In many ways, the leasing center at Forest City's University Park at MIT resembles the popular Apple computer stores. The space is brightly lit, open and airy, features display tables with models (apartment mock-ups instead of iPods and laptops, of course), and offers plenty of interactive activities. Plus, much like Apple stores, these rental sales associates are equipped with wireless tablets so they can conduct business anytime, anywhere.

This new and approved retail-like leasing center in Cambridge, Mass., is just one part of Forest City's push to bring its marketing, sales, and design strategies in line with the new breed of high-end urban product it's bringing to the multifamily market. “Our product was definitely leading the way, and we wanted to bring everything else into alignment,” says Adam Siegal, vice president for strategic marketing for the Cleveland-based developer. So instead of just lining up the traditional cast of characters like marketing and architectural firms to generate ideas, Forest City decided to explore a completely new venue to rethink its operations.

Enter IDEO, a San Francisco-based leading design and innovation company that brings an entirely fresh approach to the real estate world. IDEO—whose impressive client list includes such corporate giants as Hewlett-Packard, AT&T Wireless, Nestle, and Samsung—conducts behavior-based observational research to develop insights as to how people use products and how these products can be improved. “They came up with a different way of marketing and positioning a product,” says Ron Ratner, president and CEO of Forest City Residential. “I have been in this business my whole life and never came to this understanding.”

MODEL SPACE: Forest City's newly designed leasing centers are a perfect place for browsing. IDEO has worked with few developers in the past, but Forest City's business values and goals aligned well with its product offering, says Fred Dust, a principal at the company (where no one has an official title). “ We have been approached by developers again and again and, on the whole, tended to shy away from working with them,” Dust says. “For so many developers, their bottom line is money, and there's not a great investment into how they can better the experience of the communities they are working with. We had a sense right from the beginning that Forest City was a really different animal.”

To date, IDEO has lent its ideas to about 15 of Forest City's projects, spanning from an older property in San Francisco's South Beach neighborhood to a 27-acre, four-property site near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. IDEO offers suggestions on everything from leasing techniques and marketing materials to amenity offerings and common area design. “They are not giving us an architectural product per se,” Siegal explains. “They provide you with a broader list of things to consider.”

MEET THE RENTERS First on that checklist: Get to know your potential renters. Prior to joining forces with IDEO, Forest City, like most developers, relied mainly on statistically derived data to glean information on its potential resident pool. But IDEO takes an entirely different approach, conducting qualitative research to learn the who, what, and why of its audience. The company thoroughly works the market through inter views with prospects on the street (think “Jaywalking” from “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”), lunch and dinner meetings, and even meeting with area residents in their current homes. “The real estate market is so local, there's no substitute for being there,” Siegal says.

IDEO's man on the street interviews help Forest City develop property-specific marketing campaigns. The best example: the campaign for University Park at MIT, a site with four unique types of buildings, from a modern luxury mid-rise to a hard-core urban loft. “Each building had a very distinct character and [was] attracting very distinct people, yet they were all treated as part of one campus,” says Dust. So instead of lumping all the buildings together in its marketing materials as originally planned, Forest City decided to emphasize each of the building's unique offerings. At, prospects can even take a quirky personality test to see which building best matches their tastes.