How Buildings Learn – Flow

How Buildings Learn is a series by Stewart Brand which would be easy to dismiss as simply an interesting look into the world of architecture. But dig a little deeper and you will find it contains lessons for every industry on designing systems that work for the people that use them.

There are many analogies with the world of software development and the first video in the series is about creating the foundations of a system which will stand the test of time.

Start with user needs

The video gives a great example of the perils of focusing on the needs of the system instead of the needs of the user, as taught by the National Library of France.

The design of this library did not create an environment that supported the storage books, this adaption came at great cost after the building was built. It is said in the video that costs of running the building would be so high that in order to stay within budget the library was told to buy fewer books. This of course undermines the whole purpose of the building.

The architects of systems often expect users to adapt their life to suit the system, but this is almost never realistic. More typically the user has a job that they need to complete, and whilst the methods they use to complete that job will change with time, the job itself rarely ever changes. It certainly wont change to suit the latest in a long line of methods.

When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone.

— John Ruskin

Test with users

When a system is designed without focusing on the user the end result is a system that belongs to the architect. The problem with this is that the architect doesn’t have to live with or even use the system, so they don’t notice when the system lacks common sense and doesn’t work for user in day to day use.

Go back periodically

Architects don’t want change so they make it difficult, but fighting change is expensive and futile. If users cant achieve their goals within the confines of the system they will find a way to bend the system or will simple go around it.

In order to be successful the system must be able to adapt to organic change. Palazzo Pubblico in Siena is presented in the video as a shining example of architecture that works. Its great secret is that it evolved over time, it embraces change rather than fighting it.

Most architects never go back, it’s too discouraging. But we must learn from their mistakes, we must revisit the scene of the crime to see how people react to detail design features. Because evolutionary design is healthier than visionary design, for the business and for the user.

The message from the video is that we must build for use, for maintainability, for adaptability. Go ahead and give it a watch.

Wayne Moir

User Experience Designer