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Disciplinary architecture in web design

Twitter has been ablaze this week with the spotlight on a doorway in London which pictures spikes on the ground to prevent homeless people sleeping there. This got me onto the subject of “architectures of control” and I started thinking how this plays a part in what we build on the web…

I recently happened across a very interesting concept in the term “disciplinary architecture”. In a nutshell, this idea involves shaping, or modifying behavioural patterns through intentionally creating environmental limitations and/or possibilities.

The word architecture in this context is defined by not just a physical structure, but more the planning and execution of an idea.

For example, in many schools the windows are intentionally high enough to prevent students from being able to see out of them, and thus being distracted by what might be going on outside. Prisons have been known to use pink paint as this is considered to have a calming effect on the moods of inmates. In a wider social context, the idea of disciplinary architecture has been used to promote race and class division, such as the American architect Robert Moses decision to build highway bridges which were designed to allow the passing of cars, used mostly by white people, and deny the passing of buses (due to their height) mostly used by African Americans. This lead to segregated beaches and resorts dependent on race.

Architectures of control in web design

We often talk about user experience; the idea being that we put the needs of the user at the centre of our design process. This involves building considered architectures to guide them toward a specific goal(s). Sometimes, we even use tactics to actually force them toward these goals, or prevent them from taking an undesired route. This, by definition, is disciplinary architecture.

Let’s take a look at some examples of “architectures of control” on the internet:

Time limits

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Ticket Master imposes a time limit on how long you have to complete your ticket purchase after adding to basket. This is obviously because tickets can be quite sought after and sell out quickly, but it modifies our behaviour by creating an immediate sense of urgency; buy now, or lose out.

Character restrictions

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Venn is our project, and on some input fields we have imposed a limit on characters as well as a minimum. In the example above, the user must enter their event title between 10 and 75 characters. The rationale being, less than 10 is probably too few letters to convey enough information and more than 75 is too much (and may break the page layout on smaller screens).

Restricted selection

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Jet2 dynamically changes the available calendar dates dependent on the information chosen beforehand. In the screen above, only the green boxes are selectable, forcing the user away from any dates they potentially might have wanted, and toward only the dates that Jet2 say are available.

Breaking the pattern

Sometimes, users may disregard your preset architectures either accidentally or on purpose. Just how somebody who crosses a park to go to work each day may cut across the grass instead of taking the floral, winding path; your users may equally find routes which are more applicable to them. This is called creating a “desire path” and it’s something we should track, measure and react to frequently.

Controlled architectures are necessary; they help to prevent spam, erroneous input, increase conversion, speed up access to information and generally create order. They help to shape behaviour to provoke a specific outcome. But this doesn’t mean that we should use them without consideration. Good design satisfies both the user needs and the business needs and that trade-off is a hard balance to strike!

What disciplinary architectures do you impose on your users? What desire paths have you noticed on your client websites? Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @studioraygun


Photo credit: Ian Sane via photopin cc

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