3 UX Lessons of Beautiful But Frustrating Office Building
Some UX Designers, like some Architects, have a nasty habit of designing beautiful products that wow executives but frustrate customers. The key ingredient they often lack: user research. This is the story of one such product, a beautiful but frustrating office building in South Philadelphia.
This beautiful building was opened in 2013 in South Philadelphia’s Navy Yard Industrial Park. It is a magnificent space, the focal point of which is the 4 story atrium and playful spiral staircase you see pictured above. It was designed by the same award-winning architectural firm that designed the Comcast Center in Philadelphia, the second-tallest building in Philadelphia with 1.4 million sq. ft of office space (yeah, these guys/gals have been around the block).
One might think this bold office design would fit the needs of office workers perfectly; and you’d be mostly right. But a few obvious oversights in this building illustrate why even seasoned architects and designers need to incorporate user research to get design right.
1. Users will use your product in unexpected ways.
In some smaller meeting rooms in this building, the walls are lined with window ledges that are perfect for sitting on — a great low seat in which you can lean into the crook between the chunky aluminum support and the oversized window, and peer down into the 4 story atrium below.
There’s only one problem: these nifty little seats will break if you sit on them. Clearly the architects never designed the ledges for sitting, despite the fact that they are very comfortable and line the walls of meeting rooms, where there are never enough seats.
Had the architects done some user observation in other office buildings, they may have been able to spot that when you put things people can sit on in meeting rooms, people will sit on those things.
The architects could have supported their meeting room users’ needs by strengthening the window ledges to support human butts (a great solution — supporting latent user needs), or by sloping the ledges so that they’re not suitable for sitting (an OK solution — a forcing function to prevent users from encountering the “error” of a broken window ledge).
You too can plan for the unexpected ways users will interact with your product by observing them using your product or someone else’s. UserGoodness does this through observation and usability testing, which is an easy way to get insight on those unexpected user needs.
2. Sexy new designs can be totally unusable.
All common areas in this building have kitchens with wide sinks for dropping the reusable plastic cups that were provided by building management — a great idea for reducing waste. However, the sinks are fitted with slick chrome faucets that no one knows how to use.
The problem here is a lack of mapping controls to what they control, and a break from decades old conventions that faucet-users are used to. The faucets are so unusable that building management has put up instructions on how the use them (see the sign behind the faucet).
Often design agencies will try to sell you a dazzling new design that plays great in boardroom presentations. But without any real user research behind the design, you may end up with a slick new UI that doesn’t do much for users, and requires an instruction manual to use.
3. Even age-old UX insights will be overlooked.
Some kitchens in the building were separated from hallways by large glass-panel doors. The doors work great for avoiding collisions, because you can easily see who might be on the other side before you swing open the door. However, the doors do not clearly indicate whether they should be pushed or pulled. Furthermore, the handles on both sides of the door look the same, but one requires pushing and the other requires pulling (and no, putting tiny instructions on the door doesn’t really make it easier to use).
Even people who have been working in the office for years will grab this handle and yank, only to be embarrassingly rejected by the rattle of the glass panel and a door that can’t be pulled.
By analyzing the affordances of your product (what your product can do — like a door that affords pushing/pulling), and observing users in task-driven scenarios, UserGoodness can determine if your signifier is appropriate (the outward sign of what users can do with your product — like the design of your door handle). In the case of this Norman Door*, a much stronger signifier would be to affix a panel to the side of the door that can only be pushed.
*If you’re into architecture or UX and and you haven’t read The Design of Everyday Things, go get a used copy for less than the cost of a burrito!
UserGoodness Can Help!
At UserGoodness, we base our designs on observation and usability testing with real users, well-researched usability heuristics and candid feedback from your customers. This results in UX & UI Design that not only talks the talk in the boardroom, but is backed up with real data and insights that ensure it will work for your customers.
Give us a shout at www.usergoodness.com — we’d love to help with your next customer research or design project!