5 big lessons I took with me from architecture to product design

Value engineering, napkin drawing, system thinking, and more

Gulzeb Fatima
Oct 7, 2020 · 5 min read

Like many product designers, my journey to the field began in a parallel design world. For the first few years of my career, I designed and managed small and large-scale architectural projects for colleges like Evergreen Valley, tech companies like Pinterest, and governments like the City of Cupertino. I worked through concept studies, designed detailed elevation and floor plans, and deeply considered how users experience their physical environments.

Although my current work designing user-first digital experiences looks a bit different, there are many lessons from architecture that I still think about today. Here are my top five:

1. Embrace “value engineering” to move faster

In architecture, we start by designing the absolute best. While we consider constraints — budget, site, and otherwise — we start by opting for the nicest materials and processes. Then, when we move from the schematic design phase to the construction drawings phase, we begin to “value engineer:” a cost analysis that helps us see where we can use the generic instead of the custom in a way that brings down the construction price and timeline while still achieving the end goal.

In my practice of product design, I use this same mindset at the appropriate stage of the process. When I move from Lo-fi wireframes and Hi-fi designs to meeting with engineers about feasibility, I think through possibilities for using design system components (pre-created buttons, type styles, and cards) for the MVP launch instead of highly custom-designed interactions and components. If it’s still usable and is 80% of what we want for 20% of the dev time, go for it.

Caveat: In some cases, doing something unique to engage users is the point (like an art installation at a public space — i.e. the Serpentine Pavilion in London), and in that case, going the custom route is usually worth it.

2. Pay attention to “desire paths” — the user is inherent to the journey

In architecture, there’s no such thing as iteration once construction starts and the number of days until occupancy approaches. With that in mind, we often tried to design a ‘perfect’ experience from the get-go. But a unique thing happens once your building opens and users start filling the space: you notice that the meandering limestone path you designed with block-form concrete details, that allowed users to get from one building to another is…never used. Instead, your users find a “desire path” — the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination, and you feel silly for having missed it in the design phase.

Desire paths as a metaphor by Natalia Klishina

In product design, being user-oriented is drilled into our heads from day one. But in practice, this often turns into a thought exercise of putting ourselves “in the shoes” of the user, or referencing a competitor who we assume has built things optimally.

Although user empathy is critical and competitive analysis has its place, there is no substitute for observing the user’s actual behavior and grounding every design choice in the question “what user problem is this new feature solving, and is there a better way to solve it?”

3. Everything is part of a bigger system

An architectural designer may be designing the building’s core, shell, and even interior — but they are working with many different professionals who work on other parts of the whole. Buildings contain more than just walls and ceilings — there are a host of mechanical and electrical systems running in tandem to make a whole. If these don’t all come together aesthetically and to code, we’ve failed. It’s everyone’s job to make sure this doesn’t happen.

My lens as a product designer is always on the company’s overall suite of products & experiences. The changes I make will impact a user journey that extends over the whole site and to our partners’ sites. Merging the micro with the macro is how we make new user experiences feel just right.

4. Technology is your friend, but sketching is your best friend

The field of architecture takes napkin drawing pretty seriously. There have been billion-dollar museums that started out as an economy of lines on a 3-ply tissue. Architects will stop in the middle of a contractor site walk to sketch out the details of a wall assembly or call out the strength of a nail. There is nothing that pen and paper together can’t accomplish. Before all the BIM and 3D modeling software, an architect knows the power of a pencil.

An imprecise drawing of a modern-looking building.
An imprecise drawing of a modern-looking building.
Paper Napkin drawing by architect Daniel Libeskind
A real photo of the same building from the previous image.
A real photo of the same building from the previous image.
The paper napkin drawing brought to life by Studio Libeskind

Too often, product designers rely on UI software to relay ideas — even early on in the process. Lo-fi wire-framing tools are abundant and available in every UX software. But I’ve found that sketching — “crazy 8’s” or otherwise — can be an equally important tool across the entire design process, whether you’re converging or diverging. Using a whiteboard to sort through something before you develop it has power: the power of something simple, relayed with very few frills, to convey the essence of the idea.

5. And finally, something I unlearned: don’t defend your work (really, don’t do it)

In architecture — especially architecture school — we were taught to stand up in front of a panel of our peers and go to bat for our work: Describe the concept behind the design and then defend why you made the decisions that you did. Input was often treated as criticism that the work shouldn’t exist in the real world. As a professional, it’s easy to carry this thinking with you and defend your vision to your panel of peers at the firm or even to your client.

In product design, I had to unlearn this behavior. Input is not a criticism of the work that needs to be defended against, but rather an opportunity to see your design through someone else’s eyes. Rather than pulling off those glasses, I try to squint and fully understand how someone else is looking at it, what data or experiences create their view, and how their feedback will meet the needs of our users — for we are their representatives in the product development cycle.

While designing an app and designing a building may seem like worlds apart, these lessons and many others from architecture guide my product design work every day. Whatever your discipline is, I encourage you to look for inspiration and best practices outside of your field. You never know what you might find.

Want to be part of a team that writes about stuff like this? Check out open roles in Design + User Experience at NerdWallet.

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