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UX Design and Architecture are the Same Damn Thing

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time studying the creative process, and how to best inspire creativity in myself and others. This endeavor has led me into reading about things like psychology, design leadership, and interior space design.

A few days ago, I picked up the book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, thinking it would further educate me in space design and help inform the way I structure my working spaces. I didn’t realize how much more it would give me.

One of the biggest things I had struggled with as a UX designer learning about the field was simply explaining what user experience was to other people. Is it the animations we use in an interface? The flow of one screen to another screen? Maybe it’s seeing our app in context with a user’s life?

Is UX even definable?

This architecture “cheat sheet” gave me the simplest and best way to explain UX design I’ve ever come across. Here it is:

User experience design = architecture.

We all know what architects do. They design buildings.

A building is a very tangible thing that’s easy for all of us to understand. We work, play, and live in them every day. We admire the ones with flashy exteriors. We go to specially designed buildings for events like concerts, movies, and conventions.

Two poorly drawn buildings, for reference.

Architects do so much more than just putting a few meeting rooms and a lobby on a blue piece of paper. They create an idea that the building will embody before drawing their first line. They consider the building’s interaction with the environment, the views it will have, the angle of the sun, and the flow of traffic through common areas. They think of the moments people will share within the building’s walls, and how the space will play its part in these moments’ creation.

The architect’s role in the creation of a building is the same as a user experience designer’s role in the creation of a piece of software. They orchestrate all the competing factors in a project so the final product truly makes peoples’ lives better. They provide the creative direction, and they work with the “construction team” to make sure the project is completed within those constraints.

Here are a few concrete examples of the parallels between these two roles:

Managing constraints

During the creation of a blueprint, the architect has to consider many factors they might not be an expert on: structural supports, landscaping, and building codes, to name a few. As they refine their designs, they work with the teams that are implementing these parts of the project, and must know enough about each field’s interests to be able to negotiate and respond to limitations — all while keeping the building true to its vision.

A good architect must stay informed of their constraints, especially before committing to a design.

User experience designers must do the same thing. They must keep all kinds of different constraints in mind: technical limitations, the user’s environment, ergonomics, and even cultural biases. Without some knowledge of all of these, the designer won’t be able to see potential problems on the horizon, and may not be able to adapt their designs to fit within the realities of the project.

Job to Be Done

When architects design a building, that building has a job to do. It could be a theater hall, a recording studio, or a restaurant, but the end goal of the building permeates every design decision that gets made.

User experience designers must make sure to stay true to the job their customers need done by their software. As a project progresses, it’s tempting to include way more than users need, and end with a bloated application that does a lot of things poorly. It’s the UX designer’s responsibility to ensure the core “job to be done” is accomplished as pleasantly and seamlessly as possible, and to not let anything else distract from it.

This is what the UX designer prevents from happening.

The Creative Process

An architect’s process for designing a building takes many stages. It starts out with rough sketches to get an idea for the high-level structure of the building. This progresses into more fine-grained drawings, including sections and floor plans, to plan out the flow through the building and create the “mood” of it. Then, the architect will start building models to see how the building physically plays out. This is all done before any of the specialists (construction workers, technicians, landscapers, etc.) are asked to build anything on-site, as these projects are huge endeavors.

While software tends to move faster than construction, the creative process has a surprising amount of parallels. While the architect develops increasingly detailed prototypes of the building, the user experience designer does the same. They may first storyboard the user’s experience using the application, then move to flow diagrams, and then start to imagine some of the UI elements on the screen. These stages of the creative process rely heavily on prior research and getting the opinions of users and specialists alike, much like the process of the architect.

Building up great software

The role of a UX designer is more like that of an architect than I ever realized. Yes, they’re making the product look and feel nice, but they’re also overseeing the creative direction of the project and mediating vastly different needs and constraints.

I’ll even go so far as to say “UX Designer” shouldn’t be a job title. If you’re a UX designer, no one is really sure what they can and can’t go to you for. Maybe we should start using “creative director,” or even “experience architect” to indicate a bit more broadness than a typical design position. (Not to be confused with “software architects,” who are responsible for defining the code structure of an application.)

If you’re interested in learning more parallels between architecture and user experience design, I highly recommend picking up 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. Some of the points are tailored very exclusively to architects, but UX designers can learn a lot from the vast majority of the book.

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