Understanding how people behave as they do is key to creating responsive environments.
I was in a school the other day. It was a delight to be in. Its overall aesthetic design wasn’t anything to speak of, it was in an old industrial building near a town centre. It had plenty of light, and while the young students were playing around there wasn’t loud noise – you could hear quite clearly. Everybody was engaged. The environment was responsive – staff and students could easily move the furniture around. Above all it seemed intuitive to use.
Yet sometimes it isn’t always so easy to achieve this degree of responsiveness from the building.
Like any piece of technology a building is complex and its usability depends on how confident we feel in interacting with it and whether it does what we expect it to do. Do the lights come on when this or that button is pressed? In other words, we users have to be able to confidently predict the result of our actions.
In many ways designers are also in the prediction game. They are trying to predict how users will use a building – or indeed any artifact they design. They do this in the strategic choices they make which in effect predicts the capacity of the user to manage a building in a particular way, or use it in a restricted number of ways. For example, they might install complex systems for managing a building’s heating and cooling, or design in simpler technologies that assume a particular kind of use, but because they are closely linked to other outcomes, cause complex results. For example, glass internal walls to encourage observation of ‘learning’, a feeling of participation and engagement, or to allow light through a building. All very good reasons for glass walls, but the idea only works if the walls are not plastered with student work because there is not enough display space elsewhere, or simply because the teacher does not like to be observed. Here practicality and culture have got in the way. Believe me when I say this happens all too often!!
To make things more difficult, as contexts change or as teaching approaches change, the focus of learning changes and the impact of technology changes, therefore it becomes harder to predict precise use.
Environments we use need to be versatile and they need to be able to evolve to meet our changing needs. Above all, they need to be intuitive to use – users should not have to work hard to understand them or to get around problems they present. To achieve this, the design of learning environments should be from inside out. In other words the starting point is an understanding of how users do what they do, and recognise this will change as their context changes. Human behaviour is key.