This article by Gavin Johns was originally published on Medium as "Architects, stop everything and pursue a career in UX."
As an architect turned user experience (UX) designer I have many strong opinions about both my former and my current profession. But in short, I am now enjoying greener pastures, getting the fulfillment I expected while studying architecture but the profession didn’t provide.
Many like-minded architects ask me when and why I decided to transition into software. This puts me in the unusual position of praising the initial skill-set achieved by studying architecture, while promoting departure from it. That said, I have a very abstract definition of architecture, and believe if you have the interest to pursue any other design discipline, you’ll be successful. This guide is intended for those driven and curious architects who are looking for a change.
Is This Right For You?
- Your current work fulfills you creatively, financially, and socially.
- You’re already a Principal at a successful growing firm.
- You’re averse to change.
- You simply don’t have any interest in changing career paths.
- You prefer a slower growing career.
- Your definition of architecture is designing “buildings” and nothing else.
If any of that sounds like you, then thanks for reading but you can stop here. If not, then you should consider a career in software as a UX designer.
When Should You Transition to a New Career in UX Design?
My career as a professional architect was missing three things that I believe are critical to an exceptional creative career. However contentious, when you believe you’re missing the same, you should jump. My career was missing speed, iteration, and measurement.
Buildings and cities take a long time to design and construct. With a minimum build time of 2 years, we have incredibly slow design cycles. Product design can have design cycles of 2 weeks. Your building material is unlimited — you can build anything you want, being constrained only by ability and caffeine. Need I say more?
Another pro for increasing the frequency of design cycles is increasing your opportunity for creative brilliance. If the very nature of your career throttles your creative production, then you are at a distinct disadvantage.
The ability to iterate your design after it’s built gives you power over its success! If I were going to propose the same iteration and testing of new design ideas on a building after it was built, the owner would look at me like I had 5 heads. For very obvious reasons this doesn’t make sense to do, but it bothers me nonetheless. How do we learn? The result is being forced to iterate over a body of work, over the course of a career. The feedback loop is slow, expensive, and not guaranteed. Software requires very quick iteration.
Having measurable goals gives you clear success metrics. In architecture, the main goal is to appease the client. While this still reigns true in product & UX design, you have a clear measurable goal in the form of a KPI or key performance indicator that you track. The closest equivalent in architecture is through simulation and measurement of building processes, power use, occupant surveys, etc. These are at the owners discretion and you aren’t held accountable for them. So how do you learn? How do you build a body of work over a career, shooting to improve each time, but never measuring the success of previous designs.
Aside from these three differences, software is simply a different medium of architecture. A medium that is eating the world. And in turn, shaping the world.
“Software is eating the world” — Marc Andreessen
As an architect, you have been trained to shape the world according to millennia of design discourse. Giving form to culture is a skill that calls on all the senses and requires a deep understanding of how people interact with their environment. By questioning the new environments created through software, we have the opportunity to shape our world through a different medium.
Why Should You Transition to UX Design?
If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, then you can probably see countless reasons to transition. Here are 8 reasons why you as an architect will make a great UX designer:
1. Your design process is identical
You understand to design anything properly, you must first understand the problem. What is the goal? What does success look like? Jumping into a drawing without identifying how success will be measured is art, not design. Defining program and understanding scenarios our occupants or users will encounter. Bringing in your client, engineers, and contractors early and often to invalidate or validate design choices. Iterating and developing design from conceptual to schematic to construction drawings and collaborating along the way. Instead of a drawing set of plans and sections, we create wireframes and prototypes.
2. Your team dynamic is identical
Not only does the process follow the same structure, but so does the team and team dynamics required to build the design. Instead of Contractors and Engineers, you collaborate with Developers and Product Managers. As an architect you are the Owner advocate, ensuring that their best interests are met. As a UX designer, you are the User’s advocate, ensuring that their best interests are met. This is a familiar role, and a very important one.
3. You have a fresh (and relevant) perspective
Yes it’s easy to say that anyone from any other profession will bring a fresh perspective; you’re right! What’s especially great about an architect’s perspective of UX is that it’s incredibly relevant. UX designers are digital architects and we can all learn from each other.
4. You’re technical
Not just “I know lots of software” technical, but “I know how things go together” technical. You’re used to knowing the fundamentals of every superficial decision in design. Not only are you used to it, but you require it. Knowing enough to validate or invalidate a theory is critical to the design process.
5. Your ideas scale
Architectural design intent ranges from the small detail of a door knob to the city block. You define a design language and understanding that can and should scale. Considering complexities of scale is inherent to design.
6. You tame the ambiguous
Every project is different. The ability to form structured thinking from unstructured conditions is fundamental to the architect’s thinking.
Building a product that has the ability to scale infinitely and be used by anyone anywhere creates a design problem divorced from context as architect’s typically see it. Context becomes more about when and why someone would likely use this, not the adjacent building or climate (although that even depends on your product — designing a weather app?).
7. You design for people
You have your client’s & occupants best interest at heart. As a UX designer, you have the user’s best interest at heart -which requires consistently hearing and understanding them.
8. You push innovation
There’s an old stereotype that Architect’s design buildings that can’t stand up (from the Engineer’s perspective), and can’t be constructed (from the Contractor’s perspective). Navigating those relationships to build amazing places requires ingenuity and thick skin. It’s the same in software. You still need to work collaboratively to push innovation, defend design decisions, and try new things even when they’re uncomfortable for most people. It’s exciting!
How Will You Make this Transition?
Everyone’s path is different, but if you’re curious about mine I’m writing about how I made the transition in a series of following posts.
Gavin Johns is a licensed architect turned UX & Product designer in San Francisco. You can read his upcoming posts on transitioning to a career in UX design by following him on Medium or via his website.