The original version of this article, entitled "Why (Most) Architects Don't Get Digital," first appeared on UXB London.
For super smart people who spend so much time imagining the future, it seems odd that, when it comes to digital, architects are so stuck in the past. Don't get me wrong, I love architecture and hold the profession in high regard. But I'm mystified as to why the digital revolution has been largely ignored by a profession so proud of integrating emerging technologies.
We recently carried out some research as part of a commission to develop a digital strategy for an established practice in London. We wanted to check the state of mobile adoption in the sector. We figured a good place to start would be the big guns, the award winners, and the ones that others want to be.
We made up our list* and visited each practice on a smartphone. Oh dear. I wouldn't advise you to do this – it's a dispiriting experience that could make your fingers hurt and your eyes bleed.
We discovered to our dismay that, of the 140 most awarded/respected/talked about practices in the UK, only 5 have a responsive website (take a bow dRMM, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, Woods Bagot, HTA, and Stiff + Trevillion). Don't architects own mobiles and use them to access the web? You'd be forgiven for thinking not.
It's a puzzling phenomenon when you consider that architecture is a fascinating, complex profession capable of delivering magic. Practices are full of gifted people producing rich visual, narrative, and mathematical content that many of us would find fascinating – if only we could find it on the device of our choice.
What really puzzles me is why user centred design considerations, such as utility, accessibility, elegance and delight, so commonly used in the design of buildings, are abandoned when it comes to web. So far as I can tell, architecture is largely a people-centred profession. No self-respecting architect, or client, would be happy with a finished building that made visitors struggle to get in the door, or find their way round and get so lost that they exit via the fire escape.
But the absence of human-centred thinking and care for the user's experience is at the core of why so many practices fail in digital. Many brilliant practices are represented online by the digital equivalents of buildings that are simply not fit for purpose. That have been built with inferior materials, outmoded technology and not to current standards. And by this they do themselves a disservice.
For a profession so accustomed to collaborating with experts in associated fields (engineering, energy, transport, interiors etc.), in the digital realm, the will to accept others' expertise declines. It seems digital is devalued as something that can be home spun or outsourced on the cheap.
So, if you want a responsive website, how do you go about it?
1. Understand Responsive Design
Responsive design has been called the next stage in mobile and is widely accepted as the most effective way to provide mobile users with a positive experience whatever device they are using. In short, the content and layout of your site will automatically 'respond' to the size of device it is being viewed on. It offers businesses a highly flexible and efficient way to meet the increased expectations that people have for quality content, speed and usability while on the move.
2. Do some rapid user testing
The best way to understand the experience that your site offers visitors on a mobile is to gather together some colleagues and view it on your mobile/tablet. If you need to pinch/zoom to read text, you're not providing a good experience for visitors and they will not thank you for it.
3. Put content first
Designing for mobile optimisation requires a re-think of your content. What works well on a desktop might not transfer well to mobile. You need to think about what is the most important content your visitors will require and prioritise that. You will difficult decisions to make about what stays, and what goes.
4. Call in the experts
Finding a decent design agency to help you is easy. If in doubt, visit their site on your mobile. A decent agency will be able to take you through a rigorous but sensible process of defining your strategy, researching your audience needs, business requirements and content plan, all before showing you what the finished product will look like.
5. Plan for content
The importance of producing good content on an ongoing basis cannot be over stated. Work out who is best placed in your practice to collect, collate, curate or create the content that your audience wants, and give them the time and resources to make your new responsive site a winner.
Sean OHalloran is co founder and Director of content design and digital marketing agency UXB London. Among other interests, he has a passion for contemporary architecture and has commissioned buildings in London and overseas.