Occupant Experience Design: Call to abandon ‘Architecture as an Object’

Right now, I’m searching high and low for what is happening in the UX and Architecture cross-over. Searches for ‘ux architecture’ have steadily increased since 2013 (although this likely includes IT’s systems architecture as well.). According to Google Trends, searches started increasing more rapidly in 2017 – is this when Architecture realised ‘hey, we want in on that!’?

Indeed the best article I’ve found so far appeared on FastCompany.com in November 2017. Julia Day, assistant professor at Washington State University’s School of Design and Construction, recounts her observations when studying how occupants use the buildings they’re in: notably the tribulation of motion-activated lights on timers. I’ve heard so many people vent about these types of lights that I’m tempted to run an official poll. Perhaps, ‘As an office worker, how many times have you been left in the dark?’.

I emailed Day to learn what’s happened in the two years since the article was published, and things are rolling along. She talked about her work in shaping ‘human-building interfaces’ and pointed me to current research for the IEA EBC Annex 79: Occupant-Centric Building Design and Operation.

Source: IEA Occupant behaviour-centric building design and operation EBC Annex 79, pp 3.

It’s a great proposal. I’m looking forward to following it: how it addresses the questions it poses, and what questions unfold from it. Here’s what it spurred me to think about:

UX design is communication – through all modes. UX designers need excellent verbal communication skills, to converse with colleagues, managers, stakeholders and users. Great UX designers understand the jargons of the different business areas they work across to ensure the product is something that will get used, and importantly, earn the business money. Saving money is great too.

It also gets me thinking about the way language and jargon are used in the architectural discussions I’ve had so far. Of course, everyone has their own definition of what Architecture is, but I suspect the industry has veered too far from definitions that favour human comfort and livability. Humans that use buildings ineffably know that Architecture which favours the ‘object’ and profitability over human experience, fails.

But it’s not just about the words. UX design orchestrates the conversation between human and object. Words, whether written or verbal, are mostly impotent in that conversation. The object must be easily interpreted by the human for a positive interaction to occur. If this experience is pleasant and easy, then both human and business will reap the rewards.

Scale this up and into Architecture, and this is what Annex 79 seeks to determine in part: user-friendly buildings are more energy efficient. Energy efficiency means long-term cost savings and a better environment, and to get energy efficiency, we need humans to understand the buildings they’re in. Annex 79 proposes to uncover how to help humans do this by studying occupant behaviour, and it will be fascinating to learn what the research finds.

When I hear about the discussion of how frustrated architects have become within the AEC industry, I wonder what it will take to curb this frustration. If the industry has veered so far from what architects and Architecture are so fundamentally passionate about (which appears to me as human-centred design), is UX the way to veer it back on course?

I think, yes. Criticism of the Starchitect and developer-driven construction is rife, but bemoaning these things while indulging in phantasmagorical (what a great word) designs is unproductive. If we’re to see a culture change within Architecture that de-prioritises ‘value management’ and ‘architecture as an object’, we need the data that says it’s actually economically and environmentally correct to design for the human rather than the wallet or ego. Then we need the methods by which we design and build with that data.

Some of this data already exists, UX for Architects seeks to find and collate it. In the meantime, I call on architects to abandon ‘Architecture as an object’ type thinking and collectively apply our brilliant minds to what occupant experience design fully encompasses. Let me know your thoughts on Annex 79, and any other initiatives you know are tackling this issue. The future is human, #imho.