The Value of Coliving with Spatial Experience at its Core

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An enriching and inspiring spatial design strategy should always start and ‘end’ with one main objective in mind: the experience that will be ultimately curated and felt within that space. In this article by Karolina Sawicka and Aitana de Jong of Spatial Experience, they take us through the different kinds of experiences that they aim to curate when helping shared living brands design their spaces and communities. They explain a core principle of what any coliving brand needs to understand: that experience design needs to inform spatial design, and vice versa. Once this process is understood and embedded, coliving designers, developers and operators can get a few steps closer to curating a thriving community and (spatial) experience.

Led by the consumer behaviours of millenials and Gen Z, experience economy principles have put in motion a new wave to defining our ‘sense of happiness and wellbeing’: instead of possessing, ‘we’ would rather put our energy and means into experiencing, renting and/ or subscribing to a range of services and products that allow ‘us’ to be more sustainable and conscious about the space and planet while having the flexibility and freedom to explore all opportunities life has to offer. In order to create unique living products with experience at their core, we need to understand how generational shifts will shape the mentality of real estate stakeholders – from architects and interior designers to investors, developers and operators – and how human- and planet-centric experience design can drive positive impact at scale.

The experience economy wave

The subject of experience economy has been deeply explored in numerous publications and research pieces. As a matter of fact, we contributed with an article in Coliving Insights edition No. 5 - Co-Tech: Innovating coliving with technology, where we discussed a possible subscription-based living model, exploring how an experience-driven society could benefit from technological advancements in proptech. Although experiences can certainly be elevated by technology, in real estate there are other dimensions of experience which are remarkably relevant to be considered.

At Spatial Experience, we have developed a user-centric methodology where experiential touchpoints depend on the audience the product is catered to. In that sense, in order to create impact-driven spatial products (including concepts, brands, buildings, spaces, communities, etc.) we begin by building the following experiences from the ground up: investor experience (IX), employee experience (EX), community experience (CX), user experience (UX) as well as user x community experience (UCX) – each of them relating to spatial experiences (SPX) whether it is online or offline. To learn more about the meaning of Spatial Experience we refer to our recent SPX Lab article “What Is A Spatial Experience? Why Experience Design Creates Meaningful Built Environments.” All of those types of experiences should be defined at the early stage of new developments and translated into respective touchpoints, including among others in the architecture, its surroundings and interior spaces.

The bottom line is that whichever experience is taken into consideration, it always needs to be aligned to the broader vision and mission of the company, product, service, customer as well as the brand overall. It is only this way that a clear and comprehensive projection of the value proposition and brand experience in users’ minds can be created. Moreover, research shows that the most memorable experiences involve all five basic senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. In reality, it is challenging to create a fully immersive coliving experience, though it still can be feasible. It just requires full engagement of all stakeholders and a significant amount of resources. Another challenge in coliving, and any other type of shared living, is to design spaces that have the power to bring people together and encourage them to form an authentic community – in essence designing spaces that will be both functional and visually stimulating. As an answer to those challenges, design in real estate is starting to find an increasingly broader application. Design has a fundamental role to turn built environments into meaningful experiences both for the end users and the broader community.

Experience design and purposefully designed spaces

Taking a step back, let’s look deeper into experience design and its practical implementation in architecture and interior design. In its broader sense, experience design is the approach that places people’s experiences at the core to drive design principles for products, services, spaces, processes, strategies, etc. It is rooted in the deep understanding of the user’s needs, pains, gains, feelings, context and objectives and the adaptive definition of ‘experience’ in a user’s mind. In principle, it prioritises a user-centric approach over anything else and regards touchpoints and interactions as an opportunity to evoke emotions and create a long-lasting impact and quality of life. This emotional connection can be achieved through a purposeful use of lighting, colours, patterns, posters, signage and the choice of furniture. Other areas with untapped potential that should be considered are the interspatial / in-between spaces, such as stairs, lifts or even void between two balconies facing each other, and functional spaces such as toilets, gyms and communal kitchens. The ultimate outcome should be a happy user that feels more connected to the space and the brand than before.

One of the most recent tendencies in the pursuit of fostering user happiness and wellbeing is the implementation of biophilic design. This type of design recalls nature – greenery, natural light, wood, stone, clean water, etc. – and implements natural aspects in daily surroundings to improve our wellbeing. We have observed an increase in the consideration and use of biophilic design during the pandemic, when not only the concerns about mental health arose but also the overall safety and comfort of living and working spaces was being questioned. In a recent medical study, it has been reported how the presence of plants not only improves air quality up to 25% but also increases the improved perception of air quality by the users of a space, which positively influences our feeling of health and safety. An interesting example of modern application of biophilic design principles can be found within Scandinavian lifestyles and designs, which unsurprisingly accommodates the happiest people in the world.

After COVID-19 the need for safety and security has gained a significant importance in our lives; however, it has always been at the core of our human nature. On a primal level the inner call for warmth and shelter is the feature that we inherited during our evolution. Following Maslov’s pyramid of basic needs, only after ‘deficiency needs’ (safety and belonging) are satisfied, is it possible to focus on fulfilling higher levels of human needs such as ‘additional comfort’ and ‘aesthetic needs’. Very often coliving developers and operators forget that at the core of a successful community should not lay the premium (such as facilities or common spaces if you will) but seeding in the building the sense of home – creating spaces that make people feel safe, included and noticed. In that effort, they should dive into questions such as: What makes people feel like they are at home? What encourages them to connect with one another in spaces such as the corridor? What helps inhabitants become a balanced and wealthy, healthy community? What values do they share?

Due to the fact that coliving is one of the solutions responding to the larger societal challenges of our age, experience design has more power (and therefore, more responsibility) to help build integrated, happy and safe communities than it ever had before. The type of experience you want to provide for a coliving community will also depend on the nature of the community you are fostering. Therefore, an initial logical step is to define your brand purpose and brand values, only then translate and implement them into all physical and digital touchpoints to ensure a successful coliving experience.

In general, spatial branding – discussed in one of our previous articles at SPX Lab, Unpacking Spatial Branding: How Can Brands Enter The Space? – is one of the crucial aspects in creating coliving experiences as it serves as a communication channel in the dialogue between the brand and the user. Ranging from signage, placemaking installations and spatial graphics, the environment of a building and its surroundings should be seen as a canvas for visual storytelling that translates a cohesive message between space and user to trigger interactions, which result in tighter bonds between community members.

The overall experience can be improved by using some aspects of gamification as well. Gamification helps to motivate users (referred to as ‘players’) to do certain activities and achieve goals. For example, if a coliving brand has sustainability as a core value, the ecological aspects should be implemented in various parts of the building and the community habits and rituals. On an infrastructural level, this can mean using renewable energy, installing solar panels or lights with sensors to decrease energy usage. On a daily basis, sustainable behaviours should be encouraged as an integral part of the community culture. To ensure that, a coliving developer and / or operator can implement gamified spatial elements to trigger desired behaviours amongst space-users. This can be for instance a set of wayfinding signs that turns a building into a labyrinth of sustainable practices by using storytelling.

Moreover, nowadays digital and physical spaces are strongly intertwined, and adding a virtual layer to on-site experiences can significantly elevate the experience and increase the amount of data gathered. For example, sustainable behaviour can be rewarded by scanning a QR code after helping to plant a tree in one of the community events and earning coins in community cryptocurrency. That way, the resident feels that he / she contributed to something greater, the coliving brand is perceived as an impact-led enterprise and the data that is gathered through the app can contribute to deeper understanding of the residents and target audience. Moreover, a microeconomy is being encouraged as the residents can exchange the points for different services. In the end, the sense of community is stronger.

Another example is taking advantage of tech-driven functional objects to enhance spatial experience and bring people together such as the innovation of Chairwave developed by VOUW. As the producer describes, “the moment someone sits down on Chairwave, the seats next to that person unfold, leaving them open as the only options for the following person to sit on. This is the perfect moment to start a conversation.” An experiment with Chairwave that was done with a group of strangers in Zaanstad City Hall (a Dutch city near Amsterdam) proved that including these types of objects in public / shared spaces contributes to increased empathy and improved overall wellbeing.

All of the aspects mentioned above are various touchpoints on the coliving journey that positively impact the overall experience during the whole stay and beyond. Defining all of those moments of contact with the space-user early in the development stage makes the space purposefully designed and ultimately leads to higher returns and engagement within the building.

Whether the user experience journey will be defined in advance or not, residents are experiencing the space on a daily basis, hence the emphasis on this matter. On the other hand, ‘being in space’ is an experience that happens with or without the presence of branding elements, meaning that not communicating brand values and identity through space can be considered as a missed business opportunity.

Building a spatial journey

Having said all that, the question is how and when to start building the experience-driven spatial journey for the coliving community? The answer is clear – the sooner the better.

Developing an impact-driven environment always begins with extensive planning and involves many stakeholders, such as architects, engineers, designers, branding experts and marketing teams. The success of an emerging player may well be determined by starting the process of defining a coliving experience at an early stage, even before a piece of land is acquired or the building is under construction. At Spatial Experience we work with cross-disciplinary teams of investors, architects, designers and developers to envision and define the space that will fulfill the needs of future residents and can deliver on brand promises. By carefully analysing recent trends and developments, industry context and target audiences and applying our niche expertise, we ensure that the brand is being translated to all the touchpoints of the future tenant journey – from pre-onboarding (e.g. searching for space, comparing and making a decision) to living and offboarding – in order to create a cohesive experience. We also take technology into consideration as the main driver of data-driven decision making and accelerating digital transformations to help design purposeful spaces that enable human-to-human interactions, both online and offline.

Experiences connect people, make them stay (longer) and help them become your ambassadors

As with any other investment, high-level decision makers expect that involving various resources to improve their tenant experience will yield appropriate returns. Lack of tangible indicators in place to measure the outcomes of investing in resident experience might be a major obstacle for change-makers in convincing internal stakeholders to put their residents at the heart of any decision. Business objectives should be clearly communicated and translated into spatial experience metrics. One of the methods to calculate the return-on-experience is to show the value of customer experience (CX) over time by focusing on customer lifetime value (CLV) and long-term referral benefits. Some other metrics include retention rates (and defining the logic behind them by running tenant surveys), net promoter score (NPS), customer satisfaction (CSAT), churn rate or customer effort score (CES) and occupancy rates.

The combination of two or more metrics should give the optimal image of whether or not the efforts in providing unique experiences bring desired results. The qualitative way to observe if the residents are happy is to also periodically check online reviews, analyse the sentiment, train community managers and other staff members to talk to residents and ask for feedback. Tracking these metrics over time can lead to a fuller picture and better decision-making to further fine-tune processes, ultimately propelling your coliving business to its highest potential.

Investing in experience is a long-term commitment which consequently involves a certain level of risk, especially one that is led by a time-bound factor. The risk can be mitigated if experience design is implemented at the early stage of the development and the buy-in from all relevant stakeholders is secured. Experiences are like a glue that connects spaces, people and brands to form results. Whether the results are satisfying or not depends on execution and consistency of providing a certain level of overall brand experience.

If you have ever wondered how to create or transform your coliving space into a purposeful hub that has power to connect people and form a prospering community, reach out to Spatial Experience and learn about how we can guide you through experience design, ultimately helping you translate your brand into the physical space while ensuring consistency throughout all its touchpoints.

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