11 Parallels Between Architecture and Interface Design

December 14, 2008
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I had a fascinating discussion with my sister-in-law, a real-life professional Architect, about the parallels between her work and the type of interface design we do at Juice. In both cases, design requires looking at the problem from many perspectives, blending art and science, creativity and time-tested principles. Sure, she had to go to graduate school for three years and is part of a rigorous apprenticeship system. But when you consider the

I had a fascinating discussion with my sister-in-law, a real-life professional Architect, about the parallels between her work and the type of interface design we do at Juice. In both cases, design requires looking at the problem from many perspectives, blending art and science, creativity and time-tested principles. Sure, she had to go to graduate school for three years and is part of a rigorous apprenticeship system. But when you consider the ways we approach and solve problems, there are a number of common threads:

  1. Start with the context. For Architects, a project begins with a site analysis to evaluate the available space, direction of the sun and wind, characteristics of surrounding buildings, street patterns and other environmental factors that need to co-exist with the building. The parallel in interface design is considering the context of users: What is their typical workflow? What other data and reporting are they working with? What decisions will be made from viewing the data? What is their skill level?

  2. Decipher client needs The ultimate job of the architect and interface designer is to translate vague but strongly-held desires of the client into a practical reality. There are straightforward functional requirements: “I need a house with three bedrooms upstairs.” And there are more subtle demands: “The application needs to be simple enough for anyone to use.”

  3. Evolved toward reality. It wasn’t hard to find parallels in the ways that we approach the process of designing. Like interface design, the architectural design process evolves from the most abstract (blocks of wood) to more realistic representations (drawings and models). The more realistic the format, the more time intensive and the more clearly the concept and details can be communicated. At Juice, we are particularly fond of prototyping analytical applications because it gives our clients an opportunity to engage with the interface and data directly.

  4. Build a narrative. Like any piece of art, a building needs a core story that characterizes its essential qualities. In our interface designs, we call these design principles. These are the basic truths that we want to permeate the application. Here’s an example of design principles for a reporting application design:

    a) You’re one click away from what you need; b) Allow lightweight, temporary ways of paying attention to something; c) Alerts are so important that they are always visible

  5. Connected whole. I shared with my sister-in-law a description of how many dashboard vendors are essentially selling functional pieces without offering guidance on how they fit together. She remarked: “if you designed a building that way, you’d end up entering into the bathroom.” I’ve seen dashboards that feel about like that. Architecture has had many decades to recognize the primacy of the cohesive whole. Interface design, particularly when it comes to the presentation of data, hasn’t come nearly so far.

  6. Multiple relationships. Designing a building requires thinking about the problem from many different perspectives, and ensuring that the answers work together. Architects need to consider how functional spaces relate to each, how the spaces flow together, and how the spaces relate to the site. Interface design requires thinking about how the presentation of information links together, how users navigate between this information, and how the results fit into the broader user workflow.

  7. Multiple scales. Architectural and interface design requires viewing the problem at multiple scales. There is the high-level view of how a building fits into its site locations all the way down to the design of specific rooms and spaces. Each of these scales needs to be in harmony.

  8. Facilitate flow. A good design supports intuitive pathways within the structure. The design accounts for the most common use cases and makes solving these use cases obvious. In our work, we always want users to have a sense of where they are and where they can go.

  9. Iconic elements. My sister-in-law described iconic elements as the center-point of the building design and narrative. They encapsulates the personality and essence of the design. I hadn’t previously thought of interface design in this respect, but I will in the future. In our work, there is frequently a single element, whether it is a data visualization or navigational structure, that is the core of the application.

  10. Visual vocabulary. The “vocabulary” of the building represents the materials (e.g. wood, metal, glass) and other visual elements that compose the common aesthetic for the design. The analogy for us is the UI style guide where we define the color palette, typography, and other treatments that make up the look-and-feel of the interface. An effective UI style needs to align with the narrative and design principles described above.

  11. Upholding and breaking rules. There are many conventions and expectations that shape the design of a building or an interface. These rules exist for many valid reasons, and we agreed that it is important to acknowledge and respect them. However, my sister-in-law noted that her professors would often challenge students to “break the rules to make them stronger.” There are times to challenge convention, in particular with your iconic elements, to push the design beyond the ordinary and formulaic.

At the beginning of our discussion, I was surprised to learn that a few of my sister-in-law’s Architecture classmates had gone on to do interface design. Given the similarities in the thought process, it may not have been a big transition.

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