User experience and the perfection of it is the holy grail in industries ranging from gaming to shopping.
So, what can engineers learn from these industries which put so much effort into understanding, attracting and retaining their customers?
The answer, according to developer Landsec’s London portfolio head of development Beth West, is a lot – from what the final piece of infrastructure feels like to how workers feel about constructing it.
“One of the really big reasons I joined Landsec, is that when working in infrastructure I came to the conclusion that engineers do a lot of building assets without thinking about the people who use them.
I came to the point of thinking that engineers should stop designing projects
“And I came to the point of thinking that engineers should stop designing projects; we need people who understand how people will use those assets before engineers get involved,” she says.
The experience that the John Lewis store, in Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre, has worked so hard on – from the tone the lighting design creates to the choice of stock – goes much deeper than what is immediately visible in the final product. It started with the clean, efficient construction enabled by contractor Laing O’Rourke’s offsite factory delivering the brick-faced precast concrete panels that shroud the store. Using this has led to a better experience for locals as on-site construction time has been shorter and there have been fewer deliveries. Before customers set foot inside, the retail site’s sense of place – including features such as a communal space for pop-up events in front of the store and an open roof – combine to create a better experience.
Beth west crop
“Engineering has been, for so long, about getting people from point a to point b or to build things. Maybe you just haven’t had to think about it because people just come along and use stuff. But we’re really in a world where we have far more scarce resources and we really have to think about how we use what we’re using,” she says.
West wants to see a modern supply chain demonstrating good practice in areas such as building information modelling, sustainability, efficient waste recycling, offsite construction – and the safety benefits reduced waste and rework bring.
But she is also aware that as a client, Landsec plays a key role in driving this behaviour. It leads West to question whether clients can work better together to drive best practice.
“Contractors rarely spend any money on research and development. Unlike consumer product industries, who are always looking at what’s the next thing, construction never has an iPad moment.
The way in which we procure, drives you to a point where contractors want clients to lead
“The way in which we procure, drives you to a point where contractors want clients to lead. Some have said that if you want to do things differently you are going to specify how you want them to do it. That leaves it to us to be really clear on how we want to work in the future… will clients work in a similar way that will push everyone in the industry?” she says.
To improve construction efficiency, Landsec has started to review its overall use of the supply chain, with a view to bringing the whole team in earlier.
At its 21 Moorfields office development, which sits over an existing London Underground station and future Crossrail ticket hall, contractors for disciplines such as steel erection and cladding were brought in before the main contractor so that design challenges were brought to a resolution earlier.
Include the concept from the start
West would like to see this happening more, particularly so that when offsite construction is used on a project, the design includes the concept from the start, so that contractors do not have to retrofit it.
“I think where we as an industry are bad is that we design something to a point and then go ‘how do we retrofit offsite?’, rather than going ‘let’s think about how we’re going to build this and how we’re going to build the different components.”
She wants to see most elements standardised for efficient production and if a standard component cannot be created, looking at easier ways to produce it, such as 3D printing, without compromising the beauty of the space.
West joined Landsec just over a year ago, after leaving her role as High Speed 2 Ltd commercial director which included overseeing procurement. Just before she announced her departure, the body had been under scrutiny because of the procurement of the £170M Phase 2b development partner role.
Conflicts of interest
One of the losing bidders, Mace, had raised questions about potential conflicts of interest between staff who had moved between HS2 Ltd and winning bidder CH2M. In the end CH2M pulled out of the role, but throughout HS2 Ltd stood up for the integrity of its procurement process. West’s decision to leave HS2 Ltd was not linked to this issue.
Given the added pressure this episode put on West, one would think she would have been relieved to have got out of the metaphorical goldfish bowl.
West says she was used to being in the public eye, citing the time early in her career at Transport for London when a board paper she wrote was leaked to London’s Evening Standard newspaper. But she describes her experience at HS2 Ltd as “another dimension”.
“HS2 has always been controversial, so everything you do, you have to be really mindful of the fact that the public is really looking at you and it’s hard. It is a big challenge, and because of what my role was, having been commercial director and trying to engage the supply chain, I personally was in the public eye a lot so you just have to be really conscious of what you’re saying and being consistent all the time,” she says.
She says Mace was “right to bring that up” and says questioning the contract awards “is to be expected” but adds: “It was a hard time for everybody because nobody wants to go through that kind of situation, but it has all been resolved and it is cracking on.”
The day I meet West she is relaxed, jovial and clearly enjoying her experience at Landsec.
She tries to lead by example and wants to see the industry doing the same, including enabling all workers to have a better work/life balance and manage family commitments – seeing the industry adopt more flexible working practices and ditching outmoded attitudes to those who take them up.
“You need to not be there all the time, in the first instance. People need to see you leaving on time if you want that culture, and having that flexibility, and being vocal – ‘I’ve got sports day today, I’m going to be in a bit late’ and it being fine.”
That way, she argues, working in engineering and construction can be a better experience for everyone.