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Evidence-based design for the built environment 💡

SEPTEMBER 1, 2021

In order to design exceptional spaces, we need to understand who we are designing for and what their behaviours are. The creation of vibrant and meaningful spaces requires an investment in the discovery and research of the people and communities within the context of the development. 

What is human-centred design?

Human-Centred Design is design based on insights from understanding and engaging the community and beyond. Taking a human centred approach to design in the built environment, in many ways, seems obvious. If you’re not designing for people, who will use the space? Architects, Urban Designers, Developers, and Planners have been working on this for centuries, developing the places where we live and dreaming of the future for our cities and our lives, often projecting what will be needed before we even know it ourselves. 

Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need before they realize it themselves — Steve Jobs

We see this in other areas of our lives as well, where designers are anticipating our future needs. For instance the development of new technologies that change the pace of our lives. The invention of the iPad, smart phone, smart watch, Google Home or Alexa, fridges that we talk to, or wayfinding kiosks helping us navigate the city, have changed how we interact with information, how we connect with one another, and have changed our expectations of in-person and digital experiences. The playing field has been transformed and design must evolve with it. Not only are these technologies impacting individual lifestyles, they are also changing how people perceive their community, how people interact, and above all else, have radically changed the way that people engage in public processes. 

How can we anticipate people's future needs?

 In urban planning, this is done through community engagement activities, however in many cases the required engagement activities are insufficient in developing the insights needed to inform design and develop spaces truly based on the community. Although engagement activities like public open houses can be a wonderful tool for broad engagement, they can also create a platform for criticism rather than constructive dialogue. The reality is that we all come with our own experiences, biases, and passions that form the foundation for the things we pursue. Through engagement and research, we can begin to understand what motivates an individual and can in turn address the true need rather than their initial comment or impression. 

Empathy means challenging your preconceived ideas and setting aside your sense of what you think is true, in order to learn what actually is true. — David Kelly, IDEO

Engagement and research should be meaningful and valuable, not solely focused on hearing criticisms but also discovering opportunities. In order to achieve a more valuable output, the approach needs to be focused on developing understanding and empathy of the entire community. This means reaching a variety of groups and individuals so that we can get a true representation of a community’s fabric. The designs should be informed by a number of inputs. Insights from each of the inputs will build on the other as we move iteratively through the design stages. Community research should be done throughout the design process, creating a connection between the community and the design as a whole. 

Community research and experience design

In the tech community, user research and experience design has become a key approach in the innovation and development of new products. The focus of user research is to understand who your users are, understand their behaviours and how they use your product or might use your product. Experience design takes these insights and designs touch points and interactions with the product or service that are positive for the user. For architects and urban designers, this experience design is often akin to ‘placemaking’. 

This connection of human experience to design elements is the magical part of creating places, and is only possible to its highest potential if we first meaningfully understand the people who will interact with a space. There are many ways to achieve this, but the foundation is to approach design with curiosity and humility and be willing to continuously adapt. This approach is valuable in ensuring that the spaces being developed will be used, will be desirable and will be worth the investment. The approach to this can be described in three parts.

  • Understand your user: Get a better sense of who you are designing for in order to focus your efforts, understand needs, and discover opportunities. 
  • Build Empathy: Develop positive relationships with the community that will, in turn, reduce your risk of implementation
  • Design with the Community: Gain perspectives not otherwise understood that will lead to innovation and high-value designs

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. — Henry Ford

Step one: understand your user

Understanding who you are building for is imperative. By conducting initial research of your user base/community, you can begin to understand the groups who will be most impacted by your development. This helps to narrow down what you can implement, and will help in the design of high-value spaces (different groups will be drawn to different things!). By understanding the diversity of the community, it is easier to understand accessibility needs and identify opportunities for inclusivity, equity, and innovation.

In many industries, this research is conducted throughout the design and development process. It can help to identify initial opportunities, to understand how a concept will be received or to develop and iterate designs. The more that is known up front, the lower the risk of implementation. 

Step two: build empathy

Through a variety of engagement and research approaches, it is possible to understand a community and what drives them. Asking what someone wants will often result in a response based on emotion and is limited to what the individual knows as possible. What we want to achieve is to break free of known or perceived constraints, and move into the impossible. This is where sustainable and exceptional design is born. In this space, it is important to understand what motivates people, to acknowledge habits, past experiences, and their hopes for the future. In understanding these, we can gain an understanding of how to design places that will truly meet and exceed expectations. 

Placemaking is the experience of space. It’s the combination of a physical location with an intangible experience, feeling or connection. The discovery of the community character through research will begin to uncover how a design can achieve this ‘sense of place’. 

Design with the community

The concept of collaborative design has evolved beyond the grassroots and guerilla urbanism movements. Collaborative design is a huge opportunity to not only improve community engagement in the finished product, but can lead to some exceptional design concepts. Ideally, both the community and the design team work together to find solutions and ideate on opportunities. This helps to close the gap between community members and designers, and expands what is known to be possible. 

This approach is based on the true connectedness of research and design phases, meaning that the design concept has the ability to shift and evolve beyond the initial approach. The concept of iterative design processes can be very effective in this example, whether it be iteration of concepts or actual iterations of the built environment.

One example that is commonly referred to is ‘desire paths’. This is a way that ‘users’ can demonstrate their needs and/or wants through their physical use of the space. This is sometimes done intentionally in development stages, to first understand how people use the space and then ‘set it in stone’.

Desire Paths: “Michigan State University didn’t put in pavements when new buildings were created. Instead, it waited for students to create their own paths. Photograph: USGS © 2011 Microsoft Corporation” Source: Theguardian.com

The other way that collaborative and iterative design processes can provide great value, is by workshopping or co-creating with members of the community and other experts. Bringing together a diversity of experience and expertise can bring about great innovation. This is not to say that all design activities are done collaboratively, but creating these moments in the design process helps to evolve an idea.

The genuine involvement of the community in the iteration of design helps to convey the willingness to listen and creates positive relationships. When individuals feel heard or feel that they are part of something greater, this contributes to their sense of place, long before it has been developed. The development becomes part of the community because it was built for and by that community.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. — Jane Jacobs

Actions for the future

Today. Now. Designs need to consider diversity, they need to be inclusive and they need to be accessible. The accessibility of spaces and services has become a point of contention between cities and marginalized individuals. Similarly, neighbourhood associations and community advocacy groups are rising up in order to be heard. Protests on environmental issues, human rights, resource use, and the like are becoming a common occurrence. People are finding their voice. This is an amazing opportunity for the development of our cities in order to design for the future. People are willing to show up, to participate, and to engage, which provides huge value in the collaborative development of spaces. It is up to us to create opportunities for dialogue.

The built environment in any context has an impact on a wide range of people, ecosystems, and networks. By engaging in a way where we seek to understand rather than check a box, we can anticipate need, build places that will have a lasting positive impact, build spaces where people want to be and help create thriving communities.

A picture of Lena Stachiw

About the Author

Lena has worked for over 12 years designing intentional and innovative products, services and spaces. Her work demonstrates the success that can come from designing with intention.

Lena’s work is rooted in a desire to create positive progress in the world. She believes that to create change (large or small) we need to understand context, experiences, and the forces that are effecting people — technology, organizations and culture — and break free from what we believe to be constraints. If we do this, we can achieve sustainable and innovative solutions.