User experience in digital products is one thing, but having an inherent understanding that user experience is something around us all the time is another. UX seems like a concept of the current digital age, with “design types” clamoring on about listening to the users, often being met with a confusion as to why someone would pay for this expensive add on.
We have since time began, been ignoring humans, their being, psychology, needs and wants when designing products, whether they be physical or digital.
But if we look back in time, society has inherently always created what it “thinks” is best and not what it knows is best.
There are many examples we could dig into that symbolize this, however I have a personal favorite. Post war social housing, I have to say, myself that I indeed own my very own piece of mid century social housing, brick built, functional, repetitive, but I want to focus on the real icons of the day.
World war II spelled a period of austerity, housing shortage, poverty and a need for change. Rows of Victorian slum housing, all leaned against one another crying to be rebuilt and to provide families with usable properties. Post war efforts to provide council housing resulted in a Brutalist architecture springing up around the UK, each building bringing with it a new hope. The creators of these housing estates had a vision, and surprisingly it was indeed centered around individuals who would be living in the properties.
Peter and Alison Smithson, two notable Brutalist architects designed the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar to be a vision of green grass and rooftop walk ways, recreating the bustling streets of East London. A utopia where people play, talk, walk and form communities, or was it? These days Robin Hood Gardens has been set for redevelopment, to rebuild the utopia in another form because its 70’s predecessor didn’t work in the way that it was envisaged https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/dec/05/robin-hood-gardens-east-london.
Lets look at the Trellick tower in West London, another example of brutalist architecture. The Hungarian architect called Erno Goldfinger created a 31 story, 322 feet of concrete glory which aimed to change the way in people lived. It was revolutionary, with refuse chutes, cantilevered boiler rooms and accessible lifts from an iconic walk way that joined the main block to the lift shaft. In addition to this, his urge to prevent people from drying clothes on their balcony inspired the installation of laundromats to allow people to do their washing in specific areas. All of these solutions were fabulous, they seemed to address many of the problems experienced with social housing.
If we take a look at what happened over time to both Robin Hood gardens and the Trellick tower there is a clear dislocation between what people actually needed and what the architects thought that they needed. Those laundromats turned into hot spots for muggings, the lifts were hard to maintain and as the flats were fronted with long walk ways they encouraged crime and drug taking. The facades of Robin Hill Gardens turning an ugly brown, holed up in a cacophony of main roads, isolating it and rendering it fit for regeneration.
Why didn’t it work?
By pulling the focus away from the buildings directly and look at the very concepts around them we can see where user experience really has impact on the assumptions of designers. Had the Trellick tower been built in an area that was free from crime and inhabited by individuals like Erno Goldfinger, then it very well may have been a perfect social housing creation. However because of where it was built, the people who were to be housed there and the general area, the tower failed in almost every way, until the 90’s when the flats were bought by individuals who needed them, wanted them, saw that living in London, in that area was a good thing, and changed the entire user experience of the building (http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/1999/mar/11/features11.g28).
Had the experience that humans were having been taken into account, and the designers spent vast quantities of time with those people living in social housing, could it have made a difference? It should really inspire thought on how we go about understanding our users, who ever they may be, what ever it is we are providing, whether it be an experience or a product. Empathy and understanding rather than forthright assumption making and ego strike me as being the most poignant starting points.