Lately I’ve been thinking about the parallels between what I learned by creating architecture (architecture-architecture) and what I’m learning now as our team crafts experiences for digital products.
During a Building Details class at the Harvard GSD in my second year, I remember the delight with which the prof, someone who had run his own firm for a few decades, shared his trade secrets with us. “If you have to spend money on one thing, make it the front door. Don’t skimp, and make it heavy.” The implication being, that the quality of the door would subliminally communicate the quality of the entire house as soon as someone walked in. But when does a door go from this:
Door = Entrance
Door > Entrance
I think it begins when we begin to think of the door as more than an object, but rather an experience.
Yes, any slab of metal or wood can function as a door (object), but what designers are really concerned with is the experience of passage from one space to another. Is that threshold celebrated, hidden, barely felt, or impenetrable? Is it a door, gate, or triumphal arch that signifies the movement from one space to the next?
And just where is the ‘door’ in a project like this? (below)
The Yokohama Ferry Terminal (by FOA architects) is a veritable catalogue of landscaped surfaces and the transitions between them. I’m referring to material transitions: from Brazilian hardwood to concrete to grass, landscaped surfaces to poured surfaces. As well as the transitions between architectural elements like the roof, wall and floor. As Japanese passengers await their ferries on the landscaped ‘roof’ of Yokohama, they flow seamlessly from threshold to threshold, space to space, interior to exterior.
But let me get to my current challenge: I’m designing an app right now.
I’ve been taking my app to coffee shops in SF, asking strangers if they’d help me out and test drive this app that a friend made. (Users are wayyy more honest with you if they don’t think it’s your app that they are testing.) I explain that I’m not sure entirely what it does because I just downloaded it yesterday, and would they try it out for me? This lets them know that I’m not an ‘expert’ at this thing, and that I can’t offer the ‘right’ answers to their questions about it. ‘Just dive in,’ I tell them. ‘You can’t break it.’
So I did this the other day, and noticed that my user paused after the intro screens, before entering the rest of the app. She stopped at the login screen, thought about it, and looked up at me for an answer. I thought I had created Yokohama, but she saw a door.
What’s the difference between a door and a passageway? You stop at a door because it implies that there is one right way to unlock (key) or access it (doorknob), while there are many ways to flow through a passageway. You may even cross over without noticing the transition.
What’s more, I’m not sure that the ‘door’ we had designed, clearly communicated what our product is really about. Reducing friction for users or visitors and getting them to circulate throughout the entirety of your building (or app), is no small feat. How many times have you entered an unknown building and gotten lost in the process of wayfinding? Perhaps you were looking for the bathroom? As an architect, I know to look for the circulation core, because many architects will tuck bathrooms alongside of them, but that is insider knowledge.
The challenge of creating a compelling journey through a building (what we architects call ‘circulation,’) is not that different from the challenge of creating a compelling journey through a digital product. The ‘design angst’ with which we create login screens has echoes of the same ‘design angst’ that accompanied our consideration of thresholds as architects. I know that I’ll never look at a login screen in quite the same way.