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User experience research for built environments

Susan Wilhite  |  January 20, 2016

Today's guest post comes from Design Researcher Susan Wilhite. Enjoy!

Once, operating a computer required coding knowledge because only engineers used computers. Understanding how all humans might function in computer environments caused a rush to understand and create human-computer hardware and software layers. Many psychologists and anthropologists brought advancement in those domains.

Meanwhile, another environment needs attention—understanding how humans live their lives with and without chips. And again, social science disciplines step in. Environmental psychology, in particular, has applied findings and theories to built environment sciences. Anthropology departments in Europe and emerging American departments offer theories and field methodologies. Let’s define terms. The built environment is everything built by humans: a building, clusters of buildings, the sidewalks and gardens outside, the places where we learn and socialize, infrastructure for transportation, utilities, etc. Any place where humans have shoved dirt around and shaped a world.

Domains that drive advancements

You name it, design research is contributing there, to every area of built environments. If you’ve been working in digital environments, you’ll recognize the lingo: affordances, navigation, sight lines, features. Substitute simulations and mockups for prototypes. Construction managers for Program managers. The main difference in practice relates to the axiom “measure twice, cut once.” Built environments take longer to complete. No one rogue person can whip out a ready-for-release version of anything. Adjustments call for more money from stakeholders and maybe even approval from the local building codes board. On the other hand, there’s more at stake. A badly-designed built environment can cause accidents, make occupants sick, create a carbon footprint fined by the EPA, and be an aesthetic eyesore for years. A well-designed built environment can be a proud landmark that supports a thriving community. A big but worthy challenge is that renovations or restorations are as vital as building from scratch. Retrofits must occur before installing the Internet of Things in environments lacking necessary infrastructures and optimal construction. If energy storage is poor, what’s the advantage of installing wifi-enabled thermostats? Design Researchers often specialize. Think airports, schools and campuses, residences, workplaces, retail stores, health facilities, roads and bridges, theaters, spiritual centers, hotels and restaurants, and amusement and natural parks, plus the landscapes of those sites.

The process

Old-school architects are still reluctant to collaborate with others on their designs. But the trend now is multi-disciplinary collaborations in the planning, building, and post-occupancy stages. Yes, all designers bristle at the idea of many chefs watering down a visionary creation. Here’s where the socialization of concepts like design thinking and usable built environments have converged. Once upon a time, the only stakeholder that mattered was the entity paying for construction. But if a building can’t lease to or retain occupants and tenants, nobody wins. Design researchers play a key role in tying in many constituent requirements to generate user experience principles that evolve into design principles, which all inform the built environment and services delivery program. Beyond tools used in digital environment user research, findings from built environment research can be expressed using tools that show process flows in a physical space. These might include Visio, Sketchup, or for the truly ambitious, AutoCAD. 3D printing might be used for quickie prototype devices or letting participants manipulate blocks or cardboard pieces in a workshop setting.

Case Studies


The US Affordable Care Act set in motion value-driven healthcare over volume, reducing costs and improving healthcare outcomes. Facilities will now be more dispersed, with healthcare services available in different kinds of settings rather than amassed in large, centralized locations. Pebble Project is a hypothetical healthcare facility, the dreamchild of the Center for Healthcare Design. Architects, interior designers, landscape designers, and construction companies brainstorm with researchers to consider special problems in facility and service designs. Among the classic contributions of design research to facility design is the idea of more standardized hospital rooms. Specifically, room after room is designed for the same hand—rIght and left-handed practitioners will know that cabinets and windows open the same way. Computers can be moved so that practitioners can face the patient during conversations. And every room has a view to nature, which reduces the need for pain medicine and has been shown to reduce the number of returns due to medical complications. And much work is being done on infection control strategies since Medicare no longer reimburses for medical complications stemming from conditions within hospitals. Healthcare has also been at the forefront of wayfinding research: how people get around usually quickly in a complicated, unfamiliar facility often under duress or disability. Methodologies include 1-on-1 interviews or interviews with families and caregivers, lots of A/B testing of simulation lab rooms and signage, and even materials testing of flooring, paint colors, lighting, and in-room hospitality accommodations. Post-occupancy surveys help determine adjustments that improve safety, productivity, traffic flows, health, and sales. Lately, tracking devices such as Disney’s MagicBands are being used to understand how people get around healthcare facilities and even a few tips for use are outlined.

Retail & Hospitality

Speaking of sales, retail design has become a high priority since the dawn of successful online merchandising. Retail chains are investing in new experiences, building on the concept of immersive in-store branding such as the industrial looks at Lucky Jeans and Victoria’s Secret boudoirs. Look for visual design that incorporates principles of attraction that influence store traffic flows and dispersion, lighting, walls, floors, and ceilings that encourage merchandise touching and trying, and merchandise display that demonstrates use cases. Here methodologies have evolved with the greater sophistication of tracking technologies. Moving past RFID, geo-tracking is refined to the point of locating individual people within a small space, even small business owners are installing cameras and other devices to log activities and learning what results in a sale. mFour is a major player in that tracking and also surveying customers leaving an establishment. dScout is also used for diary studies to map longer customer journeys. With wearable eye tracking available now, can VR tools be far behind?


Driven by forces such as population distribution, material sciences, climate, and economic imperatives, humans do indeed have problems that can’t be solved with a website or an app or an online dashboard. We have a lot of substantive design research to do.  

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About the author:

Susan Wilhite is turning her high-tech user experience research proficiency toward the built environment. Her BA (University of New Mexico) and MA (UCLA) are in Anthropology (Cultural Ecology), and she is EDAC certified in design research for healthcare facilities. She is planning to tear down her home in Pacifica, California and build a livable, healthy, and sustainable house.