It's ALL About the USER

The experience of interior design continues to evolve with the progression of generations and their needs.

12/01/2016 By Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA


The term “UX design,” or user experience design, has been around since the 1990s, but only recently has it permeated our day-to-day vocabulary. It’s typically associated with technology—how we interact with websites, our smartphones, and other gadgets. Successful UX design means we engage with technology intuitively and smoothly; Apple UX designers are often called the best in the business, so it’s no coincidence that it was one of their researchers who coined the term.

But hold on … is designing for the user really all that new? I would argue that interior designers are the original—and the best—UX designers.

While the new Amazon Alexa and the latest VR headsets may grab headlines, the interactions good interior designers have always been concerned with include improving the usability, accessibility, and pure delight of our physical spaces. Designing to enhance the human experience is at the core of ASID’s “Why Statement,” and it’s also the very basis of our profession. And because we spend 93 percent of our time indoors, the design of our interiors have much more of an impact on our overall well-being than that of some electronic device.

How people interact with spaces, though, is changing. Coffee shops now double as mobile offices; airports have morphed into dining and shopping destinations; libraries have become the multimedia showcases. The old archetypes no longer apply, and interior design has kept pace. A single building can be a mash-up of spaces that were never located together before. A modern senior living facility, for example, might contain a pottery kiln, demo kitchen, library, and dance studio, all under one roof.

Not only are the building types evolving, but users themselves are changing. The “silver tsunami”—the significant middle-aged Baby Boomer generation—was predicted decades ago. Both the life expectancy and the lifestyle of today’s active Boomer have very little in common with that of his or her parents. And even among Boomers of the same age, there are marked differences in expectations and needs.

One thing we do know is that people are no longer automatically retiring at age 65. Whether for economic reasons or because of a desire to stay engaged and relevant, there are now more older workers than ever. My thesis project in design school seemed a little far out at the time: an assisted living facility with a co-working wing for winners of a fictitious MacArthur Award-like fellowship for seniors. Now it no longer sounds so outlandish. To recognize and support the needs of today’s seniors, ASID sponsored a documentary showcasing how prominent designers are creating spaces to support longevity and vitality. The film, called “Thriving in Place,” was previewed at High Point and will be shown on PBS in 2017.

Much as UX designers pay so much attention to testing their products on users of all abilities and ages, interior designers are doing the same. Evidence-based design has its roots in healthcare design but is now becoming more common in workplace design. At our new ASID headquarters in Washington, D.C., we’ve begun conducting post-occupancy to assess the efficacy of the LEED and WELL Building elements that permeate every square inch of the office. We’ll be sharing the results of that research next year to further demonstrate the impact of design beyond accessibility, beauty, and even functionality.

The Internet of Things, or the ability to leverage sensor technology to control and monitor our environments, is an exciting development that marries interiors with technology. It will offer wonderful opportunities for interior designers, product designers and, yes, UX designers to work together. Our profession continues to evolve and I am incredibly excited to be part of it.

Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA, is the Chair of the Board of Directors and a principal and the firm-wide interior design practice leader at Steinberg Architects. Learn more about ASID at