At INVISION, we have had the privilege of working with great clients on a variety of project types and sizes, from athletic facilities to high rise buildings to research laboratories, both renovations and new construction.

In all of these settings, clients are always the experts in their own work. We can never know as much about their daily activities and processes as they do. If we do our jobs as designers well, we can challenge the status quo and create an environment that best supports and facilitates people’s daily lives.

In an earlier post, I explained how People Bring Architecture to Life and the importance of designing with people in mind. To ensure that happens, our process at INVISION includes a strong discovery phase. We meet regularly with clients and stakeholders and engage them so that we can deeply understand what they do and how they work. What we’ve learned is that having an outside eye can offer clients solutions that exceed what they thought they were looking for, on both large and small scales.

At the end of this post I’ve outlined 10 ways to design for users, but first let’s look at a couple of examples of this process in action.

Case in Point

Two examples come to mind, each from a different institution with different project types and scales.

The Discovery process improves initial design concepts

The first project was an addition to an athletic facility. These clients had already developed a concept for an athletic facility addition to their arena. Through their initial discussions, sketches and renderings, they felt that the design had been vetted and the fundraising initiated to the point that, when we were hired, it was go time to meet a tight schedule for finishing design and construction documents before the next season. Once on board, we recommended quickly going through a discovery process to identify their current challenges and establish drivers for the project, even if it meant slowing the process down.  Once this was done, we had a better understanding of their needs we realized that the design presented to us only met a few of the drivers our client had, and did not resolve many of their challenges. At the next design meeting we presented the initial design and respectfully pointed out additional design opportunities. We asked if it was acceptable to present an alternative design that pushed their initial thoughts if we felt it better met their drivers and addressed all of their challenges. In the end, the alternative design based on the information we gathered during even a condensed Discovery phase was built, and it has resulted in a superior facility that has become a point of pride for their program and campus.

The Discovery process helps to rethink ordinary

In the second project, we were working with a user group on one of our University campuses to design their laboratory space in a new building. They came to the first design meeting prepared with a layout that basically replicated the layout and flow of their current facility, in which they had been working for the last 20 years. Since we had gone through an extensive Discovery process with each user that included workshops, questioners and shadowing, we were prepared to challenge the proposed layout. Through the Discovery process we documented that their current layout, which required the handling of large material in a standard sequential process, contained numerous issues with flow, safety and space inefficiency. In their current lab we noted that throughout the analysis process these somewhat large pieces of material were crisscrossing the lab numerous times, rather than traveling in a straighter, more efficient path. We were able to pull the data and documents that we had prepared in the Discovery phase during the meeting and quickly work through an alternative design that was a safer, more efficient, and more cost-effective solution.


10 Ways to Design for Users

A strong Discovery phase is a crucial part of a successful architectural process. At INVISION, it’s the time when we learn most about our clients. Here’s my top 10 ways to ensure the users and their needs stay at the forefront of the design process, from beginning to end. After all, they are the most important people who bring architecture to life.

  1. Have a process and own it.
    Work the process to get the results you need to design.
  2. Keep a good pace.
    Meet early and often.
  3. Resist the urge to draw.
    Problem seek before you problem solve with the Discovery phase—Brad said it well in this post on Resisting the Urge to Draw.
  4. Establish drivers.
    These are the values developed through consensus that will help make decisions.
  5. Listen, challenge and refine.
    Go through iterations, and if you’re not getting results, step back and refine.
  6. Build consensus.
    Through client relations, as an advisor and through the Discovery process; early stakeholder and user engagement helps.
  7. Work as and in teams.
    Even when documents are done and the contractor is on board.
  8. Gather data.
    Make decisions based on data that can support design moves.
  9. Design for impact.
    We are creating inhabited environments for people, impact the senses and emotions
  10. Have fun! Generate excitement and celebrate wins.