Ethics and User Research

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architecture, ethics, research

Illustration courtesy of Volume, Inc.

As architects and designers, we are supported by our education and with that come both privileges and a set of values. In school, we are challenged by assignments and by participating in a learning environment. Our education gives us the privilege to access a broader mix of outside resources, trends, and experiences—and thus results—in establishing our own set of values and tastes, which we use as a set of guidelines. Granted, all schools do not provide the same pedagogical outcomes, but the underlying ethos is the same. We are taught to use design to change lives, solve complexities, and enhance social comforts, whether through products, services, or environments. 

But the ethical questions lie in practice, where the most pressing challenge is our ability to understand the distinction between our own values and design formulas and what is actually desired or needed. We have to remember that we are getting paid to provide a service. How we approached design in school is most often not replicated in practice. Instead, we have to ask ourselves if our ideas are relevant for the end user and client or are merely our interpretation of their needs through our value chain—the question of ‘ego and authorship’ versus ‘end user and client.’

In any building type, there is an ethical question around engaging users beyond the client reps, developer, etc., and our values should be addressed and discussed openly when designing for any community. The biggest hurdle that I see is that intensive user research is not supported in practice. The hoops and hurdles, client policies, budget, and time challenge this activity. Not to mention that our industry is set up for planning and programming to be a separate contract with a lower priority, as getting a building built is the more tangible success. Planning and programming are nevertheless fundamental to the overall design process in architecture.

Given that we work in an industry not quick to change its processes, where does the profession evolve from here? Is the answer a stronger tie between academic and professional worlds, through which the profession relies on academia to answer broader user research? Or does a new form of practice begin to emerge that elevates the planning and programming portion of a project to a level equal to design and execution?


Jennifer Pechacek

Jennifer Pechacek has a ten-year career leading marketing communications, branding, and event promotions for non-profit, community-centered, and corporate entities within the A/E/C industry. She joined Pyatok Architects in 2011 as the Communications Director and holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration in Design Strategy from the California College of the Arts.

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