Is my building healthy?
Pre-COVID, most of us entered buildings blissfully unaware of our health status, assuming that the owners and operators of our spaces had taken the necessary precautions to provide a healthy space in which to live, work, and play. Amid the pandemic, there is a much greater consciousness about the ability of our buildings to protect and promote our personal health, and a growing literacy about the factors that contribute to the quality of our indoor environments. Now, as we stand at the threshold of our shared indoor spaces, new questions arise: “How crowded is it?” “When was it last cleaned?” “What is the air quality?”
Experience design to the rescue
Experience design is here to intervene. Experience designers for the built environment go to great lengths to understand the users we are designing for — what makes them tick, what makes them worry, what causes confusion, what brings delight. Then we consider every step in their journey to, through, and from a space and look for pain points, moments where the experience starts to break down or hit excessive friction.
These pain points are clues, indicating a location for a possible design intervention that may improve the user experience. The intervention may be a sign that shows you the way, a sound that subliminally signals you are on the right track, an app that gives you a way to ask a question, a dynamic display that tells you a story, or a space to calm you as you regroup before moving on.
Smart buildings, smarter people
Experience designers shape the story of moving through space, and one rich source of content for that story is the data the space is generating. Sensors are prevalent in the built environment, measuring a host of data points from energy usage to external weather conditions. Now, the category of sensors that measure real-time data about the health conditions of the indoor environment are increasingly in demand.
Smart buildings that control and monitor via building management or Internet of Things systems can yield data on indoor environmental quality, occupancy density, and cleaning status, for example. Indoor environmental quality data covers a range of points, from air quality (CO2 as a proxy for fresh air, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds) to light levels and thermal comfort, even noise and vibration levels. This is important information for facilities managers to have at their fingertips. The big change is that now the public will also want to know this type of information before entering a building.
Generous data sharing
We are entering a new age of transparency about the health status of public spaces. To restore confidence in the return to shared spaces, buildings must share their health status data generously. This will improve the experience of the journey back to public life by empowering people with the information they need to decide for themselves on the best way to proceed.
But health data needs to be translated for public consumption to transform it into meaningful and actionable information. It would not be wise to provide laypeople with raw data about building performance as you might to a facilities manager or building professional. The data needs to be put in context with enough explanation to help your occupants. It needs to be useful, relevant, and immediately intuitive. This doesn’t happen by accident; it happens by design.
Care must be given to how to design the information that will be shared publicly. For example, if a building says, “Fresh air is currently good,” by what standard is it able to say that objectively? Tying a statement like this to third-party healthy building standards like WELL, Fitwel, or RESET and educating the public about these standards seems like the right way to go. Perhaps finding a metaphor that people readily understand, like the weather, can help make this data intuitively graspable. “The current indoor weather report is…”
The threshold experience
With high-quality information design in place to convey health data, the next question is where to deliver it? Definitely on mobile devices, so anyone can reassure themselves they are headed for a place that is safe to enter, whether they’re at home at the breakfast table or commuting. Definitely via web browsers and digital signage, so you can check on this data when you are at your desk or coming out of the elevator.
When viewed through the lens of user experience, the boundary between outside and inside, the threshold of the building, is a critical place to intervene. Here, a building “dashboard” that provides a readout of all kinds of relevant data, health and otherwise, to people as they stop for a moment, regroup, prepare, and enter is a great addition to the experience. The goal is to provide enough information in a sophisticated way to make the threshold a positive, confidence-building moment.
Making the experience positive
In the future, the value of a building will be measured by how well it supports the health of its occupants and how well it supports the health of its environment. Building owners who are able to balance this will be successful at returning people to public buildings and keeping them there.
Experience designers need to work at unpacking this balancing-act and make this invisible story visible. But it’s worth it. When a building communicates its health status clearly to its people, they will reward it with loyalty, trust, and regular use.