This article unveils the nuances and challenges commercial architects face in crafting spaces that resonate with end users. It explores these complexities before developing the idea of systems thinking. This robust framework clarifies the seemingly chaotic design landscape, paving the way for more effective and holistic solutions.
Next, the focus shifts to design thinking—a natural extension of systems thinking—showcasing its practical applications in creating products that align seamlessly with user needs. With a strong emphasis on empathy and innovation, design thinking catalyses a more efficient workflow that yields better outputs.
In its concluding arguments, this article makes a case for integrating design thinking into the architectural domain, highlighting its potential to elevate the quality of designed spaces. By embracing this approach, architects can draw a path towards more user-centric designs that harmoniously blend artistry and functionality.
Although this article stars architecture, all design forms can benefit from the principles it explores.
ARCHITECTURE AND SYSTEMS THINKING
Architecture has the ambitious project of creating spaces that are functional, visually pleasing, sustainable, and responsive to the needs and well-being of its tenants and occupants – the end-users. At a minimum, designed spaces should be structurally sound and resist environmental pressures. Spaces should be functional with a layout that is easy to navigate: a shopping centre, for example, should have adequate lighting, ventilation and access to essential facilities like bathrooms and fire alarms. It should also have a distribution of rentable space that is large enough to be profitable and adequately segmented to reduce the barrier of entry for smaller business owners. Any public building should cater to the needs of individuals with mobility impairments, including amenities like disabled parking bays, ramps, wide doorways and elevators for ease of use. Buildings should be energy efficient, implement insulation and include heating and cooling systems to comfort their occupants. Good architecture implies design that is functionally sound and aesthetically pleasing. Structures and spaces should complement their surroundings whilst respecting their environment’s cultural and historical context. In addition, Architects face a business imperative. They must carry out all of their tasks while ensuring they stay up to date with the latest technology and trends, manage their client relationships, and maintain a good image in the public eye while remaining profitable. Architecture and, more so, the running of an Architectural practice is a monumentally complex endeavour. Like any structure, however, systems thinking can help simplify it.
Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding any organisation, structure or mechanism, which can include a breadth of subjects from the complex delivery process of the Architectural practice to the nuances of national policy implementation, the enhancement workflows, supply chains, machines and beyond. Systems thinking tackles problems by chunking them into their fundamental parts and understanding how those parts function alone and in the presence of other elements in the broader system. Systems thinking does not target the observable aspects of a problem, the symptoms, but focuses on restructuring the system to ‘nip the problem in the bud’. Although it may seem tempting to solve a problem by attacking the symptoms, at best, such an approach will only relieve the issue in the short term and, at worst, can lead to counterproductive results.
Imagine a child who struggles to sit at a desk for extended periods to complete homework after school. The concerned parent consults their general practitioner for a prescription of mental stimulants. After taking the medication, the child finds focusing easier, but their grades are not improving. Instead of completing their homework, the child fixates more intensely on distractions like browsing the internet or playing games on their tablet. If the parent understood that their child’s lack of focus was a natural consequence of highly available and distracting technology, they could have treated their child by removing those distractions from the environment and providing proper incentives for their indulgences. Lifestyle changes can often remedy health conditions that need medication to fix.
These kinds of insights are the benefit of a first-principles approach to problem-solving, like Systems Thinking.
A good problem-solver acknowledges that an underlying structure of methodology, technological implementation, leadership and culture, amongst other factors, is the machine responsible for generating outcomes -beneficial or damaging. The problem solver must alter the system before they can affect desirable long-term change. How, then, can this technique be applied to design?
THE CURSED PROBLEM
A curse is a persisting affliction that is difficult or impossible to escape from. In his 2019 Game Developers Conference presentation, ‘Cursed Problems in Game Design’, Alex Jaffe describes cursed problems as an incompatibility between core design promises. Cursed problems have no straightforward solutions and can only be addressed by weakening at least one of the core design promises or changing them entirely.
Core design promises are the foundational guides upon which a design is based and form the system governing any design project’s merits and flaws. In essence, these promises are the premise of a design project. In Architecture, this premise might be “a collaborative study space that caters for group projects while also providing students quiet rooms for distraction-free work.” There is a potential conflict between the core design promises: noisy students might book themselves in the quiet study rooms to socialise without restraint, taking away the option for students who wish to study in silence. What began as the good intent to create a productive space for students with different needs and preferences ended up alienating a significant portion of its target market.
The Architect needs to avoid cursed problems because they can incur hefty monetary and time costs to undo. Understanding the end user’s needs and wants will reveal compatible core design promises, improving service quality and turnaround times. Design thinking excels.
Design thinking articulates the creative process to prioritise the welfare and satisfaction of the end user over all other aspects of product and service delivery. The kind of information design thinking is concerned with relates to behaviours, preferences and feelings. This subject-focused information is known as ‘Thick Data’, unlike ‘Big Data’, which extracts valuable patterns and insights from large quantities of data. Design thinking is about real people and incorporates the context of their experiences, not simply points that inform an average or trend. The best design decisions will come from implementing a combination of both data types, although Big Data is beyond the scope of this article.
It may sound peculiar to prioritise the end user over the client; after all, the client pays the Architect to realise their vision. Designing with the end user in mind does not mean the Architect should ignore their client’s desires. It is their imperative to satisfy their client, just not in a gratuitous way. The design solution must consider the end-users of the building or site because the entire project’s success ultimately depends on their satisfaction. The client’s vision is a framework that guides the design process and provides a sense of scale, style and constraints, but taking it for granted is a mistake. Grounding that vision with thorough user research is the key to creating spaces that ace the test of time and build a sense of community and belonging.
Design thinking has five integral steps.
- User Research
This stage involves empathising with the target audience. The researcher aims to understand the end user’s behaviour and thought process, not to change or influence it. The end users’ behaviour is chaotic and unpredictable, and it is in the researcher’s interest to observe while interfering as little as possible, just like they would be if they were documenting wildlife.The researcher should spend time in the end user’s environment and observe life from their perspective, taking notes along the way. This process will often reveal unexpected and pertinent details. Interviewing end users with questions relevant to the project’s design and reinforcing them with online surveys will ensure various responses and a wealth of novel information.The client might argue that user research is pointless because of how well they know their target audience and how little their target audience knows what they need from a space. This is incorrect, however. The users always know what they want but probably lack the expertise to elaborate their desires. The solution is not to interrogate users for actionable information; it’s about inferring their opinions by observing their behaviour!
This step requires the organisation and interpretation of the data accumulated from User Research. Researchers compile and analyse their observations, interviews and survey data, mapping out common pain points and defining the end-users needs.Card Sorting is a technique that can be helpful here and in other steps in the Design Thinking process. Data fragments, whether photos of the environment, quotes from the end users or researcher observations, are represented as cards. In an open sort, participants categorise and title the data fragments into groups that make sense to them. In a closed sort, the researcher prescribes categories for the participants to organise data fragments into. The goal of card sorting is to reveal how people make sense of information, which can have a significant impact on the design direction. The researcher compiles their thick data into ‘personas’, imaginary characters, each with particular needs, preferences and demographics. Personas should always strive to capture large segments of the target market that share common features. They represent users’ motivations, goals and needs and accurately estimate user expectations to benchmark the project’s design against compatible design promises.When identifying user needs, one should always frame the problem statements from the users’ perspective, discarding one’s opinions and thoughts for more accurate results.
Whereas Steps 1 and 2 were about developing the problem space, now it is time to explore solutions and begin brainstorming. The tripartite reductive approach to brainstorming is a great way to refine ideas into actionable solutions.Part 1 – Design team members attack the problem space individually before coming together to share their ideas. Some ideas will be better than others, and some will be outright terrible. However, the greater the variety of potential solutions at this stage, the better. The bad ones are just as important as the good ones, as it is equally valuable to know where not to go as it is to know where to go.
Part 2 – After the design team has consolidated their ideas, they group up into teams. It is good to match group members with people they are not used to collaborating with. The goal of Ideation is innovation, and when unfamiliar perspectives collide, creativity soon follows.
Part 3 – A final round of refinements occurs where each group makes their case and shares what they like and dislike most about the other’s proposals, suggesting what they could incorporate to improve their perspectives. The best ideas are corroborated and assembled into a design guideline.
According to the guideline, the design team produces inexpensive prototypes, keeping details to a minimum. Emphasis is placed on functional elements and ensuring the Information Architecture (IA) is sound. IA refers to the organisation of information in the solution, including the placement of text, images, numbers, signage and other interactive elements, minimising users’ effort to arrive at their destination. All that is necessary from a prototype is that it operates in a way that approximates the solutions described in the design guideline. It is better to produce many low-resolution prototypes that explore a breadth of possibilities within the design guideline than to have fewer detailed versions.The design team can prototype using cardboard cut-outs, sketches of structural layouts, paper cut-outs, 3d models or moulds. Any prototyping method is viable so long as it demonstrates to the design team, the client and the users how the guideline solution(s) might work.
- User Testing
The design team presents prototypes to user samples that roughly match the personas in Step 2. The goal is to observe how users interact with the solution and listen to their feedback, which will either validate or discredit the prototype. The design team will incorporate the feedback to revise or scrap the prototype. By comparing and contrasting the performance of each prototype across a variety of users, the design team can suggest the best solution to invest in and develop.The Architect should remember that their end users have a lesser understanding of the organisational principles necessary for a sound space than they do. As such, any solutions that make sense to the Architect might not make sense to the end user. No amount of intuition can account for the vast differences in perspectives between the end users. Truth can be stranger than fiction; the Architect must always consider this. This knowledge will make the Architect’s pitch more convincing to the client, leading to fewer iterations and meetings, saving everyone time and money.The Design Thinking process is iterative and non-linear. Each part of the process reveals new information that can enhance or diminish any other part. Learnings in Step 5 might alter the assumptions made in Step 2, which might have additional splash-on effects on neighbouring Steps. The design thinker needs only trust the process to guide their search for the optimal, user-friendly solution.
ARCHITECTURE x DESIGN THINKING
Architecture is a creative field that naturally includes many design thinking elements, like Ideation and prototyping, but it can improve by refining its creative process and integrating user research methodology. The application of Design Thinking in Architecture features prominently in the Predesign and Schematics Phases, where most conceptual and iterative work occurs. User Research should begin as early as possible after receiving the project brief from the client. Consolidation and Ideation would follow in the Predesign Phase and continue throughout the schematic phase and every phase thereafter: receiving and implementing feedback is a ubiquitous aspect of any design process, from inception to realisation. Prototyping and User Testing will likely occur in the Schematics Phase as different solutions are developed and analysed. By correctly implementing design thinking into the creative process, the Architect can profoundly impact their target audience and the human condition at large.
Below are five examples of Architectural projects designed with the end user at their heart.
The High Line (New York City, USA)
The High Line is an elevated park built on a historic freight rail line. It transformed a disused structure into a public space that provides walking paths, seating areas, and gardens for people to enjoy. The design incorporates accessibility features, art installations, and areas for gathering and relaxation, telling a narrative of a human protagonist.
The Six. (Los Angeles, USA)
The military phrase ‘got your six’ means to have one’s back or to be on standby to offer support. Aptly named, The Six is an affordable 52-unit housing complex that provides a home, support services and rehabilitation for disabled war veterans, emphasising human contact and interaction. The core design promises converge to engender a sense of freedom and belonging, in contrast to the violent and isolating field of war.
The Eden Project (Cornwall, UK)
The Eden Project is a botanical garden in large geodesic domes. The architecture focuses on sustainability and education, providing an immersive experience for visitors. It features interactive exhibits and recreational spaces that educate and facilitate exploration and engagement with nature.
The V&A Dundee (Dundee, UK)
The V&A Dundee design museum aims to engage and inspire visitors. The architecture features innovative exterior geometry, hinting at its purpose as a design centre where channelled creativity pushes the boundaries of design. The interior, in contrast, follows a minimalistic open-plan philosophy, maximising the floor space for tenants to display their marvellous creations.
Dada District (Svitava, Czech Republic)
The Dada District was an industrial storage facility having since been transformed into an affordable housing complex. The building stays true to the utilitarian aesthetic of the surrounding factories and storage facilities. Yet, it integrates modern technology more subtly than the crude machines and devices in the neighbouring buildings, enhancing the welfare of its occupants. The Dada’s positive twist on the profit-no-matter-what corporate narrative pushes the envelope of industrial design.
The designers of these unique structures all had a clear purpose in mind and displayed an intimate understanding of their target audience. These human-centred designs blend form and function to serve communities and reveal a story worth remembering.
Architects rely on tried and true industry practices, their personal experience, expertise and a host of technologies to devise a design for the project that will satisfy the client. What does the client’s satisfaction ultimately depend on, however? The delight of their target audience, of course. Only by gaining traction with its end-users can a designed space succeed. Designing for the end user, the Architect designs for the client by extension, but if the Architect designs for the client, they do not necessarily design for the end user. The best way to ensure that satisfaction and welfare are maximised throughout a design project is to place the end-users at the centre of consideration. The client understands that their priority is to account for the end-users concerns and desires in their vision. The Architect designing what they think end-users will enjoy is always an inferior approach to incorporating legitimate user research and user testing.
As the design landscape matures, new procedures and tools expand the boundaries of creative possibility. User-centric design is one such development that allows Architects to connect with the subjects of their spaces more intimately than ever before. Architects can elevate their craft and improve efficiency by implementing basic Design Thinking principles, especially by empathising with and studying their target audience. The Architect needs a careful eye to curate the core promises of a design project to avoid cursed problems before they can escalate, and systems thinking is their magnifying glass.
Note that the client and the end user are distinct entities in commercial architecture, but in domestic architecture, the client and the user are the same entity. Can design thinking still apply to domestic architecture? Indeed. Watch this space to find out more.
Written by: Richard Steenekamp