What is Customer Experience for Built Environments?


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A tweet grabbed our attention this week: “The Atlanta Airport (ATL) designers were like ‘and then what if we had them run 5k?’” In addition to making us laugh, this public passenger feedback stresses exactly what customer experience in your design-build project is. We are sure there was a reason for this suboptimal customer experience. As customer experience designers, we bring this kind of customer perspective to your design conversations before decisions can hurt your customer experience. Ultimately, customer experience (or passenger experience) comes down to how your end user interacts with your brand… your airport, transportation hub, hospital, facility.

Each journey point, in and out of your physical space, is an opportunity to build a human-centered experience that makes your passenger (your customer, or end user) feel seen, guided, and cared for. Of course, some of those individual journey points carry more weight across the overall experience than others. And some offer more opportunities to elevate the experience.

Often, clients come expecting customer experience to be defined only by big budget items like Wow Moments (think indoor water installations, digital walls, immersive art experiences). What we remind them, and what we remind you as you lead your organization, is that Wow Moments, while newsworthy and exciting for overall brand reputation and engagement, can only come after you meet the needs of your customers. You can’t expect customers to stay on the journey – let alone remain engaged and aware – if you fail to meet their needs from the start. An immersive wall along a 5k walk may lower the pain of the passenger rushing to his gate. However, the fact remains there is a significant inconvenience that brings risk to the passenger journey. Who cares about the wall if I miss my flight? Or if I am an elderly passenger navigating without a wheelchair.

Meeting Customer Needs Starts with Knowing Your Customer

Capturing the Voice of the Customer is essential to designing human-centered passenger experience. What is the goal, or what we call “the job to be done” for your customer? What is his or her emotional state in the moments he/she is navigating your facility?  For instance, are they feeling frustrated? Are they comfortable? Design in the absence of knowing how your customer feels, what your customer needs and expects, or how your customer behaves along the journey points, results in a negative return on investment at best, and a PR nightmare at worst.

This is why research is an essential step in every design-build engagement. Start getting that research sooner rather than later in the planning or early design phase. Carry it through to the design and build phases. And sustain customer experience excellence of the facility by including feedback survey capture and analysis in the operations and maintenance phase of every project.

When the right research is in place, the voice of the customer helps to guide the design phase of projects. Including the customer perspective makes for some challenging conversations, trust me. But it is essential to drive ROI which is, at the end of the day, determined by utilization of your facility. If you build it well, in their interest, to serve their needs and meet their expectations, passengers will come. And they will stay and shop and enjoy your design elements and elevated experiences, like art work and interactive spaces. But you don’t define what your passenger’s needs and expectations are. They do.

No News is Good News

There are real reputational risks to not meeting customer needs. This is what we call the PR nightmare. If you think about it, good customer experience means no news. When you deliver the basics consistently across the customer journey, you move your passenger from Point A to Point B seamlessly. You are doing your job. In fact, seamless customer experience across US federal services is now mandated by executive order. So seamless experience is a basic expectation of both customers and government. But its execution is complex. It involves the collaboration of designers, engineers, sub-contractors, and government stakeholders. A complexity that should remain invisible to the customer and yield a simple, easy experience.

Consider this from your passenger’s perspective. “I found the elevator where I needed it.” Or “everything is where I expect it to be.” These are not newsworthy statements. They indicate you met this customer’s need. It felt invisible. Expected. On the other hand, when you do not have those basic, essential elements in place, problems arise.

Say there is a giant pole blocking the view of the elevator. Your passenger wanders around for ten minutes and misses their train. Now there is something to talk about. Now, you have reputational damage – PR problems. Next, your passenger is tweeting their frustration and seeking alternate means of transportation. They are avoiding your facility. Or spending as little time there as possible. That means they are not engaging with the space to purchase a coffee, meet a friend for lunch, or arrive early so they have time to shop before boarding their train. They certainly are not engaging with the million-dollar local art installation you hoped would be the talk of the town.

This is when the real questions start. Who is behind this? How did this experience failure happen? And it is when customer experience designers get called in late to the project, after it has become a public nightmare. Costs rise, utilization dips, and you move farther away from the ROI goals for the space.

What is World-Class Customer Experience?

World-class customer experience is not exclusively about news-making moments. It is about creating ease to the point of shifting user preference. Recently, we saw this clearly in an interview with a passenger of a major metropolitan transportation hub. When interviewed, the randomly selected passenger reported using the train for long distances was so easy, he now plans to choose air travel less frequently. He changed his preference to train travel – an overall longer trip – from short-haul air travel because of the experience he had across the journey, including at the stations. The world-class feeling he describes is built on ease of use, efficiency, and alignment to his needs across the journey. It also helps with our sustainability goals as a society.

Now, this is monetization of your asset. People are using it more. And monetization happens with throughput. The ROI is in the utilization. When you build it right, when you build it for them, the passengers come. They stay. And they tell their friends and colleagues to do the same. Because of the experience you built for your passengers, you move the needle on customer behavior.

This is preference substitution. And it is the holy grail of experience design. When you are designing a space, you want architects, engineers, experience designers and all project stakeholders to integrate preference substitution into their goals. It is literally the path to winning over your competition. Think about it. Set the goal of “I want to hear a passenger say I would rather use the AirTrain than a cab.”

Image: Shared[dot]com

Of course, this is not limited to passenger environments. Think about moving the needle on preference by designing facilities based on customer feedback in healthcare environments. A world-class experience in a healthcare environment results in patients telling their parent groups, “choose this pediatric facility because I feel safer and more comfortable.” These are the parents who report, “there is no crying.” These are patients who are now more open to going to the doctor, and more receptive to getting treated as children and adults. And this is where the ROI is.

What is Great Customer Experience?

Great experience is not just a moment. Great customer experience comes from taking the time to think through the end-to-end experience of your customer. That means, if you are designing an air travel experience, you start with the curb and end with boarding the plane. If you design a rail travel experience, you start with the street level of the train and go through the boarding experience. When you design a healthcare experience, you consider patient needs and challenges. This starts with booking the visit (designing for how the digital funder is optimized) and extends to post-visit adherence to the personalized health plan. Great customer experience design infuses every step of that journey.

And while we stress the importance of meeting customer needs and expectations (the power of that invisible, invaluable experience of finding the elevator quickly and easily), great customer experience can and should include Wow Moments. The difference between a great experience and basic CX is that you spend the extra money. You make that investment in memorable experience.

We talked about how no news is good news when it comes to meeting expectations. That’s true. But game-changing news, industry leading news, behavior shifting news… that is great news!

Truly great customer experience means you and your teams are making the news for the right reasons. If this is a goal, and it is a good goal to have, make sure you set it correctly. If you want to make the news as a disruptor or a standard-setter, remember that you just doing your job is not making the news. It is keeping you out of the news for the bad stuff. Magazines and major newspapers write articles about great customer experience. This goes way beyond the nice to have. This is your legacy.

Bear in mind, that story may be the only thing that is ever said about your project. So, the risk of not investing in the wow is silence. When you are talking about mega projects like transportation hubs and healthcare facilities, think about it, you are already spending so much money. Go the extra mile to get people talking about it – for the right reasons.

Back in the day, this is what got my JFK lobby design in Cosmo. How often do you expect to see JFK in Cosmo? But we did it. We had this coverage in mind when we were designing and planning the project, and when we were up late into the night arguing the value – the necessity – of the investment in lighting that was designed to serve and to wow our passengers. This was intentional. We designed for the article – or articles like it. We designed for customer experience to be seen and celebrated.

Image: YouTube

I am sure similar conversations happened over the new fountain at La Guardia. This feature is not a necessity for meeting basic customer needs. It is also not a “nice to have.” This is a journey moment that transforms passenger experience. It offers serenity, beauty, and a glimpse of the natural world along a passenger journey that is documented to be high anxiety and challenging for travelers. Simply put, it is world class. Or, great. That greatness comes at a cost to design, build, and maintain. But not doing it comes at a greater cost.

How to Create Great Customer Experience

To create great customer experience, determine what each person needs at each touchpoint to make their journey easier. Research fuels this design step. Next, consider how to communicate with your customer along the journey so they feel seen, guided, and cared for. This is where digital displays and information sharing come in. Current and in-development technology amplify ease across environments. But technology for the sake of technology is not enough.

Great customer experience requires the human element, not only in the programming of technology tools, but in the delivery of human-to-human interactions at every stage of your customer’s journey. This means training teams, from leadership to the frontline, on hospitality standards. Hospitality standards do more than create ease for your customers. They empower your employees to solve problems. And they help to establish that crucial sense of place required of all great experiences.

Beyond training, how are you empowering your employees to deliver great customer experience and maintain brand recognition? Are you giving them tools, information, and autonomy to be useful and supportive along the journey? And to remain engaged, encouraged, and encouraging in their jobs? Great customer experience is, at the end of the day, directly connected to great employee experience. And that is directly connected to retention (another ROI win!).

To deliver great CX, you also need to think beyond the individual passenger, or customer journey, especially in built environments. Remember to think through the people flow. From an engineering standpoint, consider the volume of flow through the space to ensure passenger can move the way they need to move say, during peak travel times.

Then there is the process flow. Here is where we come back to that elevator-in-the-right-place conversation. Are the elevators placed in the right location is question one. The next question is, are those elevators big enough to accommodate the flows of passengers we expect now, ten years from now, thirty years from now? These mega-design/build projects have a longevity that is perfect for building a legacy, but only if you build it right.

For customer experience support, how to infuse CX, where to put CX in your RFP, or other experience design and maintenance strategies, schedule a complimentary consultation with us.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Liliana Petrova
Liliana Petrova CCXP pioneered a new customer-centric culture that energized more than 15,000 JetBlue employees. Future Travel Experience & Popular Science awarded her for her JFK Lobby redesign & facial recognition program. Committed to creating seamless experiences for customers and greater value for brands, she founded The Petrova Experience, an international customer experience consulting firm that helps brands improve CX. To elevate the industry, she launched a membership program to help CX professionals grow their careers. Ms Petrova lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.


  1. As a frequent user of the Atlanta airport, an engineer by education, and a member of the CX community, the airport case poses a special CX design challenge. The need for great distance in the built environment is set before one can even think about CX. Why is that? Real estate … the tarmac area at each gate is determined by the wingtip-to-wingtip width of the airplanes (plus safety margins and ground crew workspaces). The number of gates is determined by the number of daily flights and the passenger capacity of the airplane models that use them. Also the operating model of the airport itself, which in ATL’s case is the very large ‘hub’. So there will be long walks/train rides, endless hallways, large seating areas, etc. With all these constraints providing great CX requires novel thinking, inspiration, and design thinking. ATL, to be honest, does well sometimes and falls flat in others. But was the world saw with the LaGuardia project, one can always hope.


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