles became concerned about the creative output of their organizations. Recognizing the power of workplace socialization, they then tried to draw workers back into the organization to mingle with each other. The spaces they provided, “touchdown” workstations, were in many cases merely clusters of the same dreary workstations their staff had come to learn to hate once they got into the mobile outside world. Others tried cafes ala the Starbucks that everybody was touting as the highly valuable “third place” but these were stunted by the fact that working at the in-house cafe was not “work” in the same way that mobility enabled freely collaborative “work” at Starbucks.

Those left out in the cold were the knowledge workers who we all had come to believe needed nothing more than a laptop and a cell phone. These knowledge workers, however, are people who want to do good things in the world, and who want to achieve and feel the pleasure of recognition for their achievements. They are people motivated, by themselves or their companies, around a sense of purpose and an opportunity to do things differently. They are people who saw the collapse of the economy that supported them by the failure of artificial values and who seek now to embed authenticity in their work.

These knowledge workers, with the generational and technological capabilities they had gained, began to understand the power and potential in the networks they were forming. Conventional forms of working were no longer effective for them, and the places and spaces that had supported the conventions of work were also no longer relevant to them.

Now, as this form of working accelerates, neither a return to yesterday’s real estate nor the misfit of Starbuck’s satisfies. A new model of working places and spaces is needed.

[See also,]

10 more ways to jump-start the auto business

600-muscle I have only done a very quick scan of the article, "25 Ways to Jump-Start the Auto Business," in a recent Fast Company issue. But I am impressed by the fact that out of the 60 people in or close to the industry who were asked to contribute ideas only one, it seems, looked to the intersection between design/production and consumer/consumption.

Even though the experience of buying and selling cars has already changed radically in the Internet age, the lingering stench of going to the dealer remains and many experts see room for improvement. "We need to allow manufacturers to sell cars over the Internet," says Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book. "Linking the purchase process to 'just-in-time production' will start to remove the tremendous inefficiencies in the distribution channel and increase their ability to estimate demand." And it might also make buying a car, dare we say it, fun.

I have been critical, as many, about the American component of the industry, but I also believe that a key issue is that most people cannot break through paradigms about design and quality that are, in reality, a decade out of date. The financial crisis also obscures the fact that there are great products being generated that are getting the right kind of attention from a younger generation of potential buyers. What's missing is not so much a remake of the designs, not so much the quality, not so much the industry itself, but a lot about the interface between these companies and their customers. Almost everywhere else in our world, people are paying close attention to the interface between production and purchase. There is a heightened focus on customer service, the retail experience, and brand protection.

If we look at what others are doing, we might get a few clues about what to do here, as well. Some of these might be-

1. Stop screaming-We are not motivated by the screaming ads placed by local dealership groups. This is such a predominant style of communication that it affects our perception of the quality of your products and of the entire industry.

2. I'm an American, but not that kind of American…why do you make us resist buying that truck we want for the work it will do for us?-It's about utility, isn't it; not about patriotism and living in the country and dominating everybody around us. And stop screaming.

3. Why do you think we do all of our research on the Internet instead of in your dealership?-You know the statistics. We avoid you like the plague and make all of our selection decisions before walking into the dealership, where, again, the only thing that matters is the deal. Isn't there some value to you in making our relationship more robust, more complete, longer lasting, mutually interesting?

4. It looks like your web sites are intended to be a starting place for our relationship; you should design them to do that-We want simplicity, clarity, efficiency and speed. And a follow-up when you say that you will. And why not give is the same or better information we can get through 3rd party sources-We get specs, prices, availability from other sites, and you know we do, so why not offer it to us yourself? We might like you, and trust you, more.

5. We're really interested in the product, can we suspend the deal for a few minutes?-Money matters a lot to all of us these days, but transforming your company and your industry means we should first be interested in wanting to know more about you and your products and services. But we can't see through the deal clutter.

6. We am going to spend a much longer time with this vehicle-It looks as though everything from the economy to manufactured quality will mean that this vehicle is in our garage for a few years. How will you make us interested in what you have to offer over that time? How will you design the experience to make our extended relationship mutually valuable?

7. Redesign the sales process to become a respectful buying experience and an expression of an interest in a long-term relationship-Clean up your desk; this transaction is about us, not about you. Redesign the finance and insurance process; get rid of 75% of those forms most of which look like 25th generation Xeroxes. Get the sales manager to give you some authority to conclude the deal yourself. We'd like to walk out feeling pride in our purchase, whole after the transaction, and interested in coming back for the updates.

8. Think through the design of your store to promote the quality and value of your product-If your product is so great, of such quality, then become a member of the community. Plan your site to not be a blight. Give us a great experience driving by, and driving in. We might then leave your license plate frame on.

9. Really great brands connect the retail experience and the product experience-It seems you are trying to say, "Look! Look! Look at me!!!" Try designs that invite us to explore what you sell.

10. Partner with or influence others in the community who have something to do with the auto, too-We wonder what might happen if the makers and sellers of cars, realizing that the older sense of the car being part of the culture was valuable, would work together with the entire services chain to make ownership and use a delight. Start with gas stations, for example-why do these things have to be blindingly lighted, for example, so the only thing we see as we drive by is an under-canopy array of ugly bare light fixtures. It's called light pollution and we believe it decreases the property values and security in my community. Think about your product in a broader cultural context.

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