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The Elegant Intersection of Architecture and User Experience Design

How architectural training can inform agency and client work

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Shifting careers is often hard to explain. Whether you’re moving departments or starting over in an entirely different field, you’re likely to face a litany of retorts.

At first, I had trouble explaining my jump from the well-defined architect trajectory to the comparably young field of user experience design. Initial attempts to communicate parallels between the design of website interfaces and the construction of buildings were still lacking.

But after five years and trial-by-fire agency experience, however, I like to think I’ve refined my story. Below is a version of that, highlighting the exciting correlations between my former Architectural employment and current Experience Designer role.

Context is crucial

Understanding and operating within contexts is still essential to great work — all of the best architects and experience designers do it. They examine physical factors like the building site or device screen size and adjust design decisions to accommodate for these influences. Great designers also recognize and execute against non-physical determinants such as office politics, project budgets. All of these factors have a hand in shaping context-driven solutions. Moreover, a finished building or marketing website never stands alone; they’re one element in a collage of multifaceted contexts, a collage that affords architectural and experience design professionals an opportunistic medium through which to creatively work.

Listen twice, speak once

Clear communication is crucial. After countless school reviews, internal critiques, and client presentations, the importance of effective communication becomes apparent early on. It’s our responsibility to actively listen in order to better understand client project needs. More than not, success lies in how well complex ideas are conveyed with clarity, intention, and meaning. With many of our digital clients, capturing complex business and functional needs for their website establishes a baseline foundation for effective shared communication throughout the project’s lifespan. As it was in the architectural world, crafting better experience design requires an open ear and purposeful tongue.

Ideate, illustrate, rinse, repeat

The ability to represent your ideas is a requisite. Ideas can’t be precious though; ideas are there to be discussed, debated, and critiqued. Often, the success of an idea is contingent on the designer’s ability to accept suggestions and endeavor to iterate, sometimes in the face of strong resistance from colleagues and clients. Removing our ego and using these frictions as motivation to transform ideas into engaging design is best accomplished by taking an iterative approach to how those ideas are represented.  Both architecture and digital experience design rely on this repetitive approach to continually pressure-test ideas, optimize representational techniques, and ultimately arrive at an idea’s collective consensus.

The cocktail napkin sketch

David Kelly, founder of design-firm IDEO, once remarked that, “You don’t find anything out [about an idea] until you start showing it to people.” Winning a colleague’s buy-in, client approval, or a prestigious architectural competition are all products of great representational skills being employed at varying levels of fidelity. Rough cocktail napkin sketches are sometimes just as valuable as polished, photo-realistic building renderings, or high-fidelity wireframe prototypes. Using the right tools to create a physical or digital manifestation of an idea allows it to be communicated to others, iterated upon, and improved.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Digital experience design is no less multi-disciplinary than architecture. Sure, the players have changed. Instead of contractors, engineers, and consultants, we have UX architects, developers, and designers. Similar to the architecture field, experience design could be argued as a healthy mixture of equal parts design, psychology, and sociology (and perhaps an occasional client therapy session). Architectural spaces evoke emotion; great experience design and design of digital spaces can, too. In addition, both industries value a broad range of expertise and encourage collaboration between disciplines. As a result, the finished product transcends the knowledge and skill of an individual.

I seldom meet experience designers who explicitly studied the field in school, and that’s a great thing. Diverse backgrounds and education only add valuable perspectives to the field. Without exception, the dynamism of experience design is elevated when practitioners draw parallels from other industries. Experienced Designers weave inspiration from art, music, culture, or film, and facilitate surprise and delight through these appropriations. It’s been a great transition so far, and I’m sure I’ll only continue to draw parallels between my formal education and new career.

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