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Architecture’s UX Problem

Research shows people don’t understand how to use high-performance buildings. Does architecture need a UX breakthrough?

Architecture’s UX Problem
[Photo: Gen Sadakane/EyeEm/Getty Images]

Julia K. Day remembers the moment she got interested in understanding how people use architecture. Day, who is now an assistant professor in Washington State University’s School of Design and Construction, was a design student studying a new high-performance building in Spokane, Washington. The building had an interface designed to let people know when it was environmentally ideal to open the windows rather than use the A/C. When the conditions was right, a green light would come on–supposedly letting people know they should open their windows.

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Supposedly. No one she talked to even knew the system existed. “They thought it was part of the fire alarm system,” Day recalls over email. “Some people didn’t even know they could open their windows! I remember thinking, ‘This is crazy. The owner probably spent a lot of money to have this fancy system installed, and no one even knows what it is.'” It was a classic example of the mismatch between the way today’s most efficient and advanced buildings are designed, and how people actually end up using them.

A confusing user interface in a building. [Photo: Julia Day]
Since then, Day has interviewed many people who work and live in high-performance buildings, studying an aspect of architecture that is overlooked: the reality of how people use it (or misuse it, as the case may be). A high- performance building is one “designed to operate as an energy efficient, resilient, and durable building, which intentionally optimizes all installed systems and promotes health and productivity for its occupants;” in short, a “smart” building.

In a new study in Energy Research & Social Science, Day and coauthor William O’Brien, an associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, describe the results of seven previous studies focused on the occupants of different high-performance buildings in Washington and Ottawa over the past five years. By looking at multiple studies, they draw out the ways that surveys of inhabitants can often reveal things that purely numbers-based post-occupancy studies can’t. As they explain, “oftentimes researchers ask the questions of ‘what,’ ‘how many,’ and ‘how often?’ Yet, we often neglect to ask the ‘why’ questions.” The stories themselves are remarkable. Many are not only tributes to advanced architectural technology–but also the ingenuity of occupants who “hack” it.

A human “hack” of an HVAC system using a garbage bag. [Photo: Marissa Rosati]
For example, in one office that had a poorly placed motion-activated lighting system, the workers set up a Drinking Bird toy to keep the lights from turning off on them–and as a result, kept them on all the time. Meanwhile, the owners of an energy-optimized home put a huge shag carpet over a floor designed to absorb and store solar radiation because it was cold on bare feet. The carpet, of course, rendered it ineffective. In a research building where the occupants needed to turn off the lights for their work, there were no operable light switches–so the scientists had to stay “completely still” for 15 minutes to get the lights to turn off automatically. Occupants cover up vents, obscure light sensors, move their furniture, and deploy other low-tech hacks. Sometimes people simply didn’t understand how their building was designed to be used, but other times their reasons were social or economic–one office worker explained that he cared less about saving energy because his company is paying for it. Often, they were uneasy about privacy; one apartment dweller mentioned their toilet facing a glazed facade. Other times it was a matter of sheer physical discomfort.

“You’ve got to keep in mind we’re a bunch of liberal college-educated people who like the idea of a green building,” one occupant tells Day and Williams, explaining why they kept their windows open even when the building’s energy interface recommended that they keep them shut for maximum energy savings. “We had parties when it was built. But we’re still human animals and so we get really crabby. And too hot.”

Anyone in the tech industry might recognize the idea of talking to occupants as a core principle of great user experience, or UX–understanding the way people use a product, not the way it was designed to be used.

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A speaker covered with packing tape. [Photo: Julia Day]
In architecture, the rise of LEED and other technical standards for architectural efficiency has led to more nuanced forms of what’s known as “post-occupancy evaluation,” or testing and understanding whether a building is really meeting the energy benchmarks it set out to hit. But those numbers-driven studies need to be augmented with qualitative research talking to the people who actually use the buildings, Day points out. “It doesn’t matter how well our buildings are ‘performing’ if the people in the buildings are miserable,” she writes. As the study shows, miserable occupants can lead to less efficient buildings when people disable systems designed to make their buildings better.

Day and O’Brien advocate for architects and builders to not only involve occupants early on in the design process, but also perform these more qualitative forms of post-occupancy evaluation and share their results. “These stories tend to be very descriptive, provide greater insight about occupant mentality, and are likely to remain memorable long after statistical results have been forgotten,” they point out in the study. No one forgets the image of a dozen scientists sitting stock still in a room until the lights go off, or a Drinking Bird bopping in an office hallways in the middle of the night. Funny though they are, they impact the quantitative performance of the building.

There are plenty of reasons why user research isn’t as common in architecture, ranging from the fact that isn’t always clear who should pay for such studies, to murkier issues of culture and how designers perceive their responsibility to their users once the building is finished (though that perception may be changing). But whatever the reason, as architecture comes alive with new technology, it needs its own UX breakthrough, a set of best practices that establish not only how an occupant might like a building to act, but also how a building itself can explain to a user why it’s designed a certain way–and how to control it. In short, it needs a model for human-architecture interaction.

In the meantime, Day plans to continue studying the way people use advanced building technology. “In fact,” she adds, “if anyone that reads this wants to participate in a research study for their building, please feel free to contact me!”

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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