Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Architectural Surrogacy

Don Norman, an advocate of smart social design, giving a lecture last year in Chicago.

In the ebb and flow of architectural trends, human-centered design (HCD) is a rising tide. This is a process where the end user is king. The client (or customer or constituency) is asked to define their wants and needs for a space and the architect works to incorporate this information into the final product. This process is linked, in no small part, to the growth of social design. Think Bryan Bell and Cameron Sinclair. Architects and designers engage for the benefit of the community at large. The architect is no longer the sole purveyor of ideas, but rather a surrogate for the needs of the user.

There are instances where human-centered design makes eminent sense. Take hospitals. Kaiser Permanente in California includes nurses, doctors, and patients in the research phase of creating a new building. Understanding how medical professionals, patients, and families use a space can reduce human error and inefficiency and improve patient outcomes. Stroke victims, for example, cannot see or react to people approaching them on their debilitated side. Nurses insert IV's and take blood pressure readings solely from the patient's functioning side. It makes sense, then, to orient rooms so patient beds align the functioning side of the individual with the door. This makes the experience more palatable for the patient and it means the nurse is not forced to walk around the bed to the other side with equipment and IV bags several times a day. This type of insight can only come after consulting with medical staff.

As the concept catches hold in a broader way, human-centered (also called user-centered) design is beginning to see its critics. The process is predicated on one potentially flawed concept: that we know best. Don Norman, who writes extensively about social and human-centered design , uses computer software as an example of HCD gone awry:
One basic philosophy of HCD is to listen to users, to take their complaints and critiques seriously. Yes, listening to customers is always wise, but acceding to their requests can lead to overly complex designs. Several major software companies, proud of their human-centered philosophy, suffer from this problem. Their software gets more complex and less understandable with each revision...If a user suggestion fails to fit within this design model, it should be discarded. Alas, all too many companies, proud of listening to their users, would put it in.

Sometimes what is needed is a design dictator who says, “Ignore what users say: I know what’s best for them.” The case of Apple Computer is illustrative. Apple’s products have long been admired for ease of use. Nonetheless, Apple replaced its well known, well-respected human interface design team with a single, authoritative (dictatorial) leader. Did usability suffer? On the contrary: its new products are considered prototypes of great design.
Norman goes on to say that a fundamental problem with HCD is that it frequently emphasizes the person, not the activity. In a new post on Core 77, Robert Fabricant raises a similar concern.
We have been operating under the assumption that the primary challenge is to convince businesses to focus on fulfilling user needs with higher quality products, with more meaningful experiences. But what if the 'users' themselves are the problem?
In architecture, do people actually know what they need from physical space? With HCD, aesthetics and architectural acumen take a back seat to "pragmatics," when in truth, the user is frequently anything but pragmatic. Their desires can be fickle and flawed.

Hub2's virtual park design on Second Life.

Public parks offer a good example of the disconnect between how we think we want to use a space and how we can actually use it. During a Baltimore Design Conversation—a monthly event where people gather to discuss design in its many forms—conversation curator Ben Stone invited Eric Gordon of Boston's Hub2 to speak. Gordon joined the conversation via his avatar in Second Life, where he and his team have set up a virtual city called Boston Island. When Harvard wanted to expand its campus (again) the university threw neighbors a bone in the form of a new public park. Hub2 was invited to help the community visualize the park using Second Life as a map. A handful of users insisted that they wanted a baseball diamond. It took a few clicks of the mouse to show that a baseball diamond could never function in the space allotted. In this case, the user was shown that their desired intent could not actually work.

Hub2, however, is the exception and not the rule when users are brought into the process. Today, the pendulum threatens to swing too far to the side of the "H" in HCD. By relegating the architect to the users' surrogate, we run the risk of neutering the architect's efficacy. They are rendered neutral and that, I believe, is a mistake. (I am certainly not advocating that we return to the days of the master designer dictating from on high. There is a balance to be struck.)

Fabricant argues in his Core77 post that to effect true social change, we need to design for systems (or for activities, as Foster says above) and not for individual needs. "Over and over, I have seen how a UCD process will tend to emphasize certain benefits of an experience like 'convenience' over other, more meaningful sources of social value," he writes.

By way of example, he shows a utility bill that pits neighbors' energy useage against one another. It is highly unlikely that a user would ever suggest such a strategy. But by bringing this into practice, the designer has created a situation where social comparison has the potential to impact behavior for the better.

Image from Core 77.