This is the eleventh post in a series considering the role of psychological research within the context of an architectural practice. The goal of this series is to provide answers to six key questions, namely, the why, what, who, when, how and where, of design focused psychological research.
In my previous post, the “how” of design focused psychosocial research was discussed by referring to traditional tools that can be used for this type of research. These included interviews, surveys, observation and photography. In this post, some of the emerging tools for design focused psychosocial research will be discussed.
It is beyond the scope of this post to go into depth on each tool. Rather the goal is to provide an overview of conceptual approaches informing the use of these tools and then to broadly define the various tools. The benefits and drawbacks of each method will also be considered. Readers of this piece are encouraged to share their thoughts about these tools by commenting on this post. Sharing references to projects or studies using these tools is encouraged.
Design focused psychosocial research typically has, as a goal, either measurement, or projection.
Projects with measurement as a goal attempt to better understand human behavior in an existing space in order to either set benchmarks for future projects, determine the behavioral success of existing environments or to compare behavior between two or more spaces. Tools categorized as sensing or tracking tools are typically used for these types of studies.
Research focused on projection, which is the prediction, or anticipation, of future behavior; attempt to apply a behavioral scheme to projects before they are built, in order to test and refine design options. Contemporary tools associated with this approach rely primarily on simulation.
Although a limited number of studies in architectural practice use both measurement and prediction as conceptual basis, the predictive aspect of a study would, in an ideal situation, be informed by a body of work based on measurement. Similarly an architectural design informed by simulation, should be assessed through either sensing or tracking to validate the primary predictive assumptions, after the space has been occupied for a period of time.
With these approaches in mind the concepts of sensing, tracking and simulation can now be considered.
Sensing refers to the method of measuring or assessing a specific property by a device that detects or measures a physical property and records, indicates or otherwise responds to it.
The use of sensors in the built environment is hardly a new trend. Sensors are widely used in assessing a wide variety of building related variables including temperature, air quality, light levels and occupancy. However, the use of sensors as part of design focused behavioral research has only recently emerged. With the proliferation of mobile technologies, the cost of sensing equipment has decreased significantly. This allows for the use of various different sensors in multiple locations to assess both primary and secondary study variables.
One benefit of using sensing in behavioral research is the potential to account for unseen, environmental variables so as to either include, or exclude these factors as variables in a study. In addition to these environmental studies, sensors can be used, for example, to detect movement or activate counters in utilization studies.
Another emerging field of research deals with the use of sensors to directly monitor the brainwaves of those occupying, or moving through a space. Although this type of technology is still in development, and beyond the reach of most (if not all) design firms, it has been argued that the use of biosensors for real time brain research might become as common as wearing a fitness tracker, considering current success with this type of research. If so it will open a number of new interdisciplinary research opportunities for designers and researchers.
Depending on the type of technology used, and the goals of the study, drawbacks to the use of sensors in behavioral research can be the accuracy of which the sensor measures the targeted variable. Given the dynamic nature of behavior in real world environments, using data obtained through sensing to either prove or disprove a hypothesis should be done with a clear understanding of the factors that can skew the results. Considering the massive amounts of data sensors can provide, the task of processing, and scrubbing the data, can also be very time consuming.
Tracking refers to following the course or trail of someone or something, typically in order to find them or to note their location at various points.
Although traditional observational tracking methodologies are widely used in shadow studies (shadowing participants), these methods can be very time consuming. The use of GPS or RFID tracking allows for researchers to collect data from a number of participants with limited direct involvement of the researchers. Utilizing tracking apps on subjects’ own mobile phones (after obtaining the required consent) is another way to passively collect tracking information.
Design focused behavioral tracking typically focuses on one of two areas of interest. The first area relates to the behavior of research participants, such as how long a user spend time in a certain location, or how a user moves through a building during the course of a day.
In studies focusing on the behavior of participants, tracking data is used to determine the location and activities of users as it relates to physical or temporal settings. These studies are valuable when attempting to determine the degree of fit between the designed environment and the behavior of occupants.
The second area of interest relates to characteristics of the designed environment as revealed through the behavior of building occupants. When tracking is used to better understand and describe the characteristics of the designed environment, factors such as the efficiency of movement patterns, circulation pinch points and the presence of under-utilized spaces are common topics to investigate.
As with sensing, drawbacks of tracking relates to the precision of the data as well as the translation and representation of tracking data to clarify the implications for design.
Simulation refers to the action during which one thing imitates, or is made to appear, like something else through, for example characterization or modeling.
Of all the tools described so far, simulation is a tool that is most accessible to today’s designers. Considering the wide acceptance of programming, parametric modeling and scripting in design firms, as well as the wide variety of open-source, community driven tools available, it can be assumed that simulation will play an increasingly important role in the future of behavioral research.
Simulation studies can take a number of different forms depending on the application and can include field of view, preferred route, or agent based analysis. A benefit of simulation studies is the relative ease with which it can be used to assess existing or new designs. Since most simulations depend on mathematical, rule based systems, a significant drawback of simulation based research is the gap between theoretical rule based behavior as simulated, and dynamic, personal behavior as observed.
As contemporary models of design focused behavioral research continue to emerge, design professionals will find opportunities to augment their existing design process by using these new, and rapidly developing tools. The value of these approaches will become increasingly clear as the gap between the accuracy of simulations, as shown on a screen, and reality of behavior, as seen through sensing and tracking is reduced.
The next post will focus on the ‘where’ of design focused psychosocial research by discussing the various settings and environments associated with this type of research.
An Introduction to Psychological Research in Architectural Practice
Why does psychological research in architectural practice matter?
Considering psychosocial research as a part of architectural practice
5 Points on the Nature of Psychosocial Research in Architecture
WHO: What to ask when assembling a psychosocial research team
WHO: Psychological research in architecture, Part 2
WHO: Psychological research in architecture, Part 3
The WHEN of psychological research in architecture
HOW to do psychological research in architectural practice
‘HOW’ of design focused psychosocial research: tools and methodologies