Conceiving Architectural Design as a User Interface | Part 2

If we are to imagine architecture as a user interface, designers should have strategies to feature the occupant perspective as an integral part of the design process. Below is a methodology to inorporate the user perspective as a primary force in the design process, as well as a reinrterpretation of some of the strategies for effective UIs from Everett N. McKay’s book, UI is Communication, modified for architectural design applications.

Interface Design Process

In the UI design process, the configuration of actionable components is typically conducted separately and prior to visual element design. Hence in a UI, the intended purpose and expected efficacy of elements is often organized by “interface designers.” In architecture, it is often an inverse sequence, where visual designers lead the form generation process, often precluding a system to strategize occupant perspectives.

Potentially, an architectural design process may benefit to include “interface management” in conjunction with the more traditional programming and contextual design exercises. Architecture professionals and students tend to treat humans abstractly, often goading generic ideas of humans into glorified spaces and enamoring them with decorative features. Though creative, this type of process does not identify an occupant’s particular needs and aspirations, how those needs align with client requirements, or how user goals might change over time.

IntuArch’s Persona/Scenario/Storyboard Process

One way to incorporate interface design into the architectural design process might be to create a mock system of Personas, Scenarios, and Storyboards. At the base level, Personas are stereotyped humans who represent particular demographics or actions. Personas can also have deeper descriptions of the types of cognitive memories being brought into the space under consideration, including their expected previous history with similar buildings and their history with the particular context under consideration. A project as seemingly straightforward as an apartment building incorporates several Personas who encounter the spatial environments differently. Besides residents, potential apartment building Personas would include prospective tenants, guests, staff, and maintenance workers. The residents themselves can be further divided into separate Personas for varying demographics and cognitive associations.

An interface manager could then place these Personas at different junctures, called Scenarios, within a design project to see how architectural features may influence their behavior. These moments identify user decision-making.


Hangzhou NO.2 School of Future Sci-Tech City in Hangzhou, China by LYCS Architecture

These Scenarios can then be placed sequentially into Storyboards, to create a stream of occupant actions. These Storyboards can be fed back into the design process to aid or amplify other architectural ideas, such as diagrams for program, context, or circulation. (I wrote an article about how to create effective diagrams here). Interestingly, McKay utilizes the term “wireframe” to describe how UI designers create a framework system to relate ideas to visual elements, a very similar tool as an architectural diagram. “A wireframe is a prototype with content and functionality represented by rough controls, rectangles, lines, text, and simple glyphs. Layout and element sizes are rough, and details such as colors, backgrounds, fonts, graphics, and icons are often omitted. [p129]”

The Tinke Mobile Fitness App Wireframe

Other Testing Strategies

McKay also arrives at a few other helpful strategies to ensure final designs relate well to human experience, modified below to apply to building design.

Users know their goals but not how to achieve them. They know the task destination but not the starting point or the steps to get there. Assume that they know only the most essential data from memory and need help with everything else. Without prior knowledge or experience, users don’t know what your program does, what tasks it performs, how it works, or that they can trust it. [p56]

Highlighter Reviews

Take a view, a series of views (Storyboard), or a planar drawing, and mark every architectural element to evaluate for purposeful communicative qualities. The process could be similar to “redlining” in the design phase, to identify or edit interpretable architectural features.

Sketches and Notes for a UI Wireframe

Five-Second Tests

“A five-second test evaluates the scannability and memorability of [an architectural space] simply by having users view it for five seconds and then answer a few basic questions about the purpose of the [architectural space] and important design details, such as the call to action [p283].” In architecture, I have a similar evaluation I call the “squint test.” If you close your eyes or blur your vision, can you still reference the major geometries of both the space you are in, and all spaces throughout your journey, that are integral to your navigation and action decisions?  In her book Welcome to Your World, How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, Sarah Williams Goldhagen refers to these tests as “gists:”

Humans are ever on the lookout for iterative patterns because the very machinery of our sensory cognitive systems – our propensity for rapid gist identification, the goal-oriented nature of perception, and our susceptibility to primes – requires us to first, quickly parse foreground from background, and second, assign meaning to the things we encounter.

How Users Figure Things Out

  • Users will assume that your design reflects patterns and interactions from its typology
  • Unless they perform a task frequently, users won’t remember exactly how to perform it from memory and will have to relearn it each time.
  • If an action is discoverable, looks relevant, and has a clear affordance, users will try it right away.
  • If an action doesn’t have an affordance, users will try it only after eliminating all obvious alternatives first.
  • Users don’t read, they scan, They don’t observe for comprehension, just to quickly find what they are looking for.
  • Users need to gain confidence as they perform a task and are reluctant to proceed with a task or make commitments without building sufficient confidence. Users need to know where they are at each step in a task, and confirmation they are in the right place. [p58-59]
  • Users assume that attractive products are better designed and more usable (known as the aesthetic-usability effect). [page 131]

Component Library

The common types of controls in a UI – such as sliders, textboxes, radio buttons, checkboxes, links, etc. – can be cataloged by their graphic expression and affordances. Might the individual components of architecture offer a similar opportunity for categorization and communication possibilities? Similar to the previously described window example, the stairs, elevators, atria, arches, floor heights, soffits, rails, doors, skylights, etc., all have various visual expressions and affordances. Visual factors would include bold colors or recognizable shapes, arranged via patterning tools such as simplification, hierarchy, sequence, contextual association, phenomenal transparency, grouping, and scale. Tasks and navigation are particularly important affordances. Such performative categories for architectural components might include landmarks, pathways, nodes, volumes, areas, and edges.Together these elements and their details are the core of an occupant’s cognitive mapping.

A “Flat Kit” for UI Design Layouts


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