Jul 30, 2015
THEME: Point of View

Everyone’s a Critic: How Online Comments Can Improve Design


Late last year, I was asked to prepare a talk for a regional conference of aquatic directors. It occurred to me that one of their most pressing daily concerns must be user satisfaction, not simply design or programming. Just like every other service and business, their staff, facility, and services were the subject of online reviews and discussion. Spending some time exploring a range of online review sites confirmed this suspicion. Just as we see with the local restaurant or retail outlet, plenty of customer comments are logged on experiences at the local pool, rink, and fitness centre. These comments matter to our clients and we, as designers, need to explore how to utilize and benefit from this information.

The way customer experience is shared through social media has changed how our clients provide services, and it should now inform how we design their facilities. Understanding online reviews can help set better guiding principles and inform more thoughtful design that benefits end-user and client alike.

Comments are no longer simply stuffed in a suggestion box, never to be read, it is a social phenomenon. Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp are just a few of the many platforms out there giving the public a way to voice their opinions. This has been going on for a number of years and there are plenty of studies revealing how social media is influencing businesses. While it may be hard to draw parallels between the services our civic and institutional clients offer with those of a company that sells shoes or a restaurant offering a prix fixe meal, customer feedback is relevant to all.

As more people talk about service and experiences online, business is directly affected. Bad news travels faster than good.  When a poor experience occurs and is written about, the likelihood of continuing to patronize drops off significantly. On the other hand, shared good experiences increase the chance of returning. An analysis in the Harvard Business Review found that in a subscription or participation-based business, a good customer experience not only secures longer membership, it reduces operational costs. Unhappy customers cost an organization time and revenue.


The important thing is to not just read the comments, but to understand and use them effectively. Having sifted through a range of reviews I began to see four common trends:

Comfort and safety – are we attending to personal needs through design?

Availability – have we designed enough capacity to meet demand?

Hygiene – are facilities designed to be kept clean?

Accommodation– can a range of users access the facility and programs?

These categories may seem obvious, but that is the point: Applying a filter of direct user experience should become a key part of every design process. The trends themselves will vary depending upon the client’s type of business or service, but should always be a consideration regardless of project type.

Imagine using these filters at the beginning of the design ideation process. If a client has an existing facility, we should ask them to share their online reviews.  This information provides valuable insight on the public’s current experience and what aspect of design is important to them. It can augment our understanding of the client’s needs just as much as a program or business plan does.  More than one visioning session can be structured around online reviews. For example, at the conference we asked attendees to contribute a series of good favorable reviews that they, as operators, would like to read. We also asked them to assume a persona from a range of demographically diverse users and imagine what type of review their assumed persona would write. The outcome of these exercises could then be used to inform the guiding principles of the design process, becoming touchstones for decision making.

The blunt nature of social media comments encourages us to pay close attention to the areas of a building that matter most to the general user. In the case of recreation and fitness, without a doubt, the preeminent concern regards the change room experience. This is where you win over your new member or participant or lose them forever. Details matter, as does cleanliness. This is a lesson that the hospitality design industry has learned long ago and invested considerable research and effort to improve their facilities and, as a result, reduce complaints.

From my short deep dive into the world of social media reviews, I learned that people are not shy about sharing their experiences, good and bad. I believe that our clients need to be prepared with the best possible design solutions. By confronting the reality of what makes people ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ an experience, we need to incorporate this as a key part of the visioning and design process.

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