User experience design vs. Architecture

Part 1

Agile in Architecture


In my previous life, working & studying in architecture, I spent a good number of years on numerous design projects and briefs. These projects ranged from the theoretical and conceptual to the practical and tangible. Later, when I transitioned into UX design, I found myself working on design projects that were similar to that in architecture. The unifying similarity I found in both fields was that regardless of the end product, the same questions needed to be asked during the process.

In architecture, for example, if I was designing a theatre, I would ask the following questions: What functionalities would the building need to perform? How many performers or audience members would the theatre have to accommodate? What type of events would be staged and where would they happen? How should the seating plans be laid out so that the audience would have the best view of the stage? What would be a pleasant experience for the audience?

This guy isn’t going to have an enjoyable viewing experience.

In contrast, in UX, when I am tasked with designing an experience for a digital product, I find myself asking the same questions but in a different context. For example, how will the product benefit the end-users? How large of a user base does this product have to scale to? What is considered as a good return on investment? Is that measurable in analytics?

The underlying similarity in the scoping of architecture and digital product requirements is trying to figure out who your design is aiming to please and what it will take to achieve that goal.

Some times as designers, we have to decide when to listen to client requirements or when to just take it as an opinion.

Architectural design is basically user experience design on a physical and spatial level, where space is just another medium and buildings and structures are the interfaces and frameworks that users can interact with. A building then is a tangible version of a mobile app.

There are definitely crossovers between the two fields that I feel can be exploited. There are learnings and techniques from UX (a relatively new field of design) that could be used to disrupt how we think about architecture, one of the oldest and most traditional forms of design.

Waterfall, Agile?

The conceptual phases of digital product development and architecture are similar, however the methodology to arrive at the answer differs between the two disciplines.

Architecture follows waterfall project management method, no matter how quick the design and build phase is. It is all about jumping through hoops to get to the next stage in order for the project to progress. From concept design to resource consent, to putting together construction drawings for building consent, to getting sign off from the engineers. It is about moving from one checkpoint to another.

Waterfall methodolgy

In the tech world, the project lifecycle may vary drastically and more companies are willing to abandon waterfall project management models and instead implement agile practices.

The purpose of agile is to manage the design and build activities of a project in a highly flexible and interactive manner, usually by setting short delivery cycles (sprints) so the team can learn and iterate on their mistakes in each subsequent cycle through retrospective sessions and daily standup meetings.

Agile in theory

The aim is to get the minimal viable product shipped as quick as possible at the lowest project cost with feedback from the users to direct the roadmap of the product based on their needs.

Team daily standup with the infamous scrum board in the background, HBO Silicon Valley

How will agile work in architecture?

I’ve often wondered how agile as a technique can be applied in the architecture industry. It would essentially be like designing and building a house with only the most essential functionality.

We are used to the concept of upsizing based on our growing need for space. If your house is too small, you either move to a bigger house or renovate your existing home by adding an extension. Though extensions often is not ideal because your house was not designed to be extended.

Imagine, under an agile methodology, a house would be designed with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. The tenant would live in this house and over time, as the tenant changes, grows into a family, feedback will be given which could direct the type of spatial extension they require. The architect and the builders will then collaborate to figure out how to add these new spaces to meet the family’s needs.

Hong Kong’s Shocking 40-Square-Foot Apartments

Putting aside urban planning requirements, building regulation and all the legal reasons why we must design buildings the way they are for a moment, we must ask the question about how planning of cities or towns will happen in the future? Could the building of future spaces be based on direct feedback? What if cities, towns and spaces were designed so that they could be scaled as needed based on feedback and growing demographics? Could we not then simply modify space quickly to respond to the demographic’s growing requirements?

The underlying framework of architectural design then would be done with the concept that anything, buildings, public spaces etc can be scaled up as needed without having to destroy the foundation to start over. This would be how agile design would work in architecture.

Cartwright Pickard’s modular housing for East Africa

One similar concept in architecture is that of modular housing. This concept has has been around for a very long time, although it has not become a mainstream option for residential architecture. However, projects like the post earthquake Re:start container mall in Christchurch, has seen modular architecture being applied successfully.

City Mall, in Christchurch, New Zealand

In reality, adapting agile project management techniques in architecture may not be feasible, because of the rigid processes and regulations that are already in place within the building industry today.

However, as the demand for affordable housing in urban regions increases, I believe that an agile approach to architecture could be the answer. A design framework that is not only sensitive to the users’ present needs but also takes into account the future changes, should be the norm in architecture and could be the solution that we need today.