Conceiving Architectural Design as a User Interface | Part 1

How might architects maintain a focus on the occupant experience to originate their building designs? User Interface (UI*) design methodologies, culled from various approaches to digital media design, may offer architects insight about how to create designs that communicate with occupants directly. By acknowledging the cognitive functioning of the brain, architects can endeavor to utilize geometric configurations to elicit specific feelings and actions.

Focusing on the user experience would be a complement to a robust design generation process which may already include architectural ideas from contextual, environmental, cultural, programmatic, code-related, and economic factors. But, to plan for the communicative components of project legibility, Everett N. McKay defines the relationship succinctly in his book UI is Communication: “Design is making creative decisions on behalf of target users to create a product that satisfies their goals [p248].” The keywords for architects in this statement is to create spatial environments “on behalf of target users“ – not for themselves, their clients, or abstract notions.

[*Note: This article will refer to the user experience design as UI, instead of the much broader “UX” design. The term UX design typically includes a broader preparation of the back-end design, something that might metaphorically may refer to the construction details or structural calculations of architecture. So, utilizing the term “UI” is a more productive analogy for describing what is primarily the human experience as a response to the physical components of architectural design.]

The Architecture Interface

Most architects consider the human experience a major component of the design process, but they often arrive at their notions subjectively, either though abstraction or intuition. Utilizing a “UI design analogy” may offer a more transparent filter to understand and convey how a building can effectively communicate with an occupant. By literally defining architecture as an interface between a human and a building, architects have more tools to realize this “occupant perspective” as a major driver of design decisions.

By substituting the word “building” for UI, we can derive similar insights for architecture from McKay’s text about UIs:

A well-designed [building] boils down to communicating to users in a way that is natural, professional and friendly, easy to understand, and efficient. By contrast, a poorly designed [building] is unnatural, technological and mechanical, and requires users to apply thought, experimentation, memorization, and training to translate it into something meaningful. . .From this point of view, [building] design isn’t a subjective visual art about pixels and aesthetics but rather a principled objective communication skill to explain tasks to users.  [p3]

Building designs which involve user unfamiliarity – public programs with temporary visitors such as shopping centers, airports, or hotels – have an especially important obligation to create communicative environments to orchestrate circulation and function. How people shop, park, move, or feel is not happenstance, but a coordinated dance between architectural components and the human brain.

For architectural programs that are more static – private programs such as office space – the spatial environment also communicates important hints and cues to occupants. The architectural components that immediately surround an office worker, seated at a desk for 8+ hours a day, will influence their productivity, contentedness, collaboration, efficiency, and innovation.

Beaver Workshop Office Space in Beijing by MAT Office, seen in diagram at top of page

Humans are constantly scanning their spatial environments for how to accomplish their tasks. Each component the encounter has the potential to influence their behavior through the concept of affordance (via evolutionary psychology: “What does this forest afford?” “What does this shelter afford?” “How do I operate this door?”). Users are not often consciously aware they are cognitively processing a particular space to establish legitimate purpose; yet, they are always scanning to queue their next actions, correlating what their environment affords with what they need. Reflexively, humans will seek shelter from rain and turn doorknobs without conscious thought.

“UI form follows communication. . . every visual design element should be justified by what it communicates [p8].” Architectural components, such as a window, may convey a wide variety of instructions. In the design process, an architect will sort many parameters to arrive at the size, shape, transparency, and view of a window. The specified window must also be coordinated with other architectural components to develop architectural relationships such as proximity, scale, color, contrast, and pairing. Together, these factors all communicate an affordance upon which an occupant will act: whether this is a window for looking, a window for illumination, a window to avoid, a window to operate, or a window that may act as an attractor.

Cognitive Processing

So what exactly is happening in an occupant’s brain that we can try to accommodate with design? This is where recent cognitive and neurological research aligns with the objectives of UI design. Humans are constantly adding experiences to our individual memories, and when we sense any spatial environment – new or previously encountered – that new space and its components are matched against our prior history with similar environments and components, creating a set of assumptions through which an occupant will act and feel.

Even ostensibly “subjective” design decisions are laced with communicative features. What might seem stylistic or excessively detailed, is often meant to remind a viewer of some type recognition. A red tile roof, thick mullions, or a green accent wall, all have laced meanings to occupants. A red tile roof can remind someone of a geographic location or climate, thick mullions can signify sturdiness, and a green accent wall can mimic nature. (There is always some overlap between aesthetic and purposeful design elements, I write more about it here.)

Impressions + Intuition

Occupants generate impressions about usability as they navigate and actuate their spatial environments. These impressions may be conscious or subconscious. There are important values to both types of awareness, but designers should have a particular goal for the occupants. While conscious awareness may be beneficial at certain moments, most spatial environments should provide a subtle or unnoticable means for building users to accomplish their tasks. When cognitively processing an environment for actionable architectural components, one might refer to an architectural space as intuitive if this decision making remains subconscious. “A UI is intuitive when target users understand its behavior and effect without use of reason, memorization, experimentation, assistance, or training [p21].”

An online user may, for example, visit a bank’s website and have a negative impression of their transaction due to confusing buttons or menus. That same customer, when conducting a transaction in the bank’s retail branch, may generate a similar impression of insecurity due to architectural features such as poor lighting, a disorganized layout, or cheap finishes. “A [building] is intuitive when it has an appropriate combination of discoverability, understandability, affordance, predictability, efficiency, responsive feedback, forgiveness, and explorability. [p26]”

It should be noted that “intuitive” is a nebulous term, and perhaps a bit too broad to assist with performative designs. “Given that the word intuitive is poorly understood, I recommend against using it in design discussions. . . Instead I recommend using the specific attributes of an intuitive UI when you’re giving feedback. [p26]” For example, instead of assessing the intuitive success of a design, one might say that a component or configuration lacks legibility, efficiency, or affordance. This distinction provides a focus on designing architectural features for their actionable potential.

Edmunds Headquarters, Santa Monica, California, uses color and glyphs to route occupants


Why Forecasting Users is Important

There are many anti-human movements encroaching into contemporary architectural practice. Though positive in many respects, these trends are unlikely to treat occupants with empathy in the design process, resulting in less responsive buildings.

  • Codes. The increasing complexity of codes has made the design of buildings a calculations-oriented process, prefacing energy, zoning, and egress standards.
  • BIM. The BIM process prioritizes the descriptive nature of the architectural components – the materials and manufacturers – and their tectonic relationships.
  • Heroes. Architectural education continues to insist on uniqueness in design as an aspirational goal.
  • Parametrics. Similar to BIM, is primarily about the relationship between architectural components (though, it sometimes involves environmental or user data).
  • Renderings. The exemplary feature of a concept design, they evaluate architecture from only one static point of view, disabling an experiential analysis. Aerial renderings have also been quite popular to give overall site impressions, a vantage that humans occupying the space in real time would never have. Even for videos, marketing effects are the primary goal, and fly-throughs are not typically representative of circulation paths a natural human might choose.

To combat these trends, it would be key for a design architect to develop presentation material to solicit feedback, not to prove beauty, via diagrammatic representations of a project’s major design ideas for relaying information to clients.

There is one major trend in contemporary architectural education which holds positive reinforcement of conceiving architectural design as a UI: virtual and augmented reality. Students and professors at many institutions have been testing design options and studying user decision making through such environments, often in relationship with real world spatial counterparts. Though there are concerns about the accuracy of virtual reality experiences in relationship to real ones, there is tremendous potential to provide user feedback to architects during the design process.


No Utopia. As with any architectural theory, designing architecture as a UI is not a utopian or eternal solution. Ideal UIs will change over time because culture and behavior change over time. Luckily for UIs, it is relatively easy to update elements in a digital interface in comparison to a constructed building. Ideally, interface management would contribute responsive design elements that prove resilient with time.

Feedback. Relative to measuring performance within a UI, there is less feedback for poor architectural performance. Getting lost is perhaps an obvious feedback for an occupant to relay to a designer for poor architectural communication. But, it is much harder to measure comfort, productivity, interaction, purchasing, etc. Though it has always been difficult to measure the value of a particular design in comparison to other design options, architects and clients should always remember that there is an economic cost to confusing or abrasive buildings.

Signage. A UI design employs a lot of text, which makes its design strategies literally communicative. Even so, contemporary digital designers have moved towards icons and graphics to guide user decision making. Written communication in architecture, a.k.a. signage, is of course often warranted and necessary. There is no doubt that, for example, airports require signage to route passengers to gates. But for most programs, architects can challenge themselves to use geometric forms that encourage or respond to occupant behaviors. Good architectural design geometries require fewer textual cues. “The key: If a user were to ask you what to do in person, would you bother to say the instruction? If not, the page is better off without it. [p50]”

Are we Headed for the Digitization of Our Physical World?

When digital platforms were first established, designers employed skeuomorphic graphic representations of real physical features for humans to cognitively interpret the functionality of various actions. A prominent example might have been the iPhone’s app bookshelf. Skeuomorphic representation has since waned considerably, as most current designs are referred to as relatively “flat.”

Apple’s former homepage “Bookshelf”

But, could human adaptation be making design inference work in reverse? As we spend more time on screens, might we expect our physical environment to mimic the digital? Millennials may already be treating digital interfaces as their primary means of communication with other humans. They are also using digital media as their primary means of communication with non-living entities such as products and brands. If augmented and virtual reality become commonplace in the near future, it would be wise for architects to study these cognitive relationships. If users are conditioned to scan a digital interface for actionable information, might architects have some obligation to provide more inferable information in architecture as well?

As we move to a world where artificial intelligence and augmented reality begin to infiltrate our architectural world, architects would be wise to study the communicative values of what they design.


At IntuArch, we have developed a method to incorporate the user interface as an integral part of the design process. You can read about that in PART II of this article. Also in Part II, some of the strategies for effective UIs from McKay’s book are modified for architectural design applications.


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