Pulte Homes knows that it’s not hard to design a home people like.
But designing a home people love is a different story.
And that’s where Pulte’s Life Tested program comes into play. A unique approach to product design and development, the Life Tested program involves gathering actual home shoppers and owners through a variety of steps leading up to the creation of a new product, says Jim Van Kirk, vice president of marketing and communications for PulteGroup, Inc. in Atlanta, Ga.
The vision for this innovative and ongoing program is to “ensure that the homes being built for customers actually deliver on and solve some of their existing needs and pain points.”
The national homebuilder embarked on this incredibly complex process that requires an in-depth understanding of how consumers use their homes today and also, who’s living in them.
What is Life Tested?
Modern-day family composition looks very different than those of the 50s, says Van Kirk. Rebounding children, roommate situations, people downsizing because of divorce – “there are so many facets of life today that drive the need for a different type of home solution and we’re trying to solve for all of those things by capturing people when they’re shopping for new homes and inviting them to experience the designs we’re working on.”
The Life Tested process reflects the difficulty involved in capturing buyer’s unique needs. Typically involving 12 steps, the process first begins with consumer input provided before there’s a product for them to interact with. “You ideate around what you think the customer is telling you that they need solutions for and you come up with some designs that solve for that,” says Van Kirk.
Next, prototype models are built to varying degrees of completion. Consumers walk a stick-frame prototype with fake cardboard furniture and tape markings to indicate spatial relations. After enough feedback is collected, a brick-and-mortar prototype is built, implementing the collective consumer input. These prototypes continue to get more refined as more and more people provide feedback and, ultimately, a final “life tested” plan is developed.
Despite being a production builder, Pulte does not mass produce its Life Tested models. Instead, Pulte chooses to serve buyers across the nation with custom solutions by market. When building in a new area, Pulte will recruit a new and unique set of target buyers that fit the demographics of the region. Often, land acquisition studies help to identify their audience. For example, in Washington, D.C., “you’re going to get a lot of pre-family with no kids yet and single people who, because of affordability in that market require having a roommate,” says Van Kirk.
The combination of primary and secondary research makes the process lengthy, but Pulte is hoping to develop floor plans that work better for buyers than what’s currently on the market. They’re working so hard to get it right that Van Kirk says the secondary family bathroom went through 12 prototype stages.
Not surprisingly, the process doesn’t end with a finalized floor plan. Pulte maintains relationships with owners of their Life Tested plans. “We communicate with then on an ongoing basis to figure out how the home is working for them, if they’re planning to stay in it and to understand what improvements they’re looking to make,” says Van Kirk.
What ultimately makes the program so successful is its continuous and engaging nature. The homes of today will be antiquated in as little as five to 10 years, so “this isn’t just a one-time occurrence,” says Van Kirk. “We need to rethink how we interact with customers every time we design products.”
Real Life Testing
Whitney Beard was one such customer who tried Pulte Homes’ Life Tested approach. After selling her home in Wilmington, N.C., and moving her family of four to Charlotte, N.C., she knew she needed to buy a home quickly or face the inconvenience of a temporary living situation. After months of looking around at homes — mostly existing homes because of the prospect of quick move-in — Beard felt that the money she would have to sink into remodeling these outdated homes made a newly built home a much wiser investment.
Beard was offered the opportunity to walk two of Pulte’s plans being developed in Charlotte. Her preferences and suggestions included locating the master bedroom downstairs, larger secondary bedrooms for her growing kids, ages 14 and 10, and a Jack-and-Jill bath to accompany these bedrooms.
Beard’s decision to ultimately purchase the Weatherford plan in Pulte’s Tullamore community saw her suggestions realized. Additionally, her home contains some of Pulte’s trademarked Life Tested features, like the Pulte Planning Center (an organizational office), Everyday Entry (a mudroom), Super Laundry (an oversized laundry room with extra storage), Oversized Pantry and Life Tested Living Space (an open layout), all of which enhance her lifestyle by offering a way to easily maintain her home while tending to her family’s needs.
These trademarked features are recurring demands Pulte sees universally among home shoppers and looks to implement in their new products. The Pulte Planning Center, for example, is an organizational space used to house electronics, and other household items. It’s sort of like the hub for family management. But “it’s more than a desk,” says Van Kirk. “People told us specifically how they wanted that space to be executed. They don’t want that area to be visible to guests and they know it’s going to be cluttered, so that want that stuff to be out of sight but in close proximity.” Beard loves the Pulte Planning Center, saying “it’s a neat feature that works for how I live my life.”
“I hope that what I had to say was beneficial,” says Beard. “I hope Pulte can use the things I liked and the things I didn’t.” But Beard recognizes how intensely personal the home shopping process can be, acknowledging those in her focus groups who were trying to solve for different circumstances.
But at the end of the day, the feedback provided by Beard and other legitimate home shoppers is invaluable in helping to create solutions for every buyer. “Anyone can go out and hire an architect to design a home,” says Van Kirk. But until you understand the people you’re designing it for, you can’t create an ideal product.
Ashley Steel is a former SEO analyst for Builders Digital Experience (BDX).
She was previously a staff writer and editor for New Home Source, where she wrote about a variety of topics, from helping Realtors understand how to assist clients in choosing new home options to helping consumers find home design inspiration in a variety of places including a chic industrial-style bar to chicken coops.
Steel is a 2013 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a double major in Latin American Studies and Spanish. Previous to joining BDX, she worked with Latinitas, a nonprofit group that aims to encourage Latino youth to explore the fields of media and technology.