What I Bring to UX From … Architecture

Bringing inspiration from architecture

What I Bring To UX

What were you doing before you made it to UX? Our series investigates the stories.

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  • What I Bring to UX

When I tell people that I have a background in architecture, I usually follow that statement with “as-in-designing-buildings” because people often assume that means that I have a computer science degree and was a software architect. But no, by “architecture” I am referring to the years I spent hunched over a drawing board and building models out of balsa wood and cardboard.

UX and Architecture

I am sure that the connection between User Experience Design and Architecture is not an unfamiliar one; even here on Johnny Holland there is a post “Interaction Design and Architecture: A Video Primer” that highlights eight videos in which people talk about the connections between the two fields. But, as someone who studied architecture and worked as an intern architect, when people ask me what the connection is between them, my response is two-fold. Firstly, an important part of architecture is the design of the navigation, orientation and way-finding through and within spaces. User experience design also encompasses the design of those aspects; the difference is in in the materials used to embody those designs. To quote Christina Wodtke:

Much like our real world namesakes, we design spaces for human beings to live work and play in. The big difference is the materials we work with…

Secondly, as an architect, you represent the voice of the client throughout the design and build process. You are constantly mediating between the various engineers and tradespeople, while representing the needs of the client. Similarly, as a user experience designer you are representing the needs of the end-user throughout the product design and development process while mediating between the various stakeholders such as project management, development and quality assurance.

What Did I Do

I didn’t know what I wanted to do when it came time to apply for university. But, then I went for a visit to Carleton University that happened to coincide with “Kosmic”, an annual party put on by Carleton’s School of Architecture. The school had been completely transformed, through the magic of enormous corrugated cardboard structures and a lot of creative lighting, into a “Through the Looking Glass” themed-world. My mind was made up, that school was where I wanted to go.

After graduating from Carleton, I found a job in a very small Ottawa firm. As a part of the internship to become a licensed architect in Canada there is a requirement to log hours across the full-range of what an architect does, such as: doing design sketches and producing working drawings; running client meetings; conducting on-site inspections with the contractors and sub-trades; as well as producing any change requests or addenda as changes are made throughout the construction phase. Since our office was small, the two architects were able to let me get experience in almost every area that I needed to get experience in; until there was a recession.

How I moved into UX

Late in 1996, things really slowed down in the office, to the point where the architects had to let me go. I was making ends meet doing contract work, when I heard about a new Master of Architecture program that was going to be starting in the fall of 1997 at Carleton University. This new program was going to explore the relationship between “traditional” architecture and the design of “new” virtual spaces and interfaces. Unfortunately, this program no longer exists, but in 1997 I was accepted into the inaugural year of the Master of Architecture, Design and Technology program. After completing my first year, I went back to working full-time at the architecture firm for the summer. But, after receiving a phone call from a classmate about a summer position as a UI Designer at Corel, I went for an interview and was offered a contract for the summer. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I went and spoke to the two architects – they practically packed up my desk for me, right then and there. They told me that I had been working for them for over three years and had a clear understanding of what it was going to be like to “be” an architect, but I had no idea what it would be like to “be” a UI Designer, so they convinced me to take the contract. When the summer ended, I stayed on part-time at Corel through the fall and winter while I finished my thesis and then started full-time after graduation.

I stayed at Corel for eleven years.

What I Bring to UX From It

There is so much about what I learned from architecture that can be applied to User Experience Design, but here are a few of them:

  1. Ideas aren’t precious.
    At Carleton, at various points during our projects we would hang-up our work for public display and present our ideas for critique from our peers, professors and visiting critics. Early sketches and quick massing models were presented and discussed, as were our final, laboriously rendered, drawings and meticulously crafted models. From all the presentation and discussion of my own projects, and those of everyone around me, I came to realize that ideas aren’t precious. Ideas are there to be discussed, debated and critiqued; but in order for that to happen, the ideas must be made concrete. It is through this transformation from idea to object where people display their design skills, by showing their ability to articulate their ideas through the material of their craft, be it a sketch or a model or a mock-up or code. It’s that concrete manifestation of the idea that can then be communicated to others and iterated upon, in order for it to improve and not be something that is coveted as a precious design artifact.
  2. S**t happens. or Nothing ever gets built as planned.
    In school, as we worked back and forth (from sketch to model, then back to drawing, then back to model again) the models and drawings never matched each other, and we were criticized if they did. The goal of this translation back and forth was to have one manifestation of the idea inform the other, and to continually improve as you went from one medium to another. Once I started working in an architecture firm I quickly realized that the same held true for “real” buildings, nothing ever gets built as planned. These changes need to happen for a myriad of reasons: the requirements change; steel structure of the existing building isn’t exactly where the as-built drawing said it was going to be; and on, and on, and on. But it’s just a regular part of the process of translating a working drawing of a building into its built form. The same holds true for User Experience Design. Nothing will ever get built as planned. Changes need to happen for a myriad of reasons as the implementation is underway, but it’s just a normal part of the process for translating interaction designs and visual designs into products.
  3. Listen to others, especially those that know better than you do.
    In my last year of my undergrad I had a professor, who told us, time and time again to listen to the tradespeople, because they all knew more than we did. For example, a drywaller with twenty-five years experience, probably has some pretty good suggestions on how to improve a bulkhead detail, they may have suggestions as to how to better anchor it to the ceiling, or how to support it in a way that would use less material and would therefore reduce its weight and cost. The tradespeople had experience and knowledge to be learned from, if we were willing to listen.  Similarly, as user experience designers we get to work with a wide range of people: clients, project managers, developers, quality assurance specialists, just to name a few. Each of them have their own area of expertise, or trade, and we, as designers, can learn from their experience and knowledge.
  4. Seeing the Big Picture and the Little Details.
    In the architecture firm I worked in, by the time we were creating the design details in the working drawings for a building, we each had a clear image of the building in our minds. So, for example, if the siding contractor told us that the siding needs to be out 2” further than what was shown in the wall section detail, we would have been able to quickly consider the implications of this in all dimensions at both a macro (how will this affect the wall detail at the top, at the bottom, and where it joins the adjacent walls) and the micro (how will this affect the details at the window, door and louvre openings in the wall). Not to say that architects have a monopoly on this type of spatial thinking, but similar to industrial designers, architects can quickly understand the implication of one change across a variety of dimensions. As a user experience designer, the mental gymnastics that were previously required to mentally flip from plan to section to elevation at both a macro and a micro level are now used to visualize the relationship between the elements in a product. This helps me to understand the implications of a change to one element and visualize how it cascades through the inter-related pieces in the design.
  5. Know thy client.
    At the early stages in the design process, the architects would go through a requirements gathering phase. For example, if it was a residential project, the architects would go and spend time with the client in their house. They would observe how existing spaces in the house were used and what worked and didn’t work for the client. Some of these observations came directly from what the client told them, and others were uncovered by being an objective viewer and seeing first-hand how the spaces were being inhabited. Only later, as a user experience designer, did I understand that what they were doing was a form of contextual inquiry, to help them gain insight into the living patterns of the client so they could design a space for them which would better fit their needs and living patterns.

What’s the Difference?

Aside from all the similarities in processes from requirements gathering to design iteration, to mediation and negotiation during the construction phase, the one obvious difference between architecture and user experience design is the lifespan of the resulting product. Compared to most buildings designed by an architect, the majority of products created by user experience designers are relatively ephemeral. In some ways, this is a good thing as rapid, iterative releases allows us to continually improve and modify our products in response to changing requirements and customer needs. There is no easy way to do A/B testing for the design of a detail in a building. But, as an architect, the implicit permanence of designing a building carries with it a sense of responsibility. Once that design takes its place within the built environment, its life span is typically much longer than the products we create as user experience designers. I can’t help but wonder if we would have better designed products if some of that responsibility and sense of permanence of architecture found its way into what we do as user experience designers.

As an architect, the implicit permanence of designing a building carries with it a sense of responsibility… I can’t help but wonder if we would have better designed products if some of that responsibility and sense of permanence of architecture found its way into what we do as user experience designers.

What I’ve Found About Moving Into UX

To do well in either architecture or user experience design, the ability to communicate well is key, and the most important part of communicating is listening.

As designers, we need to listen to our clients and their customers to understand their needs and requirements. We need to communicate our designs to both our clients and our development teams in a way that they will understand. Our ideas need to be translated into designs and made concrete, through user scenarios, workflow diagrams, mock-ups or wireframes so that they can be discussed, understood, tested and improved upon. Communication becomes even more important once those designs start being built. As I already stated, nothing ever gets built as planned. Therefore, communication is key in working with the development team to evolve and refine the design as it gets built, and to manage the expectations of the client throughout the development process as those changes are occurring. And, a lot of that communicating is listening.

Picture from lightmediumbold

Jennifer Fraser

Jennifer Fraser is the Director of Design at Macadamian, a design and development consultancy based in Ottawa, Canada. She has both a Bachelor and Master of Architecture and has been told that she designs and builds great cocktails.

4 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: » What I Bring to UX From … Architecture Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction » Blog Archive | UXWeb.info

  2. Pingback: On those precious ideas – marks.dk

  3. Pingback: Designing for permanence

  4. Mide S on

    Very interesting article, it’s quite rare to find someone from your background doing interactive work, however it makes perfect sense since you design houses for people to use and the same applies to UX or UI design