Case study: people first, design second
So. First article here. Here goes nothing!
We couldn’t get our heads around what topic to cover first in our blog: why we focus on creative and educational spaces, why we put people ahead of design in our work or why we chose to be identified with a shady silhouette with an talian name. All equally meaningful topics, to say the least.
Eventually though, we decided that after all the fuss around our “Mountain shelter of the future” competition proposal, a reasonable thing to do is to reveal some “behind the scenes” ultra-confidential information, and to modestly contemplate on why we actually won this and what brought us ahead in the game.
Don’t trust the brief
We’ll start with the brief (we don’t usually trust briefs and later you will notice why). This one called for a “Mountain Shelter Architecture of 2050” and our job was to interpret what it means in terms of design. The requirements for all of the proposals were that the module is functional, blends with its surroundings, provides shelter in need and that it’s innovative in means of structure and technology. As we were reading the brief our architectural alter-egos were getting more and more excited by the prospect of showing our designer superpowers and exploding with the most breathtaking futuristic mountain design. A spoonful of minimalism, two drops of abstract ironism and a reverence to nature and sustainability…
We have to admit that from our university experience, we are used to doing just that. Our visions and concepts start to race wildly in our heads seconds after our task is given, we start sketching, developing our ideas, dressing them in romantic stories and we even might feel offended if someone doesn’t get them. So we jump into explanations, we tell our story even more passionately, we proclamate its deep meaning and philosophy.That always means we have fallen into the trap of falling in love with our idea. And this can only mean one thing: its most certain and inevitable failure to improve.
Following the principle “people first, design second”, we put on hold our great visions of the future and tried to get some answers by asking the right questions. What is a shelter? What do people use it for? Which people use it?
We drew up a map and went searching for those people in order to interview them.
Contrary to architectural logic, we don’t ask them directly: “What do you want a shelter to be like?” From our experience, people give misleading answers and get stressed when asked what they need. Instead we provoke them to tell us stories from their good and bad experiences. Those stories point us to the needs worth focusing on.
Thus, our first insights came from an experienced mountaineer and member of the Mountain Rescue Service in Vitosha. His story was truly fascinating. He told us that shelters are meant to save lives, that the temperature drop in Vitosha can be 20 degrees in one hour, that nowadays people don’t value the mountain. Not only that, but they purposely destroy and vandalise the few remaining mountain shelters across Bulgaria, which in effect, is deadly. As far as he was concerned, the mountain is a place meant only for the truly experienced and respectful mountaineers and a shelter consisted of the bare minimum: though to withstand the weather and vandalism and with no modern tech whatsoever. For him technology is indeed the end of the nature experience.
After that conversation, again our minds were racing for the perfect design of this shelter. Our visions of a shiny minimalistic shelter were replaced by a new version: a basic shelter, which opens its doors only to those who respect nature. The bare minimum an ascetic version of a cave, invisible to the untrained eye.
More is more
Luckily, we weren’t done with the interviews and not a single line was drawn in our sketchbooks, nor was there a shelter picture pinned on Pinterest.
We went on to our next interviewee: the cool and extreme freerider. Frankly, his experience with shelters was not less important than this of the mountain rescuer, but extremely different: for him, the shelter was a stop towards on his way up in the mountain, technology was vital, as he needed to know the weather forecast for the next 2 days. He also saw vandalism and tried to repair its damages. For him a shelter was as much as a lifesaver as it was a memorable stop, a place where you spend the night with your friends on your way to adventure.
Ok, we were totally puzzled, we already had two extreme use cases and а lot more people to talk to: families with children, the people who go for a hike on the weekends, people who work in the weatherstation nearby, administration… And we did. With every interview we were getting more and more informed and more certain of the pain points we wanted to improve upon.
In the end we took the two most intensive shelter users - the mountain rescuer and the freerider, and came up with a solution to satisfy their needs.
What we really do want to point out is that at the end of the day, after speaking to a bunch of real, proactive people, our project was the closest in solving all of the issues. All of the projects that participated in the competition were extremely well thought and designed, but they were designed in accordance to the brief that, as usual didn’t tell the whole story and didn’t address vandalism. Their challenge was to design the “Shelter of 2050”, whereas we redefined ours as “How might we improve the chances of surviving critical situations in the mountain while preventing shelter vandalism” which in the end resulted in a technological solution.
In keeping our minds clear and not jumping into ideation, we were safe from falling in love with our project and thus being blind to other important factors.
Such deep meaning, so many thoughts racing... If you are feeling overwhelmed, feel free to express it. What is your approach to design? What guides you? Have you had similar experiences? Or do you just want to share a funny story? :)