A Practical Example of Architectural Alignment
Posted by Doug Walters on 9th April 2014
I was in London this week for a series of meetings. Unfortunately, my meetings on Tuesday afternoon were cancelled, so I had an afternoon to occupy – not a problem I thought, as I had a mountain of emails on which to catch up, and a number of overdue tasks on my todo list.

So I returned to my hotel room, changed into “civvies” and started to take advantage of the free wi-fi. After about 30 minutes, I lost my train of thought and suddenly thought “what the hell am I doing? It's a sunny (if a little chilly) spring day in London; rarely, I have no commitments; and I'm sitting in a dim and poky hotel room doing emails.” With an out-of-character display of impulsive spirit, I grabbed my jacket and walked into the sunshine. I walked through Hyde Park and into Knightsbridge, eventually walking past the Brompton Oratory, a magnificent building well worth a visit to London on its own, and decided to dive into the V&A Museum to pass a couple of hours.

The mission statement for the V&A is “To be the world's leading museum of art and design. To enrich people's lives and inspire individuals and everyone in the creative industries, through the promotion of knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the designed world.” Its strategic objectives are:

1. To provide diverse audiences with the best quality experience and optimum access to our collections, physically and digitally
2. To be acknowledged and respected internationally as the world's leading museum of art and design
3. To promote, develop and contribute to the UK creative economy by leading the field in debate, inspiring designers and makers, commissioning excellent design and stimulating enjoyment and appreciation of art, design and performance
4. To operate with financial and organisational initiative and efficiency

I spent a couple of hours mooching around the museum generally, and the William Kent exhibition in particular – which certainly seemed to prove that the V&A is succeeding in strategic objectives 1 & 2. However, other aspects of the of the museums’ operation seem to focus on strategic objective 4 to the exclusion of the others. Let me explain…
After wandering around the exhibition, I went into the V& A café, a well-drilled commercial machine that is so different to many of the heritage sites that I have visited. Having reviewed the various counters of “goodies” I elected for something from the sandwich counter – a salmon and cream cheese wrap with honey-glazed carrots and cauliflower. I asked if this could be warmed up, but was told very firmly that only food bought from the hot food counter could be heated

I then had to queue at another counter for my pot of tea; the old lady in front of me in the queue was 88 and ever so nice, but a bit confused (as you might expect) so getting served took some time; but the staff were patient and keen to please without being patronising. The wait at the tills was even longer, as the dedicated tills were all unmanned, so that everyone was queuing here even if they didn't want tea or coffee. This no doubt helped reduce staffing but did little for the customer experience.

The Gamble room where I sat down to eat is a magnificent piece of design in its own right. The windows are full of Victorian maxims and mottoes about the joys of eating and drinking, such as such as 'Hunger is the best sauce' and 'A good cup makes all young'. The frieze with its inscription from Ecclesiastes II, 24 reads 'There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy the good of his labour - XYZ.'

The room was full, with about 25 tables I estimated after a quick glance

As I munched my lunch, it was accompanied by a cacophony of sound of cups and plates clattering together as the crockery collectors worked energetically to replenish the stocks of crockery at the food counters, accompanied incongruously by the tinkling of a jazz pianist located in the centre of the room. Looking around the room led me to believe that no one was really listening, partly because of the competing noise of the crockery collectors (who on a couple of occasions made even more noise by doing passable impersonations of comedic glass jugglers in a crowded bar) and partly because so many people were focused on smart phones, tablets, laptops and two people were even wearing DJ-type headphones.

I estimated that at least 16 of the tables had at least one person focused on their “gadget.” Conversation appeared n short supply.

The juxtaposition of all these seemed to me to be totally bizarre
– the pianist was clearly wasting his time (but maybe he didn't mind; after all, he was presumably getting paid for his efforts.) It seemed that his main achievement was in equalising and therefore dulling the noise of the crockery collectors.
– Personally I have mixed feelings about the way that mobile technology has come to dominate our lives. I certainly expected that people would have emerged from the magnificent collections and talked about them to their companions. However, I am resigned to the fact that the penetration of mobile technology into our psyche and living habits is irreversible – society has voted with its feet (or more specifically ears and eyes.) And I 100% support the rights of he individual to decide their own actions (within the constraints of he law, human consideration and good manners.)

Although extremely efficient (and probably very profitable) I would have preferred that someone had sat down and thought about the customer experience in the V&A cafe:
– arrange the food counters and mentor staff to behave in a way that encourages flexibility to satisfy customer requirements
– reduce the unpleasant noise of crockery collections
– make a conscious decision (supported by evidence such as customer feedback) about the atmosphere (I suppose ambience is the right word) desired in the room, and then work towards that via a controlled programme of controlled trials

Overall, there are a number of lessons / advice I take away and pass on from this experience.
- I have no doubt that the current operation is very efficient and profitable – but is that the (only) motivations for the V&A cafe (reference the V&A Mission Statement & Strategic Objectives)? I wonder whether there has been a conscious decision about pursuing Strategic Objective No. 4 to the detriment of all others ?
- Design processes from the perspective of the customer experience (User Personas, User Stories and / or User Journeys)
- Find out what works by a (managed) programme of trial solutions (you can usually do these in a way that doesn't waste money if you are "smart."

As Confuscius said:
I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand



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