Designing for What Users Do

(Instead of what you want them to do)

Genius Loci is the “spirit of a place” in landscape architecture. The lighting, the path, the ambiance comprise the genus loci; and how the visitors of that place react to it, on an emotional, perceptive, and subsequent behavioral level is the result of working with the naturally occuring space. How a space is established against its natural setting dictates how we feel as we enter that space and how we manage ourselves within it. How easily we traverse the pathways within are dictated by our comfort with learning the space we’re in, greatly impacted by the space itself. All of these things contribute to a positive, emotional experience, encouraging a return.

A site launched for the first time has no genus loci. As designers, we know how we want the site to be used, but life isn’t breathed into it until the users have undertaken the onus of determining how the site is used. A website has no “natural space,” occuring in a virtual realm, devoid of any natural setting. A website’s genus loci is defined by its structure, design, and, most importantly, how users evolve to use that site. Ignoring how users have come to use a site, despite any quirks or perceived inadequacies could result in a failure for a redesign.

Missed, or ignored, because it takes place in a virtual space, an area connecting digital cues and mental interpretations, this space between grows to be is as much a part of the website as the content, the colors, the shapes and objects that fill the page. How your users have decided to interact with the arrangement of content, colors and lines, is your first baseline when improving a site.

While observing best practices is critical, users already have an idea in their head how a site works, based on how it has worked in its previous iterations. Designing away from this without any feedback from the users can have disastrous consequences. Long-time adherents to the site can suddenly feel disoriented and not have a sense of where to go. Engage your user base as an initial first step toward redesign. If you’re unable to do moderated interviews, setting up a survey online can be an acceptable starting point. Take the time to find out what your users like about the existing site and what they feel works. Examine the potential behind how they’ve evolved to using your current site.

Not to say that every crazy idea the users have are going to be the right one, but there’s great merit in putting faith in your existing users’ feedback. They’re the ones that have been using the website! Take the information you gather from them, compare it to best practices, meld it together with your ideas, and create a great experience. Improving the experience that exists, instead of trying to completely re-define it, is much easier and your users will react better to it.

Successful landscape architects look for patterns in the existing area they’re working with, respecting both the spirit of the place, and the way visitors interact with it. Trees don’t move out of people’s way, according to where they want to go. Instead, people weave their way through narrow paths and small, breakable branches, that allow them through. Their footprints are then followed by the next visitor, and then the next. Over time, a natural path clears and a walkway is established. New visitors will tend to follow that path, as an easy way to get from one side of the forest to the other. A talented architect recognizes that path, created by the natural inclination of visitors working in the existing space, and uses that as the walkway, creating the appropriate ambiance around it. Improving on the existing experience.

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