UX for the city

Bad UX (I hate everything and you!!) vs Great UX (love my life! And you! And puppies!)

In this post I explore how the notion of User Experience (UX), a key dimension of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), can enhance urban planning. Applying user-centred design and management approaches to cities, in turn, can also enrich the field of HCI.

Cities are made by people. Yet, are cities made for people? Or rather: for whom, and by whom? Couldn’t urban designers, decision-makers and residents meet up for lunch more often? Everyone has a stake in nurturing supportive urban environments. There are many incentives to increase dialogue and co-production among all stakeholders in spatial planning (e.g. Rittel and Webber 1973, Healey 2012, Albrechts 2013). Two examples:

Greater collaboration could help address growing divides between people. Inequalities are growing in many parts of the world, including the UK (e.g. income disparities, rising homelessness, and related health disparities). The richest 1% are thriving, but for how long? In many cities, the polarisation between gated communities and slums seems anything but sustainable.

Austerity calls for increased engagement. In contexts of austerity in local government, as in the UK, involving users in the design and management of public space could help explore the pros and cons of privatisation and public-private partnerships. For example, funds for public parks in British local councils are melting like ice-cream in summer heat, potentially jeopardising their future provision of ecosystem services to urban residents. In Newcastle, the city council is exploring ways of engaging the public and community groups more actively in the actual maintenance of green urban parks, since its budget for parks and recreation has shrunk tenfold between 2011 and 2016.

The Big Society” is becoming catch-all term for key government services being slowly devolved to the public — compare David Cameron’s launch of the Big Society programme in 2010, and Theresa May’s (even gloomier?) “shared society”. For better or worse, this new way of delivering public service cannot happen without end-users.

UX matters

The notion of “user experience” (UX) emerged in the field of Human Computer Interaction to make computer systems more “humane”. It was a reaction against excessively technical and performance-based approaches to software and website usability, in order to include such fuzzy aspects as users’ feelings (Hassenzahl and Tractinsky 2006). The picture below sums up neatly the difference in experience between a product that is pleasant to use, and one that isn’t.

Bad UX (I hate everything and you!!) vs Great UX (love my life! And you! And puppies!)
Picture credits: Bad UX vs. Great UX, by Jane Aldrich (reproduced with permission) https://userexperiencerocks.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/good-ux-it-does-a-body-good/

User experience is an essential add-on to the more traditional notions of utility and usability. In a blog titled “Usability 101”, Jakob Nielsen defines utility as “whether a design provides the features you need” and usability as “how easy and pleasant these features are to use”. While utility is about getting things done, usability is about pleasant user experiences. A product that meets both criteria can be considered useful.

In a nutshell, “UX” means considering users’ needs, aspirations, and personal and cultural identities in product design and evaluation. It requires considering how these affective/emotional and socio-cultural dimensions influence the way technology is being appropriated by users. It also means recognising the social life of technology: that the use of technology is all about experience, rather than just fool-proof functionality and performance. In other words, users’ adoption of technology is as much about “being”, self-actualisation and social expression as it is about getting things done (Hassenzahl 2004, McCarthy and Wright 2004).

Advocates of collaborative product design (e.g. Wright and McCarthy 2010) also consider that product design should start with users’ needs, particularly those of disadvantaged groups in society, for example in the form of applications that support healthcare, education or mobility. Participatory design of technology is best achieved by engaging end-users as co-designers in iterative cycles of product development and evaluation.

UX for the city

User-centred urban design and management enable to make cities for people, especially if based on the active, iterative participation of end-users. For example, user participation can enhance place-making processes, and complement the legacy of expert observations of end-users by the like of Jan Gehl and William Holly White.

Carefully designed and implemented digital technologies have a central role to play in delivering user-friendly cities. From civic hackathons and gamification to participatory budgeting, living labs, and augmented reality, there are now wide arrays of techniques and methods to engage residents in expressing their needs and preferences. These technologies allow to design with and for users.

Here UX becomes recursive: both the means of engaging users and the deliverables of having engaged them (e.g. urban development projects, plans, and strategies) can embody a strong participatory approach to effectively meet user needs and aspirations. In other words, user experiences should become integral to both processes and outcomes.

Some noteworthy efforts for considering user experience in urban planning include opportunities for more children-friendly planning in Scotland, as well as a recent framework developed by Arup.  However, fully considering children’s experiences does not fall short of challenges in terms of political will and societal awareness. Unicef considers that children’s needs should be at the heart of all decision-making in cities. Case studies show that dialogue and co-exploration of issues and solutions can be preliminary steps toward empowerment (e.g. in Wrexham town, North Wales).

Engagement initiatives need not be top-down. 12-year old Roman set up a Minecraft lounge for everyone in his neighbourhood in Winnipeg, Canada, enabling all participants to learn, have fun and make valuable design suggestions.

Designing for user experience is not without difficulties however. Notions such as “equity” or “fairness” in planning remain slippery or ill-defined (Attoh 2011), which has consequences for sectoral applications, such as green park accessibility (Rigolon 2016), as well as more strategic orientations, such as urban resilience (Meerow and Newell 2016). Multicultural planning, or planning for diversity rather than difference, also brings its own set of challenges: different individuals and communities often have different needs, and fulfilling them is important to improve the experience of all city users. Failing to do so can exacerbate socio-economic differences and divides.

Measuring UX, in planning as in HCI, can also be tricky, because loaded with assumptions.

Notwithstanding challenges, some cities are already formally applying UX to city planning, such as Gainesville, Florida.

Closing the loop

If the notion of user experience derived from Human Computer Interaction, supported by a wide array of digital and physical technologies, can enhance place-making, then this quality can also enrich the field of HCI. Designing cities with and for a diversity of users is difficult yet essential, especially in terms of social, cultural, environmental and intergenerational equity.

Improving UX in the city by means of useful and engaging technology provides many opportunities for HCI to address social concerns, and contribute to close some of the gaps between people. “UX for the city” can become a recursive entreprise, as user experience can be advantageously coded into all aspects and at all scales of system design, evaluation and optimisation.


Albrechts, L. (2013). “Reframing strategic spatial planning by using a coproduction perspective.” Planning Theory 12(1): 46-63.

Attoh, K. A. (2011). “What kind of right is the right to the city?” Progress in Human Geography 35(5): 669-685.

Hassenzahl, M. (2004). “The interplay of beauty, goodness, and usability in interactive products.” Hum.-Comput. Interact. 19(4): 319-349.

Hassenzahl, M. and N. Tractinsky (2006). “User experience – a research agenda.” Behaviour & Information Technology 25(2): 91-97.

Healey, P. (2012). “Re-enchanting democracy as a mode of governance.”

McCarthy, J. and P. Wright (2004). “Technology as experience.” interactions 11(5): 42-43.

Meerow, S. and J. P. Newell (2016). “Urban resilience for whom, what, when, where, and why?” Urban Geography: 1-21.

Rigolon, A. (2016). “A complex landscape of inequity in access to urban parks: A literature review.” Landscape and Urban Planning 153: 160-169.

Rittel, H. W. J. and M. M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences 4(2): 155-169.

Wright, P. and J. C. McCarthy (2010). Experience-centered design: designers, users, and communities in dialogue. San Rafael, Calif., Morgan & Claypool.


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