UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1226 April 23, 2014

Why UX Designers Need to Think like Architects

During a recent conversation with my father-in-law, an architect with nearly 40 years of experience, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between his work and mine. As he detailed his design process and thinking to me—sharing his extensive design insight—I was reminded of my own process and thinking. Obviously, the tangible results are quite different, but there is common ground in the way that we view the world, and the way that we think about design.

Architects are, of course, a type of designer, but the work of a good architect is not just about designing a space that is beautiful. It’s about balancing aesthetics with usability—precisely what we are tasked with as user experience designers. Moreover, architects solve problems, crafting solutions that embody balance. The late American architect Buckminster Fuller once said, “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

The Architect’s Design Process

Renowned American architect Hal Box identified the start of the design process as the exploration of three worlds that are about to meet: “One world is the site, a place in the community or landscape; another world is the program, the owner’s list of needs and desires; and the third world is the budget.” The site is the physical space the project will occupy, which incorporates not only the possibilities but also the restrictions imposed upon it (zoning codes, building codes, etc.). The program encompasses everything expected from the building, including its content, functionality, audience, etc. The budget is, of course, a reality of almost every design project.

While the program is the heart of the design process, it does not define it—the project is a living thing, adapting as necessary to changing priorities and variables. Architects typically engage in visual problem solving—sketching, diagramming, and fleshing out all aspects of the problem and possible solutions. They sketch, test, and visualize, working toward developing the architectural concept of any given project, which Hal Box poetically defines as the architect’s “visualization of what the building seeks to be.” This phrasing fascinates me because it implies that every project has an ideal form, and every designer simply attempts to interpret its manifestation. It brings to mind a metaphysical concept among artists that they do not themselves create, but rather reveal the form already present within whatever medium they are using.

First century Roman architect Vitruvius posited that all structures must have firmitas, utilitas, venustas: solidity, utility, and beauty. These so-called Vitruvian Virtues refer to the fundamentals (like the foundation), functionality, and, of course, aesthetics. Architects use these three principles throughout the design process, in crafting the overall user experience. In many ways, architectural UX work is much more complicated than it is on the web. An architect works within a defined space—a plot of land, perhaps, or a preexisting structure. The scope of work can be further defined by restrictions or limitations imposed by government and other regulations. From here, the architect must consider the best use of this space, how to best use it in fulfilling the client’s requirements, while also considering users/customers, particularly when it comes to commercial and public spaces.

Architectural facets of usability may include anything from a clearly marked entrance, to an intuitive and logical flow through the hallways/corridors and overall layout of a structure, to signage with appropriate labeling and giving clear directions, among many other things. However, usability is only one of many considerations in developing an architectural solution. In this realm, working within a physical space gives a distinct advantage—an architect can design a solution that will engage all five of a user’s senses. In this way, he or she creates a somewhat more complete user experience than we could ever achieve on the web (as we know it).

Still, architects are, essentially, generalists—they must be able to develop an overarching vision that encompasses all aspects of a problem. During construction, they function as overseers, relying on a team of skilled specialists to help realize their visions. They must be masters of communication to be able to guide their team toward the solutions they’ve developed. The fluidity of their work lends itself to the same sorts of challenges we face in ours—budgetary issues, lack of resources, difficult clients, difficult teams/managers, etc.—which, in turn, requires flexibility of thought from the designer to be able to adapt the work with each changing variable.

UX Designers as Architects?

At this point, I’m certain, you’ve noticed the similarities between what I’ve described in the preceding paragraphs, and our own processes and considerations as user experience professionals. The UX canvas is, of course, the web, which is theoretically limitless, and our sites and applications tend to function as independent worlds that have little or nothing to do with other sites and applications. When we begin a project, we are essentially designing a self-contained community that rarely, if ever, interacts with other sites or apps.

In this way, user experience designers function as urban planners, guiding the orderly development of a community. Our information architecture is the laying of the foundation; navigation design maps out the network of roads, leading to and connecting the various sections of our site. We know that if these elements are not sound, are not intuitive and logical, our community will be difficult and frustrating to maneuver.

User experience designers function as urban planners, guiding the orderly development of a community

The sections and pages of our sites are the buildings, floors, and public spaces of our community, where content, functionality and audience come into play. In order to enhance and bolster the overall site experience, they must work in concert. The roads we build will guide people around our community, but the content must both captivate and fulfill user desires.

Thinking Like an Architect will make You an Awesome Designer

Architecture is a millennia-old design discipline that has passively influenced our work on the web. Awareness of the connections and similarities between our professional realms can help us to actively improve our work. By studying the successes and failings present in the world around us and understanding what goes into the design process that leads to the structures and spaces we see all around us we can more fully appreciate our experiences with them. In every space we enter and interact with, there is an opportunity to learn and grow as an experience designer.

The next time you’re driving (or riding) somewhere, pay careful attention to the roads taken. Are they clearly labeled? Is the navigation intuitive? Can you easily get where you need to go? For example, you may find an exit that’s only on one side of the freeway, or signage that is nonexistent or obscured by trees or other elements of the landscape. When visiting department stores, “big-box” retailers, grocery stores, etc., note the layout of the store. If it’s a large chain, does it have the same layout as other branches you’ve visited? Can you find what you’re looking for without asking an employee?

When you get out on the road, or go to a store, you are setting out to fulfill a particular objective—just like users on a site or app. Observe how easily you are able to complete that objective, and where the process can be improved. We are the users of someone else’s product every single day of our lives. By setting ourselves up as testers, we can continually learn valuable lessons in usability, hone our thinking and improve our craft.

Conclusion

The connections between architectural and experience design are undeniable, the thought processes nearly indistinguishable from one another. When we explore other, older design disciplines, their evolution may begin to guide ours, and we may begin to truly innovate. We are truly the architects, the chief builders, of the web, and I’ll leave you with one last thought to consider, from Hal Box: “It’s the architect’s responsibility to develop an architectural concept that will satisfy the client’s program of need, desire, and budget in a way that will enhance rather than damage the surroundings—and do so in a way that will make the client, user, and public grin with pure pleasure.”

Pure pleasure. It’s a lofty goal, but one we strive toward every day.

 

Image of architect's plans courtesy Shuttershock

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Rima is a freelance user experience architect, designer and developer, and proud Minnesota native. She has worked with a variety of nonprofits and educational institutions and more recently as the UX/creative lead for pahaly.com, a Minneapolis start-up. Currently based in Nairobi, Rima is working on projects within East Africa and the Middle East, relishing the opportunity to be at the forefront of bringing UX best practices to these emerging markets.

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Comments

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It sounds as if UX practitioners are increasingly trying to be all things to everyone. In the past, a web designer did all the things you mention in the first couple paragraphs. Solved problems, balancing aesthetics with usability and also ensuring the design can be built. Now, Web Designers are supposedly redundant because UX is now going to do the visual design and everything else. I think UX Design is just a new way of saying Web Design. In other words, anyone who used to have the job title of 'Web Designer' or 'Copywriter' or 'Visual Designer' or 'Architect' or anything with the word 'Designer', well now you should just call yourself a UX Designer and get paid a whole lot more.

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thanks for your note, hugh. i suppose that's one way of looking at it, but web development has changed quite a bit since the 90s, even in just the last couple of years. i don't know that i agree with your assessment, though. for one, i don't think most ux people do much copywriting, though i could surely be wrong. also, ux is just so much more than visual design, isn't it? ux brings a focus to crafting the entire experience that typical web design or development wouldn't necessarily encompass. many who have worked as developers or designers have certainly shifted into the ux field - that's where i started as well. the field sounds broad and general on the surface, i get that. but it's like majoring in political science with a concentration in political theory - ux is the focus, the paradigm, the lens through which the project is viewed and what will influence decisions. smashing magazine has some great ebooks about ux principles and techniques which i'd definitely recommend checking out if you're interested in learning more about ux. not to mention the vast collection of fabulous articles on this very site. and, of course, i'm always up for further discussion :)

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as a trained architect who practiced for 7 years before becoming an interaction/ux designer at the dawn of the web...I would echo this assessment. The process and tools for designing complex, simultaneous, multi-variable, human-centred problems (buildings) which are both useful and beautiful whilst balancing the needs of the client, the budget, the site, the physics of materials, legal regulations, etc. were a perfect fit for designing complex websites and software which are arranged around the goals, needs and information of users whilst meeting client objectives within a timeline and budget. I would even go so far as to say that there are few educational foundations as rich and potent for so many different creative fields as architecture. But then that is not surprising, it is a culture and practice that is literally as old as civilisation...and formally defined as a practice since the time of the ancient greeks. That's a lot of knowledge and experience to draw on...

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Amazing article.
The sort of content that put us to think more about the importance of our job in the web.

Thanks Rima

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For anyone interested in this line of thinking, the fantastic book "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander is a must-read. Here's the wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Pattern_Language

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Now, I can explain my work to my parents !
Thanks for this great article.

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good luck to you - my mom just knows that i make websites!

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Great Article Rima nice thoughts....it was very inspire me

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thank you, it was just something that's been on my mind for a while :)

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thanks very much!!

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I agree with you Rima & great article. UX surrounds us, we live in and are part of someone's design vision whether we are in a bldg, driving or walking to a bldg or on a train etc. Poor design choices are also everywhere, frustrating and putting people in danger, like doors that open "in" rather than push "out", etc. We have to try harder, learn more and do the best job we can.

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thanks barbara! that was exactly my point and exactly what inspired me to write this piece

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I am determined to push forward more than ever, thanks again for writing this Rima!

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Appreciate the thoughtful article!
I have degrees in Architecture and Human Factors in Information Design... they really are parallel universes!

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thank you, amy! what an interesting combination of degrees - i'd love to learn more about that

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I hope you don't mind lone comments.

re: Buckminster Fuller said: "...I only think about how to solve the problem..."

But it all starts here does it? That is, misunderstand the problem—any problem, not just UX problems—and the solution, regardless of how brilliant, is going to be off-target. While Hal Box's Three Worlds helps, I think it might be much simpler than that (presuming the problem is already understood).

Well formed solutions come down to this: In theory vs Reality.

For example, project / client wants (no matter how misplaced), as well as budget would be part of the reality side of the process. In theory, is anything outside the context of reality. That is, custom cut wood (as opposed to stock size from the lumber yard) would be theory. Exploring solutions in many cases starts in theory but it must work towards reality. How much time and effort can be devoted to that migration, is a function of timeline / budget. Yet how many times do we still see a budget missed because an excessive amount of time was put into theory (and the team's self-indulgence, creative masturbation, etc.)?

Great article. Thanks. The closing quote from Hal box was worth the price of admission.

p.s. I believe there might be one important factor that is missing from your analogy / discussion. That is, maintenance and maintainability. For example, how many times have we seen a building material that looks great when new but then soaks up dirt and such as it weathers. Or what about trees that are planted directly under power lines? Yes, it looks great on postcard but in a few years that fully grown tree is just one thunderstorm away from an inconvenience, as well as an unnecessary expense. We must be mindful of the life-cycle (if you will) of the products we design.

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thanks so much, mark - really great insights and food for thought

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I like your thinking. Although I think we need to zoom out a bit more. "The UX canvas is, of course, the web,..." is like saying 'the canvas of an architect is a villa'. I think what's next for the UX is practice is the realization that its mindset, approach and skills will be applicable to any object to be designed, both physical and digital. THAT makes the canvas for UX limitless. Also because the line between the physical and digital is blurring. If things are 'hybrid' I think the UX practice is in the lead, and sooner or later, everything is 'hybrid' in one way or the other. The bottom-line for UX is the quality of the human experience, regardless the shape or form of the touchpoints.

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great points, frank! and i completely agree. take all of my notions only in the context of the web.

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Every time somebody says Architect in our profession ... a kitten died somewhere.

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lol i'm not sure what your opposition is to the term... but like i explained in a different response, architect literally means chief or master builder - what are we if not builders?

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There is a lot of truth here. Speaking as one of the few people on the planet with degrees in both Urban Planning and Human Computer Interaction, though, this statement:

"When we begin a project, we are essentially designing a self-contained community that rarely, if ever, interacts with other sites or apps.

In this way, user experience designers function as urban planners, guiding the orderly development of a community."

is fairly antithetical to both architecture and urban planning. Architects that design buildings or communities that don't live in harmony with their surroundings (or at least break the harmony for a purpose) aren't doing their jobs well. Similarly, urban planners need to make sure they set the rules for a city as such that development in one area is unlikely to negatively affect another in any surprising ways.

I say this not just to be contrarian, but to point out that as we move into the Internet of Things era, it may be that it is also antithetical to UX designers to design our systems in a silo. Indeed, we're already starting to depend on Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and many other designed systems to power our creations. It's likely that in the future, efforts will become even more entwined. UX designers are already trained to think holistically, but we may have to up our game.

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i completely agree. "user experience" applies to everything, not just the web. of course, the context here is that i was referring to web-based sites/apps - maybe that was unclear. in that context, i stand behind what i said. and i was referring to the typical reality of these projects, not necessarily what i think should be done. a typical website stands alone. the vast majority of sites in existence today are still fairly static sites. they have nothing to do with anything else. there are many known examples contrary to this, but the fact remains. the web is vast!

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fwiw, that bit bothered me as well. The "project" might not interact directly with "peers" but the users / visitors do interact with said "peers" and that in turn adjusts and defines expectations. To ignore that context is dangerous at best.

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Nice analogy Ms. Reda.

Before changing careers, I was a structural engineer who worked to help architects design building. Now, as I began my UX career, I too think about the similarities between architects and UX designers. Your article does a nice job fleshing out the analogy. What I have to add centers around your conclusion that:

"[UX designers] are truly the architects, the chief builders, of the web"

In the design of a building, the architect always leads the design and hires the engineer to ensure that the building doesn't fall down (among other things). The aesthetic and usability design is well developed before the engineering begins.

The opposite is true for the web. Computer engineers lead its design, at least historically, and UX designers add aesthetics and usability to what the engineers built. This arrangement--engineering preceding UX--is shifting, it seems, to a more collaborative, iterative process as the web matures.

So your conclusion about the chief builders of the web may be a little premature. And I don't know how far the UX/architect analogy can be stretched, but comparing how a designer sees the world as opposed to how an engineer sees it is certainly worth exploring further as society develops its digital world.

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whilst I would agree that the web has been dominated by engineers in many instances...in my 20 years working in the industry i have seen design working hand in hand with engineers...and often shaping the vision for the solution due to the focus on the value created for users in the experience they have. But its also worth saying that as someone who practiced as an architect, it is no different there. Buildings are incredibly complex, requiring multiple areas of deep expertise. in reality, buildings are a collaboration between architects, engineers, planners, business people, interior designers, landscape architects, HVAC specialist, glazing specialists, manufacturing specialists, etc. The reason architects appear to lead the process is simply because architect is simply because they are able to visualise and communicate how the whole comes together from the perspective of the end users...which is, in the end, their role. They are the bridge between the different disciplines...the ultimate generalists...in much the same way that designers are in the best of web and software developments.

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hi ryan, thanks for your comments and insight! i love hearing from people on the other side.

what you said about computer engineers leading design has historically been true, but i think there's been a paradigm shift in recent years and we're seeing more and more designers/ux people/creatives leading these efforts. i hope that trend continues. i've experienced it both ways, and while i do believe that things need to be balanced, i think i prefer having a creative in charge.

i got the term "chief builder" from the literal meaning/translation of the word architect, and i do believe it fits. ux is in the forefront more and more - i see ux job postings everywhere now, all the time, where a couple of years ago i barely saw any. we're doing it. we're leading the charge, and people are realising how essential our work is.

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This is why information architecture uses the word architecture, rather than design or strategy or engineering or scientist. Architecture connotes something essential that the other do not.

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Thanks for bringing this up. I'm surprised that the job title and entire field of Information Architecture wasn't really mentioned here. Although I "grew up" as a UX Designer, my most recent title has been Information Architect. I'm sure there's lots of folks who go back and forth between those two job titles.

I've realized that I'm more comfortable with "architect" than "designer" because although I use design thinking, I am architecting solutions based on user and technology restrictions. Just like non-digital architects.

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Very insightful!

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thanks, ann!