UX design and architecture

People often ask me: “How does an architect get into designing websites?” I tell them that when I was studying, there were few academic disciplines as relevant to web design as architecture. The reason for this is that successful architectural design balances a series of forces that pull a project in different directions:


Many of these same forces also influence the design process in other fields as well, including UX. Architects are trained to identify the optimal balance of these forces that can yield the most successful outcome for a particular project. Some building designs are driven primarily by plastic/aesthetic concerns:


while others are more utilitarian:


The architect would be doing the client a disservice (and be promptly fired) if she were to apply the same balance of forces to these two design projects. On the other hand, finding the right balance for each project is what produces buildings that meet or exceed their owners’ and users’ needs. In short, architecture is an established design field in which plastic concerns, contextual issues, human factors, engineering/technology, and business concerns must be carefully balanced. These same forces are also critical factors in many UX design projects, which is why I think that architecture is a particularly apt field for designers in our field to study.

I mention this because I still occasionally find colleagues, clients, and prospects who seem to think of web design primarily as “graphic design for the web”. A few weeks ago I received an email from a major local retailer wanting me to bid for the “design” of their new online store. Launch date was less than three weeks away, and the budget was very low (even by third world standards). It was clear that they expected a cosmetic intervention on top of a structure (an experience) that had already been defined and produced, probably by a programmer. The managers of this company are savvy enough to employ architects when they want to build a new (physical) retail store; they don’t just put up a shed and call in a “designer” to paint the walls and hang banners three weeks before opening date. What makes them think their online store is different?

Websites are more like physical spaces than they are like brochures, posters, magazines, and other traditional graphic design deliverables. People go to these “places” to meet friends, transfer money, buy books, look up information, etc. With the possible exception of the last one, these are not the sorts of activities that visual design usually facilitates. Attraction, persuasion, and communication — three primary functions of graphic design — are also important functions that websites must fulfill, but (again) are among many factors that need to be balanced.

An effective web-based experience can’t be produced solely on the basis of aesthetic criteria. There are too many other forces pulling the project in different directions. The UX designer’s role is to understand these forces, aim for the optimal balance, and then clarify and communicate the vision for the project. Clients seem to understand that this is what architects do. We’ve already moved away from the use of the term “information architecture” to describe the high-level, strategic work that guides design for the web. However, it behooves us to continue looking at architecture as a source of inspiration for how we approach design and how we communicate the value we provide.

Photos: frescotours, dougww.