Architecture and User Experience, Part 1: The Politics of Architecture

About eight years ago I published a series of articles on CHIFOO (the Oregon and SW Washington chapter of the ACM’s SIGCHI) having to do with UX Architecture. I’ve re-discovered those articles and made them current, but as it turns out, not so much has changed in the ensuing years. For example, CHIFOO’s 2007 speaker series (Mind The Business: Promoting The Value Of Your Work) that inspired these articles is very much like the 2017 speaker series: Thriving Amid Chaos – Strategies Beyond Good Design, so it’s timely as well.

The term User Experience Architect continues to populate the job boards. What is a User Experience Architect? What is User Experience Architecture? Why should we care? In this multi-part series, I’m encouraging conversation about “architecture” in the context of user experience, product development, innovation and interaction design.

Since 2001, CHIFOO has hosted a year long speaker series focused on a central theme. For several years, the series has had speakers presenting the strategic value of user experience. Their message has been clear: As UXers, if we expect our work to make a difference, we must learn the language of strategy and be prepared to play a strategic role in our organizations. If we are part of a creative agency and we expect to add value to our clients’ businesses, then similarly, we must position our offerings at a strategic level. And of course, this isn’t news. Jarod Spool and Mike Monteiro are just two of hundreds of voices suggesting the need to step up and talk business.

Throughout this same period, we’ve all noticed an explosion of new roles (or at least new titles): Interaction Designer, Interaction Architect, User Experience Strategist, User Experience Architect, among many others. For the past several years, beginning when I was Principal Architect, User Experience at Tektronix, I’ve been asked to create a “User Experience Architecture.”

The amusing irony is that no such thing exists. Which is what inspired me to write this series. Maybe it could turn into a book. Stranger things have happened.

As various pundits and speakers suggest “The Product is the Experience” and “Interaction Design is Strategy,” I’ve begun to make a connection: Perhaps User Experience Architecture extends beyond UX deliverables. Perhaps it encompasses business (or at least product/service) strategy, along with user experience research/design processes and product/service development processes.

That’s a pretty big land grab.

So, these next sets of installments will explore that territory and see if in fact UX architecture is a pretty big thing.

Architecture is Political

Since Architecture is inherently political, so too must user experience architecture.

Architecture (herein referred to with an upper-case A to distinguish it from other architectures) is inherently political. There are many reasons why this is true, but here are two: a) because Architecture is fundamental to human values of shelter and protection and b) because it takes so much money and resources. In any event, Architecture is never politically neutral.

Photo of Frank Gehry's beach cottage with glass and steel cubes penetrating the front facades

No matter how small or large the Architectural project, politics come into play: from your neighbor’s opinion of your remodel (or your opinion of their horrific choice) to the local public library branch, to such iconic projects as the rebuilding of WTC cast as “Freedom Tower.” To make matters more complex, Architects are obliged to balance dozens of competing priorities including a project’s contribution to the discipline, the public good and their patron’s short-term economic drivers.

Politics in this context, refers to the tradeoffs among societal “goods” by those in authority or wielding power. By virtue of its high capital costs,
Architecture has traditionally been the “hired help” of the rich and powerful. Sometimes Architects do represent the disenfranchised (see for example Michael Pyatok’s work in community-based architecture) but they have been the exception.

It is almost impossible to identify an Architectural movement or “ism” that doesn’t embody political expression.

From the Viennese Secessionist movement, to the Futurism movement through the Bauhaus and beyond in Europe, or the birth of Modernism in the United States, Architects are often in the vanguard of social and political unrest.

User Experience Architecture Must Be Political

Avoiding the obvious collisions between Architecture and UX architecture (collisions such as IoT, Smart Buildings and Smart Cities), any User Experience architecture is inherently political, by definition. It isn’t architecture if it isn’t addressing the inherent political fabric in which it is a part. Consider any cross-channel (or as it’s come to be called, “omni-channel”) design problem. The political ramifications of such designs stare us in the face, even if our patrons may not wish to question them. But as UX architects, if we’re really doing “architecture,” we’re forced to incorporate those political drivers into our design. Who’s being served, who is not? Who will suffer, who will gain? What is the value exchange for the new design? Is it “equitable?” Is that even measurable? And who gets to choose?

UX architects are at a cross-roads: to be the hired help of the rich and powerful, or to be in the vanguard of social change. I’m not suggesting those are the only choices; I’m merely making an extreme case to help clarify that we do have a choice, but we must exercise political acumen when we choose. As true professionals, we need to move from “victims” to “leaders.”

This shift is a challenge in all senses of the word: a challenge to our perception of the organization (and our perception of the value we bring), a challenge to our way of working, and a challenge, operationally, to achieve this shift. Moving up the ladder, getting a seat at the table, having a voice to influence the outcome of a product, service or business is the essence of our political struggle.

Politics isn’t Evil

As of this writing, many in the the world are upset with their institutions, leadership and governments. Sadly, the current flailing reactions to the past 30 years of negligence may have landed us in an even worse situation. But “politics” isn’t inherently evil. It’s just what happens when a bunch of people with different points of view vie for the pie.

The benefits of open political and civic discourse are enormous. I look forward to a return to civic and civil norms in which we can discuss issues key to us with passion and civility. Perhaps I’ll live to see that happen.

In the meantime, the principles of civil discourse are well understood. If we choose to jettison them in our day-to-day work because it gives us a false sense of freedom, we lose the huge benefits such discourses bestow on us.

Photo with iconic images over a woman holding her hands out as if keeping the icons up in the air.

When Architects choose to question the owner’s motives, question zoning or city codes or question culturally bound assumptions of the project brief, they open up opportunities for creative expression, opportunities to resolve otherwise intractable problems, and opportunities to find ways of moving the “art” forward. Whether we choose to challenge or accept the status quo, we’re engaged in a political act.

The question is: Have we made the choice intentionally? Architects are trained to be self-conscious about the choices they’ve made; they are taught to both defend and embrace those intentional choices. So too, UX architects must step up to challenge our position within our own organizations. If we truly believe the user experience is the key differentiator for our organization, then we must insinuate ourselves into the strategic fabric. That process of insinuation is inherently political, and fraught with risk. In some cases we might be insinuated right out the door; in others we might open up the creative expression necessary for truly serving our users.

Regardless, we’re only doing UX architecture if we’re self-conscious about the context of our work, and are self-consciously referencing that context to clarify to others we’re fully aware of what’s going on.

So, yeah. It’s a big land grab, and with it comes a much bigger remit than we probably signed on for. But if we’re going to change the world, we have to step up and get political.

Perhaps you’re wondering what you can do to improve your political acumen? I’m no expert and the world is full of self-help books, but like most change, it starts with awareness. If you want a seat at the table, you need to know what language is spoken there and at least get comfortable with it, if not fluent.

Which introduces the next installment in this series: the relationship of strategy to Architecture and User Experience.

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