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Stephann gives invited talk on relationship between Architecture and UX at ARCLIC 2015

posted Jul 13, 2015, 12:04 AM by Stephann Makri
Stephann has given an invited talk on the relationship between Architecture, User Experience and Information Interaction at ARCLIB 2015 (www.arclib.info). In the talk, Stephann discussed parallels between themes raised in Alain De Botton's seminal book on the nature and history of architecture ('The Architecture of Happiness' - http://alaindebotton.com/architecture) and those that drive UX and Information Interaction. Here's an excerpt from the talk:

People focus

What do Architecture, User Experience and Information Interaction have in common? A focus on people.
More specifically, a focus on understanding people and their needs and designing physical or digital spaces based on this understanding in order to meet those needs. There is a shared ethos that permeates across these design disciplines – an ethos where we make design interventions not for the purpose of creating something novel or cool (that might happen as a by-product), but in order to support peoples’ important tasks. Just as an Architect might design a home to facilitate efficient living – with rooms to support important householder activities such as eating, sleeping, bathing and relaxing, an Information Architect might design the navigation element of a homepage to facilitate efficient orientation and wayfinding – with a structure and labelling to support important user activities such as searching for something specific, or browsing for something not-so specific. A User Experience Designer might design user interface and interaction elements to ensure ease of use. All of these designers share one common ethos – to make peoples’ lives easier and that is an ethos that drives me personally – it’s what makes me get out of bed in the morning.

Defining success

One theme in The Architecture of Happiness involves defining success. De Botton states:

“We have to confront the vexed point on which so much of the history of architecture pivots. We have to ask what exactly a beautiful building might look like” (pp. 25-26).

Analogous questions for User Experience Design are: How do we define success? What will make our digital tools useful? What about usable, or likely to be used? There is no guarantee that asking ourselves these questions about the digital information tools we design will result in successful tools. But defining success criteria as part of the design process allows us to reflect on what our users need and to what extent we are meeting those needs.

Suggesting, not prescribing

The next theme I want to talk about is architecture’s tendency to make suggestions rather than prescribe solutions:

“Architecture… offers suggestions instead of making laws. It invites, rather than orders, us to emulate its spirit and cannot prevent its own abuse” (p. 20).

The same applies to User Experience Design; rather than prescribe specific design solutions aimed at ensuring a digital tool is useful or usable, we make suggestions based on design guidelines – guidelines which we do not apply blindly and uniformly, but adopt and adapt for our particular purpose.

Information professionals as designers

An important message delivered by De Botton is the importance of architects appreciating the challenges associated with design:

“It is only when we try our own hand at construction that we are initiated into the torments associated with persuading materials and other humans to co-operate with our designs, with ensuring that two pieces of glass will be joined in a neat line, that a lamp will hang symmetrically over the stairs, that a boiler will light up when it should or that concrete pillars will marry a roof without complaint” (p. 15).

Similarly, it’s only when a User Experience Designer moves beyond making design suggestions to actually designing digital tools that they can fully appreciate the constraints they face. But this message also applies to information professionals; I would urge you to ‘become a designer’ – by gaining a greater appreciation of the role and importance of User Experience Design when developing digital information tools and perhaps even designing a wireframe or two to give you a feel for it.

Putting users first: Making the case

Finally, De Botton delivers another important message; that we must fly the flag for good design. He concedes:

“Architecture will always compete poorly with utilitarian demands for humanity’s resources. How hard it is to make a case for the cost of tearing down and rebuilding a mean but serviceable street. How awkward to have to defend, in the face of more tangible needs, the benefits of realigning a crooked lamppost or replacing an ill-matched window frame” (p.18).

So our job is to make a compelling case for putting users first when we design digital information tools, or any type of interactive system for that matter. Our job is to convince the sceptics of the importance of fulfilling user needs – to convince them that designing useful, usable tools makes sound business sense. That time and money spent improving early prototypes as a result of user testing is worthwhile – that the investment will yield a strong return. ‘Evaluate early, evaluate often’ certainly has a price tag attached. But it would be a far greater cost to have to re-develop a tool from scratch because users did not find it useful or easy to use. This is a cost Microsoft are currently paying with Windows 8. Luckily for us, we get an upgrade to Windows 10 for free!

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