We have all experienced places and buildings that don’t always make sense to a user.  Signage and routing may confuse us, building services may be just too complex for maintenance teams, energy costs may be very high, or the building just doesn’t feel comfortable to building occupants.

We feel strongly that the key to getting these things right is upfront effective briefing and management of the brief during construction – and that the key thing with briefing is managing stakeholders.  This has been a big area of discussion for us recently. Charles Brindley, from Active thinking, and I have together taken this opportunity to note down some key principles that we believe help to get it right.

The ‘real’ user perspective – assign responsibility

As clients, we first need to make sure that the ‘real’ user perspective is covered – complementing the (natural) project delivery perspectives of the design and construction teams.  This has to be more than just inviting operations teams to weekly design meetings; quite often they simply don’t have the time. We need to involve them to find out how easily the building can be managed – but it can be difficult for them to view the building from the different perspective of building visitors and other types of building user. We often leave it to designers to make assumptions about these user behaviours.  But we need to remember that designers are NOT end-users  – we need to effectively involve customers, building users, operational teams and (depending on the type of building) building visitors to make sure the building delivers on all fronts.

Recommendation: Assign responsibility for the end-user perspective, upfront, identify stakeholders and their key challenges and agree the strategy and tactics required to engage them in support of the project.

Defining user purpose – ergonomics

This is about adding the ‘finish’ to the client’s goals and objectives by thinking about comfort, functionality, user-friendly systems, human factors and workplace productivity.  To avoid having to talk to users, we often take the easy way out and use generic design criteria and design modelling software, rather than taking into account real people and real life.  We need to involve ‘real’ users and ask questions such as: Is this important to you? How will you use it? What if the building use or operation changes? Then we need to translate subjective responses into objective targets for the brief.

Recommendation:  Rank the ‘real’ user-drivers and design features and set objective targets.

Testing and managing user expectations – continuous improvement

As the project progresses through design, construction and commissioning, we need to regularly test expectations and assumptions against the brief and make recommendations as appropriate.  It becomes easier for end-users to feed back as the design intent develops – the culture should be one of feedback, learning and continuous improvement, with the goal to make the final results as easy as possible for building users to use.  A structured ‘user-led’ approach allows recommendations to be evaluated and remedial actions to be logged and updated within the brief – this approach would eventually feed into the building operations logbook when the building is handed over.

Recommendation: Regularly test expectations against the design and feedback recommendations for continuous improvement.

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