Freedomz/Adobe Stock

When I first heard the term “user experience design,” I thought of architecture. After all, we spend up to 90% of our lives indoors, and the buildings and spaces we occupy leave an indelible mark on our existence. As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Yet, when this term originated, commercial products—not buildings—were the primary focus.

Cognitive scientist Don Norman, director of the Design Lab at University of California San Diego, coined the term “user experience” (UX) to describe a customer’s interactions with a company and its products and services. Norman wrote a book in the late 1990s called The Design of Everyday Things (MIT Press, 1998), which has since been referred to as the “UX bible,” based on design approaches that he and his team developed while working at Apple. (Although his book never mentioned UX specifically, the name of Norman’s group at Apple—The User Experience Architect’s Office—stuck. More on the use of the “Architect” label below.)

Since the publication of The Design of Everyday Things, UX has taken a more technological turn. Given the title’s origins in Silicon Valley, this trend is unsurprising, yet the shift from doorknobs and teapots toward webpages and apps has increased UX’s popularity within tech-based industries. For example, “UX designer” is now an official job title at companies such as Google and Facebook (Google offers a UX Design Certificate via Coursera). More curious is the title “UX architect,” a role that has nothing to do with buildings. According to the Poland- and U.S.-based team behind UXPIN, a digital platform for product design, “a user experience architect is essentially a UX specialist with a high-level view of a product or design. UX architects are concerned with the structure and flow based on in-depth user and market research.”

If the future of UX is environments, then the reverse phenomenon is also occurring, as architecture is increasingly functioning as an immersive computational interface.

The growing popularity of “architect” and “architecture” in the computing lexicon (e.g., “computer architecture”) suggests the likelihood of increased confusion between the tech and construction industries. This phenomenon need not be a challenge but an opportunity. Today, firms operating at the intersection of computation and architecture are expanding the definition of UX to include physical environments, which is a welcome development for a term that invites broad interpretations.

Amsterdam-based UNStudio bridges architecture and tech-based UX design services with UNSx, its experience design team. In addition to offering typical architectural services at multiple scales, UNSx engages in product design and service and strategic design endeavors. “Deeply rooted in a user-centric perspective, our designs strive to enhance the shared experience of interacting with the built environment through a deep understanding of the needs, pain points, and motivation of the users,” explains the group on its webpage.

An example UNSx project is Soliscape, an integrated lighting and acoustics solution that adapts to changing user needs. A collaboration with Delta Light, Soliscape is a customizable kit of components that includes lightweight supports, pivoting acoustic pads, light fixtures, and environmental sensors. Described by UNStudio as “a system that combines lighting with acoustics and IoT,” Soliscape utilizes the sensors to optimize illumination and acoustic performance for users.

UNSx’s Reset 2.0 Stress Reduction Pods, unveiled during the pandemic, represent the firm’s investigation into improving mental health during a challenging time. The freestanding modules are akin to micro-lounges that envelop users with stress-relieving sound and light therapy. Biofeedback data, provided by wearable brain and heart sensors, informs the Reset Index—a proprietary program that monitors and records biometric information and personal settings preferences.

Madison, Wis.–based Zebradog offers a range of similar services, including environmental graphics, interactive design, interior design, and branding strategies. The company describes its work as “dynamic environment design," specializing in “the art of storytelling through experiential media, signature exhibit and dynamic space design.” One of Zebradog’s most compelling offerings is an imaginative approach to branding and donor recognition. The “donor wall,” an installation recognizing one or more sponsors, is a feature that appears in many public-facing institutional buildings. These displays are typically composed of generic plaques applied to existing surfaces and are not considered part of the overall design. Zebradog acknowledges this lost opportunity for deeper integration through projects such as Ember Hall, its donor wall project in the School of Human Ecology lobby at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Outfitted with color-changing lights illuminating benefactors’ names, the wall features 650 carved wood tiles that also function as donor keepsakes.

Zebradog also explores the potential of computer interfaces to manipulate environments based on contextual cues. For the headquarters of medical corporation Exact Sciences in Madison, the firm designed a living mural with a collection of different-sized monitors incorporated into a tiled feature wall. Every hour, a custom computer algorithm captures information about local weather conditions that drives the generation of digital “paintings” made with natural fractal patterns. The result is an ever-changing artwork guided by the science of natural phenomena.

Examples like these are not the first instances of architecture, design, and technology integrations, and many design offices have thus far experimented with computer interfaces and environmental graphics in their projects. Yet, the borrowing of similar terminology and the increased multi-disciplinary collaborations between computing and construction suggest that user experience design is expanding beyond its original, product-oriented focus.

This shift has the potential to address two critiques of UX: the lack of both engagement with big ideas and an ecological agenda, which are significant priorities in architecture. If the future of UX is environments, then the reverse phenomenon is also occurring, as architecture is increasingly functioning as an immersive computational interface. The potential for disparate industries to combine and integrate expertise rather than fragment into more specializations bodes well for holistic designs that are technologically sophisticated, ecologically aware, and human-centered.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Read more: The latest from columnist Blaine Brownell, FAIA, includes innovative hacks in bio materials, "zoonotic spillover" in the built environment and how architecture can address it, a look at illegal timber harvesting, and the rise of holistic interior greening.