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What UX Designers can learn from Architects

Originally published on UX Booth.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 masterpiece, Fallingwater, is a perfect example of how minding a site’s properties can seamlessly cement relationships between a new architectural structure and its existing environment. In fact, when an architect receives a new project brief, he is obligated to conduct a detailed site analysis. According to The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, the architect must possess the skills to do an initial assessment of the site, both for regulatory approvals and economic reasons, and also because it’s fundamental to good building design. Perhaps it’s time for those same requirements to apply to UX designers.

Every state has its own building code that architects and developers must comply with. In fact, in order to receive a permit for building construction, the architect has to submit a plan with the site’s existing conditions, along with a proposal for future development—not unlike a design proposal.

However, unlike a design proposal, the architect is unable to complete his plan without in depth research. Given that research is not a legally enforced prerequisite for design, is it any surprise that lack of research is one of the main reasons why startups fail? Some UX designers struggle to justify spending time on user research to product owners. Others see it as a luxury they can’t afford. As a result, designers and stakeholders make inaccurate assumptions about their potential users, and create features that no one uses. Dictating solutions without first engaging in user research costs startups time and money, and will continue to do so until we consider user research as high a priority as architectural research.

UX professionals can learn from architects in the early stages of designing a product. Let’s take a look at how successful architects design in context, study the competition, and consider the user journey. By the end of the piece, readers will be ready to design like an architect.

Designing in context

In both architecture and UX design, the context of the design can make or break the product. Consider Mombasa, Kenya, where new construction resulted in a large, concrete building standing between old colonial buildings. This was more than just a one-time problem; it happened so frequently that UNESCO created a World Heritage List in 1972 to protect heritage “in its environment.”

  In Mombasa, a new building completely ruined the landscape.

In Mombasa, a new building completely ruined the landscape.

That’s not to say that good architecture must completely conform to its surroundings. In 1981, the new building of the School of Architecture at Rice University was completed. Its quietness and respect to its context were shocking. At first glance, the new addition appears to look just like its neighbors—an imitation of the other buildings. However, the new building was full of subtle variations, gradually moving architecture toward the future without disrupting the general look and feel of the area. This is no accident; the architect of the building, James Stirling, believes that his buildings can be completely different from their neighbors, but they should never defy their surroundings.

 James Stirling believed it was important for his building to fit into the general landscape

James Stirling believed it was important for his building to fit into the general landscape

The American Institute of Architects’ Code of Ethics states that “architects should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” The ethical challenges of architectural practices involve the responsibility to study the site so that the eventual building design is sustainable ecologically and financially.

Similarly, a good user experience involves designing for both the user’s context and the existing constraints of associated products or systems owned by the same brand. It’s important to develop a clear product style guide and to remain consistent within brand guidelines. This serves to ensure visual consistency and respect between new and existing elements throughout the product’s overall design, just like in the case of the Rice University extension. In addition, a product should be intended for a clear purpose, and for a specific group of users. Since many startups create solutions for problems the team hasn’t personally experienced, user research is valuable tool. The product owner can then serve as the user’s representative, and must therefore understand his constituency.

One recurring problem that causes ecommerce businesses to lose money is the failure to optimize their websites for mobile users. A lot of retailers have taken steps to improve their mobile shopping platforms. Together with greater connectivity, consumers are gaining confidence in purchasing products securely over mobile phones. While many businesses understand this trend towards mobile shopping, there are still ecommerce businesses lagging behind. Understanding the general mobile usage behavior of a store’s target customers’ would inform stakeholders on the usage of mobile platforms as shopping channels.

Designing for context also means having a clear understanding of what the product is, and why people will use it. If users come across the product thinking it will solve one problem, but then discover it is not intended to accomplish those goals, they are less likely to give the product a chance.

Case in point, at myWebRoom, we build a visual bookmarking platform focused on content discovery and organization. Giving users the ability to personalize and design their web rooms is complimentary to our main feature. However, based on user feedback, we learned that our old landing page delivered the message that myWebRoom was a design tool before it was a bookmarking tool. Upon learning that, we tested new landing pages focused on explaining the true concept of our product. The result? Conversion rates increased from 10% to 18%.

Competitor studies

When an architect receives a brief to design a commercial retail space, it’s his responsibility to analyze competition so that his design will yield more profit for his client than nearby competitors. The same is true of UX design: it’s the designer’s responsibility to analyze the competition and identify opportunities.

I worked on a commercial shopping complex, the Westgate Mall, located in Singapore, right by the train station and bus interchanges. There were two other major shopping malls in close proximity. In order to help my client boost traffic to his development, my team and I had to incorporate special design features to stay ahead of our competition. We designed the mall to be the only mall that has direct connections to the train station and bus interchanges. The mall was also awarded the GoldPlus Award under the Universal Design scheme which meant that it was designed beyond the minimum requirements of user-friendliness. These implementations have ensured success in the mall, clinching >75% committed occupancy with high rents.

In UX design, competitive research measures the experience of a product in comparison to its direct and indirect competitors. This work can help designers identify problem areas, develop new insights and inspirations, and plan for a vision that showcases best practices.

For example, Userzoom conducted a benchmark study between Priceline and Kayak to compare the mobile experience of obtaining hotel information. By having participants attempt to find a specific hotel in San Francisco, the team at Userzoom was able to determine the strengths and weaknesses of both products, and could then identify ways to provide what the others lacked.

Consider the User Journey

An important aspect of a building’s success is easy access to the site. As I mentioned earlier, part of Westgate Mall’s success could be attributed to the fact that it’s the only mall with direct routes to major transportation ports. With respect to the competition, easier access to the retail space ensures that users get to Westgate Mall first.

In the larger scheme of things, designing delightful connectivity not only contributes to a business’ success, but also adds to the vitality in a neighborhood. An excellent example is the beautiful and functional linear High Line park in Manhattan. The park connects three neighborhoods on Manhattan’s West Side: the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. It’s essentially a walkway boasting views of the Hudson River and Midtown Manhattan, alongside spaces for art programs and gardens. It’s certainly changed its environment—employees of a pizza shop located by the park report that business has doubled twice in the past 2 years.

In UX design, designing delightful connectivity means considering the journey—sometimes by driving organic traffic to the site, other times by designing a delightful onboarding experience. Learning the user’s journey ensures the product teams better understand their users, which then allows for a more persuasive, attractive design.

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