From Architecture to UX Design by Ashley Ma

by Interaction Design March 8, 2022
Overhead shot of text on sidewalk along with two sets of feet. Text reads: Passion led us here. Passion is what led author to switch from architecture to UX design. Overhead shot of text on sidewalk along with two sets of feet. Text reads: Passion led us here. Passion is what led author to switch from architecture to UX design.

Back in 2015, the passion for combining art and engineering had drawn me to architecture, a traditional design discipline, in my undergraduate. About two years ago, I was spending my fifth and final year at the school of architecture. It was time for me to decide my next page, starting my career path as an architect or pursuing my next degree. And it was at that time I started my first internship as an architect, a practical work experience that made me start thinking about whether I wanted to continue on this path in architecture. After being involved in a long-cycle project, in which I modified the design several times but still could not tell which one was better without actual feedback, I decided I wanted a path with more flexibility, logicality, and broader application. Now, I am pursuing my master’s degree in Interaction Design at SVA.

Some stats show an interesting trend: Employment of architects is projected to grow 3 percent from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations, while that of digital designers is growing at a faster pace. I noticed that more architects are considering starting a new path. “How can I enter a whole new field? Does it mean that I have wasted my time in the previous field? Are my past experiences and skills useless?” I couldn’t stop thinking about these questions at that time as well. Although I haven’t figured out all of them, I still want to share some of my views and tips with you and hope they will help you a little.

Similarities

Although UX and architecture design’s targeted design objects are different, there are some similarities in their design processes and concerns, which means that some mindsets and skills could be applied to both fields. Here are some of the key points I have summarized.

1. Context

In both fields of architecture and user experience, understanding the design context is an essential prerequisite. In architecture design, we need to research the history of the site, the surrounding environment, traffic conditions, other contextual elements, etc., which would be used to derive the constraints of the site and the functional needs of the building. Similarly, in UX design, we always need to do primary and secondary research about the background, user groups, technology, competitors, market, etc., to define and fully understand the problems. Just as the same architectural design strategy is different in different sites, the human-computer interaction experience is different in different social contexts and user groups. Therefore, the skills of searching information and analysis are of great importance.

2. Flow

Photo of pinned notes on a wall connected by string to show a flowchart Photo of pinned notes on a wall connected by string to show a flowchart

The walking circulation connects one space to another to form a series of complete spatial experiences. For example, when going to the airport, your spatial flow could be the foyer — check-in area — security check — waiting room — boarding area. But the airport staff would have different spatial experiences even if you are all in the same building. We can envision the interface as flat architectural space. The user flow in UX design is like people walking through a virtual 2D space. What we do is not only list all the features and interfaces but make the user flows more smooth and efficient. When it comes to the design methods, we use 3D models and different perspectives renderings to simulate people’s experience of space in architecture design. When we try to connect the different perspectives in a storyline, it becomes the storyboard in UX design.

3. Empathy

Architects and UX designers are both designing for broad user groups, which means our design outcomes have the potential to influence more people’s lives. Empathy is one of the critical qualities for UX designers since we need to learn from people and understand their problems, needs, and pain points. While many architects don’t realize that empathizing is also an essential part of architecture design. “Good architecture is open — open to life, open to enhance the freedom of anyone, where anyone can do what they need to do,” says Anne Lacaton, who won the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Good architecture is not designed to meet the architect’s preference but to create a satisfying space for users and the site. The ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes will lead us to be either excellent architects or UX designers.


Differences

In addition to the similarities mentioned above, there are certainly many differences between UX design and architecture design. As an emerging discipline closely related to technology, UX design is rapidly changing compared to the relatively traditional architectural design. We need to constantly learn and explore new ways to adapt to dynamic people and society.

1. User-centered

In UX design, user research is one of the essential processes where we usually spend much time on it. UX designers make decisions almost depending on the insights from user research, including user interviews, surveys, focus groups discussion, etc. These methods require us to talk and interact with real users. However, in most architecture design processes, architects hardly meet with users, and the direct clients are usually not the users of the building but who pay for it. Sometimes, architects have to meet their clients’ needs rather than real users’ needs, and it’s also challenging to get feedback from users.

2. Usability Test

Pink Post-It Notes on a wall listing the different stages of usability testing. Pink Post-It Notes on a wall listing the different stages of usability testing.

Since UX design is mainly based on digital products, designers can quickly create interactive prototypes and use them for usability testing. It is also possible to compare the user experience of multiple solutions through A/B user testing. Recently, I made a prototype and conducted several user tests with it for my project. I found it so helpful since many problems and feedback asked by real users during the test were beyond my expectations. After that, I realized how different it could be between the designer’s assumption and users’ actual behaviors. Therefore, observing, communicating, and analyzing users’ behavior are essential skills for UX designers. However, usability testing is virtually impossible in traditional architecture design because it costs too much to build the real-scale model. So architects usually turn to computer aids to create virtual 3D models and simulate people’s perspectives to view their schemes, which requires more software skills than the ability to communicate with users.

3. Iteration

A significant difference between UX design and architecture design is the length of a project and the product’s lifespans. Short-term UX projects enable designers to gather feedback quickly and iterate the product in time. The development of technology and the updating of devices also make digital products’ lifespans short. While architecture projects are exactly the opposite, which require a longer time to design and build, have fewer chances to modify, and stand for more extended periods.


These are some of my findings and summaries in the process of shifting from architecture to UX design. For my next journey, I am trying to combine my skill sets, blend the two fields and see how I can leverage my knowledge in new design practices. I also put my eyes on AR, VR, and Metaverse, which have more possibilities to apply UX design to the 3D digital world. Thank you for reading!