Conceiving Architectural Design as a User Interface

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 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 already consider the human experience a major component of the design phase, but they often arrive at their notions either abstractly or intuitively. The UI design analogy offers a much more transparent filter for understanding and conveying how a building can effectively “communicate with an occupant.” By defining architecture as an interface between a human and a building, architects have more tools to realize the “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]

Buildings which involve user unfamiliarity – programs with temporary visitors such as retail, transportation centers, or hotels – have an especially important obligation to create communicative components for occupant circulation and function. For architectural programs that are more static – programs such as office space – the spatial environment also affords constant hints and cues. 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 affordances (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. Humans will reflexively 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. An architect will sort many parameters to arrive at the size, shape, transparency, and view of a window. This window must also be coordinated with other architectural components to develop relationships such as proximity, scale, color, contrast, and pairing. 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 a lot of the 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 of indexed cognitive association. 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.


Occupants generate impressions about usability as they navigate and prosper in their spatial environments. When cognitively processing an environment for actionable architectural components, one might refer to the architectural space as intuitive if the 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]”

“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

Interface Design Process

In UI, the layout process is typically conducted before and separate from visual element design. Hence in a UI, the intended purpose and expected efficacy of elements is typically procured by “interface designers.” It is often the inverse sequence in architecture, where visual designers lead the design team, often precluding a system to strategize occupant perspectives. Potentially, an architectural design process may benefit from including “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, Scenarios, within a design project to see how architectural features may influence their behavior. Such junctures are collective moments of 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, but instead of highlighting changes would 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?

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


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 particular empathy.

  • 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. It has always been difficult to measure the value of a particular design in reference to other design options, architects and clients should always remember that there is an economic cost to confusing or abrasive buildings.

Signage. UI employs a lot of text, which makes its design strategies literally communicative in the first place. Even so, contemporary digital designers have moved towards icons and graphics to guide user decision making. Written communication in architecture 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.


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