User research for healthcare buildings

A workshop survey run for CABE by Cambridge Architectural Research was part of a presentation to the ‘Sustainable Healthcare through the Built Environment’ conference.

The survey had two aims: to provide a stimulating and thought provoking exercise about design for health care and to demonstrate the practicality and utility of systematic user research.

The exercise is based on research in the commercial sector published in ‘Reconciling the architectural preferences of architects and the public: the ordered preference model’ (Fawcett, Ellingham & Platt, 2006). The exercise shows that a similar approach can be applied to healthcare buildings.

The exercise is based on a simple typology of healthcare design based on two attributes, practicality and design quality, each with two alternative values. This structure generates four design types:

Practicality/imageDesign quality
Type 1More PracticalStrong design quality
Type 2More PracticalWeak design quality
Type 3Less PracticalStrong design quality
Type 4Less PracticalWeak design quality

Photographs were selected to illustrate all four design types of the interiors of healthcare buildings. To match each type with every other type required six pairs of images; a total of 12 photographs.

The conference participants were shown the image-pairs and asked to indicate their preferences on pre-prepared scoring sheets. The scores were analysed during the session and the results fed back to participants in the closing part of the session. For the analysis, the participants were divided into two groups – architects and non-architects, including healthcare professionals. It was expected that architects would place more weight on the design quality attribute, whereas for healthcare professionals the practicality attribute would be more significant. Did the results confirm this hypothesis?

The survey results confirm the hypothesis to a limited degree. Architects follow the expectation, emphasising visual quality over practicality, but non-architects’ responses give equal weight to the two factors. This is reassuring: there is a great deal of common ground, although clearly the architects are picking up visual clues about quality that are not apparent to the non architects.

Although this is a small example, it confirms that user research can be a practical tool. The discrepancy between architect and user preferences in healthcare design is one of many situations in which user research can be applied. We don’t need to guess about the underlying factors affecting people’s preferences – with well structured research, we can find out.