Like many of us in the design field, I bounced around from career to career before realizing exactly what I wanted to design for a living. I briefly studied architecture before studying information architecture, urban design before experience design. While the mediums are different, many of the principles are the same. The book 100 Things I Learned in Architecture School provides a wealth of principles that apply beyond architecture itself, and has led to a similar spinoff, 100 Things I Learned in Interaction Design School. Among them:
- Like buildings, applications break at the joints.
- Landmarks help us know where we’re going and where we’ve been.
- In times of trouble ask “What is the user problem we are trying to solve?”
So if a city is a website (or a mobile site or an Android app or iPad app), what can we learn about the users who live there? In city planning terms, this question is one of urban design. And if the information architect is the architect, the art director the interior designer, and the developer the contractor, then the experience designer is the urban designer. The goal is to make an overall livable community, not just one that works but one where users want to live. A few guidelines we might borrow:
1. A dynamic grid is more efficient than several major thoroughfares.
Cities are traditionally designed on a grid system for a reason: it’s a proven way to distribute high-volumes of traffic. Compare this to your typical suburban road system, where traffic from dozens of minor roads clogs up a few major routes. Web navigation is similar. While “simple is better” is generally a good practice, this can be taken too far, providing users with only a limited number of vague top level choices that force uninformed choices. For sites with complex information, consider mega menus or similar approaches that offer a variety of navigation options at a glance (check out Samsung.com.) Still, your city grid must be well organized (just compare driving in Boston to driving in New York).
Speaking of navigation, there are opportunities to convey more information in what is traditionally only a means of getting from point A to point B. If streets are viewed within the context of the larger community, they can also be places not only for cars, but for people to stop and talk, or for children to play (see studies from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute). Similarly, navigation can contribute to your overall brand story. Consider this example from the American Cancer Society.
3. You have to plan for progress.
Well designed cities benefit from master plans – and so should well designed sites. A good master plan will consider the growth patterns of a city not only for the immediate future, but years down the road. When designing for the web, consider the zoning for your site. Who is the target audience? Who do you want to live where? Some parts of your site may benefit from specific audience segmentation, while others that are more content-driven will be mixed use. A well-planned site will offer opportunites for growth without need redesign, like OpenSoureFood.com.
4. “Life Takes Place on Foot.”
In his book “Designing Community” urban designer David Walters traces the transition from the modernist, design-focused approach of city planning to the post-modernist "process over product" approach of the latter half of the 20th century. According to Walters, a return to modernist design gives hope to making cities once again places where we interact instead of just driving around isolated in our cars. “Casual encounters in shared spaces are the heart of community life, and if urban spaces are poorly designed, people will hurry through them as quickly as possible.” A great digital interaction should create opportunities for serendipity: for users to experience the unexpected and engage with others in meaningful ways. Striving to be more than just another database-driven travel site, Brussels Airlines provides an “Inspire Me” section along with a destinations page.
5. Highway signs must be legible at 65 MPH.
Or to borrow a phrase from Steve Krug, “Instructions must die.” Traffic signs make use of symbols for a reason, to be read by those driving by at fast speeds (and by those who can’t read to begin with). Users on your site are traveling just as fast. They don’t have tolerance for paragraphs of instructions telling them how to use your site or telling them where to click.
6. You’ll never get sued for ugly.
The architecture firm Build LLC highlights this phrase from architecture school pointing out that, ironically, architects and designers are liable for everything except how a building looks. While building a site that “works” may technically meet client requirements, it’s up to the designer to become the “guardian of aesthetics.” Building a digital interface that looks great and works great is as much art form as science and it’s the combination of the two that will keep clients happy and brands invigorated. One site that balances design and interaction: Good.
7. Real cities have grit.
Is your website too gentrified? In the process of cleaning up old sites the risk is making them look just like every other one out there. A simple test: look at your site or app and place your hand over your company’s logo and site title. Is it still obvious what your brand is?
Those are just a few lessons we might borrow. Another area to consider is the growth pattern of true online communities such as Facebook, and how this growth parallels the growth of cities over time. It’s interesting food for thought, especially as we spend more time interacting in virtual communities and less time in the real ones.