Measuring Success Through Human Experience Research

Designers and clients gather for a planning session.

Architectural design is an evolving process inspired by change. To understand and drive change, designers and facility owners must know how architecture shapes human experiences, and vice versa. Acquiring this knowledge begins with intentional curiosity and a commitment to create the best outcomes through informed decision making—by hypothesizing, investigating, applying, and sharing knowledge.

That curiosity might translate into questions about how a workspace can support multidisciplinary collaboration; how a nursing unit can increase caregiver efficiency; how a classroom can promote self-directed learning; or how a community center can engender a sense of shared identity. Conducting research helps to answer these and many other questions about how to improve users’ experiences in the designed environment.

Over the past several years, HGA increasingly has strengthened its approach to practice-based research to apply what we learn and positively impact the human experience through design. Clients are guided through a research process that addresses problems through insight and data to produce informed planning and design solutions.

Multidisciplinary Approach

HGA views research through a multidisciplinary lens with architects, engineers, design anthropologists, data analysts, and PhD researchers. Our diverse team provides a comprehensive knowledge base along with a tailored research-driven approach that has shown to arrive at breakthrough solutions.

Through this multidisciplinary approach, we gather data and stories about places and people to define problems and establish project goals and objectives. There is always a story in how people currently use a space, how they want to use a new space, and where clients stand in relationship to peer institutions. By engaging clients and users and framing stories in the predesign process, we gather insights, apply findings, and test solutions—and most importantly, we calculate return-on-investments after project completion in post-occupancy evaluations.

Research Toolkit
Virtual Reality is among research tools used to study human experience.

Most of the research we do falls into two main categories: secondary research and applied research. Secondary research examines industry literature, research studies, and metrics about a proposed building type. Applied research involves conducting pre-occupancy research to gather data, inform solutions, establish baseline metrics, and testing outcomes in post-occupancy evaluations. Depending on the project, vision, and design problem, applied research can also include focus groups, staff interviews, on-line and print surveys, site observations, shadowing, Gemba walks, ethnographic research, virtual reality/augmented reality, Lean studies, and other research tools.

For example, researchers might use ethnographic tools and people-space analytics to track user activity in a new workspace. Data collected will help designers understand how people really use space—and what spaces they use the most—subsequently allowing them to design work environments that increase productivity

Similarly in a nursing unit, researchers may look for ways to streamline work processes to improve caregiver response time. By shadowing nurses in an existing unit and recording response time, they can identify bottlenecks that may inhibit efficiencies, which can then inform the design of the new unit. At six to nine months post-occupancy, researchers can then repeat the shadowing and compare data to determine if the new design improved outcomes.

Still other research tools might be used to investigate occupant satisfaction and wellbeing. Through a questionnaire, researchers can investigate how building occupants perceive design attributes, such as noise levels, access to natural light, and views to nature, along with personal variables such as life/work balance, job satisfaction, wellbeing, and productivity. With this data, statistical models can be conducted to predict which design variables have the potential to significantly improve personal measures.

This intelligence can then be applied to design attributes of a new workplace, such as amount of space allocated for private work area (i.e. heads-down work) vs. collaborative work. Furthermore, a post-occupancy evaluation with the same questionnaire tool could determine if the client and designers hit the mark and significant improvements were made, or if further adjustments need to be made. Often post-occupancy adjustments are more process- or people-led rather than design-led.

Customizing Tools

The tools and methods used in research will vary and evolve depending on the project and may even involve developing new tools specific to the research problem or question. For instance, HGA’s Digital Practice Group developed a Virtual Reality tool to simulate how aging individuals see and move through an environment. Using a body suit that hindered arm and leg movements and a series of digital oculus filters that approximated vision impaired by cataracts, glaucoma, or macular degeneration, the tool gave designers greater empathy into how the advanced aging experience the built environment.

Two other recent projects at the University of Virginia and Kentucky Children’s Hospital NICU, both winners of the 2019 Certificate of Research Excellence (CORE) awards, also exemplify successful use of research tools tailored to specific project goals.

Looking Forward

At its best, research is meant to be shared with clients and colleagues to contribute to industry knowledge—and most important, improve the human experience. As such, HGA researchers and our clients have presented at national industry conferences, including CoreNet Global Summit, The Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), The Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) Annual Conference, and Healthcare Design Expo + Conference. Additionally, we have published findings in peer-reviewed publications, including Building and Environment, Health Environments Research and Design Journal (HERD), and Journal of the American College of Radiology. Through this sharing, we extend knowledge and gain knowledge to and from our clients and peers.

Moving forward, we will continue to build new partnerships to investigate human experiences in the built environment, as well as invest in ongoing complementary research in energy, structural systems, materials, resiliency, and computational/predictive studies.

With verifiable data to back up design decisions, we partner with clients to make more knowledgeable decisions with greater confidence. Ultimately, human experience research strives to create the best possible outcomes—with greater collective investment from designers, users, and stakeholders.