Why I’m Transitioning from Architecture to UX

The beginning. When I was a kid, I always went on vacation with pencils and a pad of graph paper. I spent countless hours inside airports, tents, and at my grandparents’ kitchen table, designing iterations of my dream house. The space on which I focused most was the dog’s room — complete with a system that cleaned my future dog’s feet as he traveled from the back yard into his play room. The dog’s room was split into two levels (because dogs don’t need eight feet of head space, right?) — the lower level designed for play and food, and the upper level adjoined with my future kids’ loft, so kids and dog could easily snuggle. The entire room was designed with the dog’s needs and perspective in mind.

Despite this lifelong love of architectural design, it wasn’t until I was a sophomore biology major at MIT that I realized the depth of my passion for design. I wasn’t entirely happy studying biology — I still think the field is fascinating, but the sciences didn’t quite scratch my creative itch. That year, I spent spring break avoiding biology homework and instead, took my dream house designs to a new level. It was around 3am mid-week when I was studying how to draw different types of windows on a blueprint, that I was struck with a long-overdue epiphany:

I love architecture.

I can be an architect.

Now, over ten years later, I’m transitioning from architectural design to user experience design, and I get asked almost daily, “Why are you leaving architecture to do UX?”

I have lots of answers — some related to the current economy and job market; some that describe my path from Boston (where I studied and practiced architectural design), to rural Washington (to help care for my husband’s family land, where architecture opportunities are limited), to beginning to learn Python (MIT’s free OpenCourseWare classes are amazing), then discovering UX (through programmer friends). But the answer that feels most deeply rooted in my being, that leaves me with both a sense of mourning and the excitement of possibility, is this:

Very few architects deeply consider their users.

It’s all about UX. When I was a kid designing my future dog’s room, my passion wasn’t about the architecture — it was about my dog’s experience. If I had been familiar with human factors and ergonomics (er — canine factors and ergonomics), I probably would’ve spent less time on graph paper and more time conducting usability tests with neighborhood dogs.

The best architecture does consider user experience at a deep level. Think of airports that provide excellent wayfinding, museums or banks that practically scream “power” and “class” with their marble floors and majestically tall ceilings, or places of worship that are designed with the appropriate infrastructure and emotional experience for their users. But by and large, user experience is given only token attention in architectural design, and priority is placed on aesthetics, or on what clients say they want (as opposed to what they really want, which could be sussed out of well-conducted user interviews). I don’t know any architect who practices the full UX process of researching, planning, designing, validating and iterating.

After loving architecture school, with its focus on conceptual design, then working four years as an actual architectural designer in the real world, I felt let down by the reality of architectural practice. This is where my mourning comes in. I’m leaving architecture for another field, because it just wasn’t working out.

Well … architecture should be about UX. I bet you can think of more buildings with poor user experience than good user experience.

Where are those restrooms? How the heck do I get out of this IKEA? I wish my office had windows. Why do I hate the feel of this place?

Part of the issue is that usability testing on actual buildings is prohibitively expensive and wasteful. Most architects think within this same old box, never prototyping beyond physical scale models or computer models, but these don’t have the same impact as a ceiling over your head and texture beneath your hands. Another challenge is that buildings often outlive their original occupants. Can static designs continue to meet the goals of changing users?

Christopher Alexander (co-author of A Pattern Language, which every designer should own, read and cherish) got close to usability testing in building houses out of cardboard and paper multiple times before building them in wood. According to one of my first UX instructors, whose parents commissioned an Alexander house, the famed architect used a box cutter to create windows in his life-size prototypes, and would sit in each window for extended time studying its placement. Alexander made many design choices collaboratively with his clients. Certainly, his theories of architectural patterns hit on UX, but I wonder how much closer he could have come to practicing true user experience design in architecture. How can we research, plan and test our designs when we’re creating massive, expensive, one-of-a-kind buildings for generations of users? Most practicing architects don’t begin to address this question. Most put form way before function.

While I mourn that my beloved field of architecture often neglects its users and, as a result, misses its full potential, I also feel inspired by architects like Christopher Alexander, who do think about their buildings’ occupants. I’m inspired by architecture firms like Olson Kundig, whose emotive, interactive buildings engage their occupants in changing facades and other elements to fit daily needs. I’m inspired by designers like my former advisor, Larry Sass, who is using digital fabrication techniques to create more affordable, environmentally friendly housing. I’m excited about the Internet of Things and work coming out of the MIT Media Lab. There is so much potential to use emerging technology and user-centered design processes to design buildings that truly consider their users’ experiences.

So much potential. I’m very excited to be transitioning into UX design. This field aligns with my oldest passion. But I haven’t forgotten about architecture. As I continue growing into my UX expertise, I will always consider UX’s role in architectural practice. And someday, I imagine I’ll return to architecture, armed with my experience in user-centered and goal-directed design — even if only to design and finally build my future dog’s dream environment. But maybe I’ll be part of a thriving world in which architects place their highest design priorities on the goals of their buildings’ users.

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