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16 Voices

Rethinking Human-Centered Architecture Design

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During my last year of Architecture school, I decided to become a UX Designer. I want to take the time to think about the two industries. What can Architecture benefit from UX? What can I bring into UX from the methods I acquired at Architecture school?


For architects, the research that proceeds the design is mainly about context. Architects care about history, surroundings, relation to city space etc. There is typically relatively little “user research”. On the other hand, UX Design is all about the user. The whole design process is driven by developing empathy with users. 


So, how do we understand our occupants in a way that is both reflective of their stated needs and desires while still maintaining the openness and visual ambiguity of creative design? 


Designer and Researcher


Research, in-person interview, synthesis, diagraming, strategic design, illustration, 3d modeling

3D Modeling / Rhino

Illustration / Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop

Why Architecture + UX Design?



The tools of the architect are the tools of a creative expert: in their openness and visual ambiguity, they are effective at framing new problems in a disciplinary context, but do not provide a means for empathizing with those humans we are designing for. In UX Design, however, such tools are well developed. Those that employ the “design thinking” method enjoy a range of tools that put their users always at the center of the design process, however, they often struggle to move beyond a service mindset and to situate their work in a historical and disciplinary context. The deficiencies of these two cultures of design are complementary: architects don’t care about people; design thinkers don’t care about context.

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Ellen Huang / Designer & Researcher

Kyle Steinfeld / Advisor


A new kind of method - “pre-occupancy evaluation” is proposed, for architects to embrace both the strengths of user research in UX design and the creative voice in architectural design, in order to achieve a true process of human-centered co-creation.


Feb 2019 - May 2019



Design Methodologies



This diagram by Hugh Dubberly, shows the relationships between the various approaches, methods, and tools in design areas. 

It presents two intersecting dimensions: 

  • The horizontal axis maps mind-set (from expert mindset to participatory mindset); 

  • The vertical maps approach (from research-led to design-led).

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To explore the nature of Architecture Design, UX Design and Participatory Design, I’ve plotted them here on Hugh Dubberly’s map.

We can see along the x-axis that Architects hold a relatively narrow and expert-tending mindset, while UX designers are more broad, and tend toward the participatory.

Architects are broad and well-balanced along the y-axis, while UX designers are more narrow and research-focused.

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Diagram _ concept 1.jpg

“Pre-Occupancy Evaluation"



This is understood as a research phase that proceeds the traditional design process. 

During this phase, we gather opinions from future occupants. What follows is an interpretation and synthesis of the feedback that enables designers to better understand the situation, reframe the problems that are uncovered, and speculate on new opportunities.


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Phase 1

To this end, the project focuses on a narrow slice of a larger design project: 
the “pre-occupancy evaluation” required for the redesign of a dormitory on the UC Berkeley campus called International House. 

International house is both a dormitory and cultural center on the south east side of UC Berkeley campus, adjacent to the stadium. It offers various activities and supports different cultures. It provides students with opportunities to mingle while fostering a healthy living environment.




User Interviews

The process starts with in-person interview. To this end, I went to international house and its neighborhood to talk to the future occupants. Over 100 participants were interviewed, which resulted in around 30 samples that provided constructive insights.

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Following this is a process of documenting what was said and identifying the architectural problems described by the participants. In order to have a more comprehensive evaluation, I chose 16 participants’ that represent a range of backgrounds to respond to here. 

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The problems they identified span a range of scales:

  • Interior furniture arrangement, 

  • Circulation of the building, 

  • Interior & exterior relationships,

  • Building form and its surroundings.

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Phase 2


With a set of architectural problems identified, we proceed to the ideation phase. 
The 16 voices of interviewees are here represented by 16 sets of 3 drawings each.




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The first 2 drawings are extracted directly from the interview, showing the problem described by each participant and a solution proposed by them. While the first two drawings attempt to stay true to the intention of the participant, the last offers a space for the voice of the architect. Rather than just solving the problem as stated, it aims to reframe the problem in a more holistic, synthetic, and in a manner that is mindful of a disciplinary context.

Phase 3

Further Synthesis

One additional step speculates on how can this pre-design process might be directed toward affecting the design process itself, and toward the generation of design solutions. Here, the voices of a pair of participants, and the design solutions that are derived from them, are further synthesized into a proposal. Ideally, this synthesizing may continue, resulting in an ever more comprehensive design proposal that reflects the voices of many occupants.

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16 Sets of Drawings

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HUANG Chengcheng - Thesis Book 17.png
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Through the development of a pre-occupancy evaluation process, a new method for architects is proposed, one that allows for a better understanding of occupants’ needs and desires while still maintaining architects’ own authorial voice in the creative design process. 


I’ll end with a personal note. As I walk into the UX industry, I wonder what kind of value I can bring with me from the methods I acquired during my architectural education. While the value of user research is clear to me, I also appreciate the value of the openness and visual ambiguity found in architecture. However, I struggle to effectively translate these methods to a new context. Further, while this work represents one step in the direction I wish to go, it is not comprehensive. I’m wondering what other approaches from architecture can be applied to other design industry.

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