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Maya Levin

Maya Levin

Akendi Alumnus

How to Create a Space for Design Thinkers, Part II

In my last blog post, I talked about creating an interior space through the lens of User Experience Design (UXD). This perspective introduced the concepts of budget, circulation, and communication that would affect Akendi Ottawa’s exciting move to a new office space. At this point in time, we have secured a physical space, and are working through budgetary logistics based both on the site and the programme. Site and programme are to architecture what ‘context of use’ and ‘user needs’ are to UXD. The former addresses existing parameters (existing building elements, orientation, etc.) while the latter relates to human behaviour (types of rooms required based on use). In order to refine programmatic requirements into something tangible and relatable, I delved into a deeper level in design methodology: contextual inquiry and analysis.

Contextualizing Value

Architectural values can be traced back to Vitruvian staples of utility, structure, and beauty. While this ancient Roman principal has been challenged in contemporary practice, the notion of acknowledging form and function is omnipresent in all facets of design. As for the value of “beauty,” architecture and UXD have similar perspectives. The late American Architect, Buckminster Fuller, defined beauty as follows:

“When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

This statement validates my belief that intangible aesthetics of a thing or a place, although of equal importance to the form and function, is the result and not the foundation of good design. However, in the context of relating Architecture to User Experience, I focused on one word: values. In order to determine what people value in a workspace, the right questions need to be asked.

Research Methods: Groups and Individuals

In design research methods, a balance of open-ended questions and carefully worded probes are the criteria to obtain qualitative data. In Architecture, user needs and values are discovered at the community and stakeholder level. Architectural design uses primarily community planning meetings and focus groups to obtain feedback and opinions, whereas my experience in UXD has been largely in individual user testing and interviews (not discounting the value of focus groups for some UXD projects). Why the difference in primary research methods? There is little documented evidence on the topic. Perhaps Architecture has not considered ulterior methods that are more commonly associated with market research. Or perhaps budgetary constraints and the need to avoid public complaints over inclusion lead to larger groups and open discussion forums.

No matter the reason, I believe there is a gap in spatial design where focused, personal tests are neglected. Although a large amount of needs can be uncovered through group discussion, the depth of contextual analysis can be limited to the loudest voice, or the glazed over consensus of the group. Values based on precise user needs become the heuristics that create the foundation upon which to design anything from a building, to a device, to a service.


Establishing user needs is the core challenge of any design project. No matter how experienced the researcher, or how tried and true the method, the fact remains that humans are, well, human. No amount of logic or practical system can account for the dynamic, constantly changing human mind. What we can do as design thinkers is validate as much qualitative data as possible, within the limitations of a given project. For the Akendi office, I broke up the initial phase of my project into 3 parts: a questionnaire, a storyboard, and use cases.


  • Questionnaire

In order to gain an initial understanding of user needs, I made a short questionnaire. I wanted to know what each employee’s perception was in relation to spatial requirements (how many people they saw various spaces accommodating), and also what their working, eating, and organizing habits where.

  • Storyboard: With these answers, I was able to come up with a story of the Akendi Ottawa ecosystem. The catch: we are extrapolating current needs to accommodate future needs. Stories were based on our current behavior, while also trying to conceptualize future behavior.
  • Use cases: Using the storyboard and questionnaire answers as a guideline, my final step in assessing user needs was to define use cases. These contextualized scenarios helped weed out the high level spatial requirements that set the parameters for layout design.

Through these 3 steps I addressed the programmatic elements of the office space. I know the people, their desires, and their needs. Through contextualized scenarios and stories I gained an understanding of programmatic values for each individual, and made the puzzle pieces. Now, in order to connect them as a cohesive entity, it’s time to put the puzzle together.

Spector, Tom. The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2001. Print.

Reda, Rema. “Why UX Designers Need to Think like Architects.” UX Magazine. N.p., 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 22 Aug. 2016.

Maya Levin

Maya Levin

Akendi Alumnus


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Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.