Drawing Parallels: Architecture and UX Design

Exploring the parallels between architecture and UX design. Not information architecture, but the type of architecture focused on building physical structures.

It is not uncommon for architects to transition into UX design. The two disciplines lend themselves well to one another and share many of the same principles. Those trained in architecture have a way of viewing physical spaces that is “desperately needed in the emerging digital world,” according to ZDNet.

In the article, licensed architect Gavin Johns likens an architect’s understanding of how people interact with an environment to that of a user navigating through an experience.

“By questioning the new environments created through software, we have the opportunity to shape our world through a different medium,” he is quoted as saying.

In a different piece published in Arch Daily, Johns took it one step further, saying UX design is a great opportunity for architects that are “dissatisfied” with their work. He cites three reasons why UX design makes him personally feel more fulfilled.

To paraphrase:

  1. Speed – Buildings take a long time to build, usually at least two years. Product design cycles can be as little as two weeks.
  2. Iteration – It’s not easy to make changes to a building once it’s built. Rapid iteration in UX design provides tons of learning opportunities and allows for issues to be addressed immediately.
  3. Measurement – Measurable goals “give you clear success metrics,” something that is much harder to determine in architecture. Johns writes that this allows designers to get better at their craft in a much faster capacity.

The Basic Parallels Between UX Design and Architecture

When we’re talking about architecture in this sense, we are referring to the traditional study of building structures, monuments and buildings. Information architecture is a whole other discipline that is also related to user experience design, but for the purposes of this piece we are focusing on traditional architecture.

Architecture and UX design share some fundamental similarities that cannot be ignored.

There is a Process

Safina Lavji, a UX architect at Sandstorm Design, wrote in a company blog post about the similarities between the design process of UX vs. architecture.

“Much like physical spaces, digital spaces can come crashing down if you rush the process,” she wrote. “Whether you’re building a cathedral or a website, you start with a goal, work through the mess (information architecture, user research, usability testing) and draw up the plans (blueprints or wireframes) so you can create a concrete product users can easily move through.”

Users Must Have Common Ground

This idea of space, be it physical or digital, is one of the aspects that captured the attention of Debasish Biswas, an interaction design and architect based in India.

In a post on Medium, he took a deep dive into the concept of space and drew some conclusions on a more rudimentary level, humanizing some of the similarities between architecture and UX.

“There will always be a common space that connects all the other spaces like your living room or a foyer. Similarly, there is always a homepage that the user keeps coming back to and uses to access other pages in a digital experience,” he wrote.

It Needs to be Clear How a User is Supposed to Navigate Through a Space

Biswas also noted similarities in usability and how a user is guided through an experience, whether it is through navigational prompts or an innate sense of flow.

“Architectural facets of usability may include anything from a clearly marked entrance, to an intuitive and logical flow through the hallways/corridors and overall layout of a structure, to signage with appropriate labeling and giving clear directions, among many other things,” he wrote.

Opportunities for Cross Disciplinary Learning

When UX design borrows a lens from architecture, designers are better able to imagine an experience on a more fundamental level. Humans were walking through buildings long before they were exploring digital worlds and experiences, after all.

“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,” said David Lau, a New Zealand-based UX designer, in an article he wrote back in 2015.

For architects-turned-UX-designers, working in virtual reality, augmented reality or mixed reality presents another avenue of opportunity. Having an architect’s mind contribute to the spatial concerns of a 3D experience may assist in the creation of an app that a user can navigate through more naturally.

If you are an architect who has been considering a career change, there is potentially a lot of opportunity for you to apply your background in physical design to the digital world. Explore our blog to learn more about UX and feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.