Defensive experience design

Written on 27 February 2015

By making our environment more hostile, we become more hostile within it.

In cities across the UK, homelessness is an often problem that we choose not to see. It’s on the increase, as people struggle to make ends meet in austere times. Homelessness is not necessarily the fate of those who have made poor choices, but can simply be due to rapidly changing circumstances. The author of this piece in the Guardian tells us that he went from a six figure salary to homelessness in less than twelve months.

Architecture is user experience design in the most physical way: the structure should please our bodies and our minds. When it is deliberately designed to prevent people from stopping in those places, there is a greater effect than simply discouraging ‘loitering’.

In recent years, more property owners have chosen to install ‘disciplinary’ or defensive architecture in spaces that can be used by homeless people around their buildings. Aimed at stopping people from sitting or lying on the flat surfaces, they appear highly aggressive and are intended to exclude. “Protecting” your property against people using the spaces created around a building creates a violence against the concept of “public space” and displays a disappointing sociology.

Defensive architecture

There is a sad reality to the desire to discourage the homeless from using the small, sheltered areas of large buildings to sleep or stay safe, but even if we leave this (huge) part of the problem aside, there is still a lot to be said for the use of aggressive and exclusionary vernacular in language and design.

Preventing people from begging, sheltering and resting in these places occurs under the label of ‘cleaning places up’. There is a balance to be struck between the duty of care large corporations owe to society, and their right to protect their property from potential damage. However, it needs to be said that the most permanent way of preventing people from begging on your doorstep is to create a society where no one ends up begging. A powerful way to achieve this is to employ empathy and good design to help people off the streets altogether.


At T&T, we often talk about empathy. We use it as a byword for remembering who we are designing for: a person. By trying to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are going to use the product or service we are working on, we are more likely to design something successful.

Designing for humans is by its nature a task of exclusion. We must think about how this human, in this situation may react. We must consider errors they might make and options they may choose. However, we also look broadly at the environment they may be operating in, in order to ensure that we understand the circumstances in which they are using this element of their set of tools.

In our considerations, we take into account the user. The user may be a member of staff at the client’s firm or a customer of our client. Our aim is to make their response to this product or service better than it was before, and hopefully better than their response to any competitor of our client. We talk about “delighting” them.

Built environment

Architects are doing the same thing for physical space. They intend to delight “users” of the building, making it highly suited to its purpose and aesthetically pleasing. They also have to take into consideration limitations that will not change in time, in the form of physical restrictions.

Users of a building are not just those who go inside it. The general public “use” a building by looking at it and interacting with the space around it. This is where experience design and empathy meet. The building is much more likely to be objected to by those who are going to see the outside of it, rather than those who end up living or working there. It must be sympathetic to the area, the style of other buildings and the geography of the setting. There is often a requirement to cater for communities by providing public services like children’s’ playgrounds or even irrigation systems.

The desire of property owners to keep their buildings safe, clean and undamaged is the justification for installing defensive architecture. Areas that have been ‘repurposed’ by the homeless are recaptured by the owners in order to preserve the feeling of safety and integrity.

Preventing misuse of the property is clearly an important and essential task, especially in an urban sprawl. Many housing estates built in the post-war era have suffered from the extremes of misuse;

Park Hill was the first post-second world war redevelopment scheme in Sheffield, built on a site consisting of the existing ‘back-to-back’ housing, tenement buildings, waste ground and a maze of alleyways. In the 1930s it was known by local people as ‘Little Chicago’ because of the levels of violent crime there. As there was no real sewerage system, there were typhus and cholera outbreaks; having only one standpipe per hundred people didn’t help either. In the 19th century, the Park area housed the worst slums in Sheffield. Guardian, March 2014

The reasons for the failure of such estates are often put down to poor design, including the creation of nooks and crannies with no positive purpose which became havens for drug dealing and violence. The idealism of architects like Le Corbusier, who assisted in the design of Park Hill, was replaced with dilapidation and decay. However, as with the current trend towards defensive architecture, the reasons were not necessarily because of the buildings, but the socioeconomic situation around them: by the 1980s the steel industry had all but collapsed, as had the sense of community that had existing when the estate was designed.

People had become afraid of each other, a trend which has only increased. When a person in need is seen as a threat rather than a figure of empathy, the parameters of designing for ‘safety’ change. Where plenty of communal spaces and areas to congregate were previously welcomed and required, they have become rejected and unused. Sharing space with those who live around you has become a strange concept, and being forced to do so by a park bench or recreational area is now off-putting rather than enticing.

Loss of community

By allowing fear to dominate our interactions in public spaces, we become more isolated and introverted. The sense of belonging to a wider group is lost, and our worlds become smaller. We do not look up or down, for fear of seeing something that upsets or disturbs us. Technology has aided our voluntary self-isolation, by reducing our ability to hear our environment (headphones) and our inclination to look around (smart devices). Now, if we encounter a displeasing sight, sound or smell, we are likely to step around it rather than engage with it. We sweep off the streets any articles likely to get in our way as we march around staring at navigation apps rather than using our brains, unaware of the people around us.

We’ve been taught that people asking for help in the streets are likely to be muggers, chuggers or druggies and we should dismiss them as fast as possible. Hence the desire to sweep the streets clean of people taking a rest. Perhaps if we were less afraid of people staying still, we wouldn’t have such a problem with making space for the homeless.

Getting people off the streets altogether

Clearly, it is not a solution to allow homeless people to make a bed in the air con outlet area of a large building. The solution is to give them a home, or at least a bed. To do this requires empathy. Rather than allowing landlords to erect defensive architecture around their buildings, that money could be put to use in local homelessness shelters, schemes to help people back into work and adult education programmes. The impetus should be all the greater in the current environment of deep distrust in large institutions, where redefining the role of “faceless banking corporations” could be a doubly valuable goal.

Good UX designers don’t just design an artefact, they think of the service too. An architect does the same, not just designing a building that functions but adding to the social context and environment around the building. Perhaps there is a reason to include these programmes in the development of large scale architectural projects.

[Hero Image by Matt Collamer on Unsplash]

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