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User experience and feedback is vital to improving our cities

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Many architects view the completion of their projects as the day the building is handed over and they move on to other things. The shop has opened for trading, the occupants have moved in to the office, the builders have moved out of the house, the snagging done, the final completion certificate issued. Like an artist who finishes a painting, sells it and never sees it again, we get sucked in to the project and when it has “ended”, seldom give it another thought or learn other than immediate superficial lessons from it.

In our design studio, I often cite Alec Guiness in the brilliant “Bridge over the River Kwai” who is so committed to the building of the bridge that he forgets the big picture and loses the plot.

The RIBA annual client survey generally reports a high satisfaction rating for architects’ design ability but we score poorly for management and responsiveness. Part of this is due to lack of follow up with clients. When an airplane crash occurs, the black box is meticulously examined and a complete analysis of the incident is undertaken; lessons are learnt and change implemented. This is why flying is one of the safest modes of transport.

The same cannot be said of the medical profession where the same rigour is seldom applied. Operations and consultations could be routinely recorded in order to continually strive for improved results. The construction industry sits closer to medicine, where bias and opinion seem to be given more weight than the meticulous research and evidence-based investigations of the airlines. And because all projects are similar but different - unlike say car manufacturing - the same but different mistakes are routinely made.

WW+P is passionate about improving our design skills, but also our management and delivery, so we try to obtain feedback not only during the process but also following “completion” of the project, to learn as much from our work as possible and implement change. The reason we have been able to improve our service year on year is because we are able to review and research, evaluate and implement results from previous projects. Because they are more open, public and accessible we can monitor and amend in a way that we can’t do with housing or offices unless we ask for extensive feedback from the owners and users.

We have now decided to go a step or several steps further to establish a more comprehensive research programme. We have been inspired by recent research by our engineering colleagues, studying the well-being and improved health benefits of communities following urban environmental improvements. It has been demonstrated by a ten year research project that environmental improvements reduce doctors’ visits, heart problems, obesity, anxiety. Something that architects have believed for a long time but treasury and financiers require proof.

At WW+P we have begun a customer experience and satisfaction survey in the field of public transport where we have particular experience. We want to study how we can learn from different cities and have decided to concentrate on cities where we work and/or have a studio so that we are close to the results. We can compare cities in the same country - Melbourne and Sydney, New York and Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal, London and Manchester, also Hong Kong and Singapore but also compare attitudes and actions between countries. We will use this to improve our designs but also to influence decisions by politicians, client bodies and decision makers and encourage cities to learn from each other. We are seeking feedback on a whole raft of issues including urban integration, colour, wayfinding, lighting, ticketing, safety and comfort and will be able to monitor trends over time. We are working with economists to value improvements to see where investment is best utilised.

We are concerned like many about climate change and see our biggest contribution in encouraging passengers out of their cars and onto more sustainable modes of transport. It creates a more civilised society and helps social cohesion. There is something fundamental in sharing space with fellow travellers from diverse backgrounds, races and religions, all going about their daily lives together. There are no first-class carriages on London Underground or buses - everyone is equal. We want to improve the safety, comfort, reliability and joy of travelling so these benefits can be appreciated by everyone.

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Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Related Projects

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.