When it comes to smart buildings- UI is not UX.

This article first appeared on Linkedin Pulse

If you think about the user journey of a commercial building- from commuting, arriving in the lobby, signing in, navigating, accessing the required floor, finding your host or colleagues, finding the right space for the right activity, putting your stuff in a locker and maybe ordering a coffee…. there is a whole bunch of user interfaces along the way. And this is the problem- UI overload.

I wrote earlier about how the native App is pretty much dead as this problem extends into all areas of life- too many apps creating too many user interfaces or even worse- notifications annoying us throughout the day. And in a building, not only does every system have it’s own app- there are also light switches, swipe readers, kiosks, touch panels and biometrics as additional user interfaces.

The missing part of all of this is User Experience design. A big part of the problem is all these various areas are isolated from each other- not just with technology but with process and ownership. Therefore, these problems can be solved by making small tweaks to the project management and roles and responsibilities. Let’s look at a few examples.

Tenants want more than what the building managers are offering

I recently had a meeting with one of the biggest tech companies in the world. I mention that not to boast but to point out how backwards building technology must be to a Silicon Valley company. They were planning for their new office and were frustrated with not having access to all the centrally managed elements of the building to include in their workplace solution. Elevators, secure access and other building services were simply not available to them. And the building managers didn’t seem to understand what the problem was. The elevator will have its own interface, you can use the bluetooth app for virtual building access cards and why do you even need to monitor the water quality?  

It got to the point where this tenant started building their own backdoors and workarounds. You say no to a company like this and they’ll simply use their tech resources to find a way. And their employees have allocated time to work on side projects- so this was a nice little challenge for the dev team.

What these developers discovered was something we also stumbled across at ACA: the building management systems and central building software is redundant. It’s basically unnecessary middleware that hasn’t changed for decades. Why not just bypass it and talk directly to the end-points?  And this is where the building managers and leasing companies get in the way. They just want to do what’s easy- use the systems they know- follow the same formula. It’s not an easy area to disrupt but conversely this makes it a soft target for disruption.

If you are interested in more of my thoughts on bypassing unnecessary middleware- the last part of my webinar (this link) covers that.

UX is not about technology- so don’t let your IT department lead the process

The  above example shows us that there is at least two big silos: the building and the tenancy. And this is why we might see multiple interfaces between the two. In the same vein, it’s also why there is double handling in other ways. For example- why do I have to sign in at the building reception- then do it again at the workplace. If we include security- sometimes we have  3 interactions before the host knows we are in the building. “Sorry I’m 10mins late- but I arrived 10 mins early!” There are many more silos we are challenged with across a smart building.

If we look at a single tenancy- a workplace- there are some consistent problems we see- and sometimes solve. I’ll lead with the solution: IT should not be making the technology purchasing decisions. A business unit should run this- with technical input from IT.

If you run everything through an IT decision process it will look something like this:

  • We need an x solution. EG we need a room booking solution

  • We’ll write the must haves and nice to haves requirements list.

  • We’ll get 4 products into a POC environment

  • They all have to pass our network and security audit first

  • Then we’ll tick off our requirements and the one with the highest score gets spec’d and we’ll put out an RFP to the vendors channel partners.

The problems this creates:

  • You are leading with a product: not thinking about the broader solution. If you scope the UX you might find you can solve this problem by removing technology- not adding tech. It's hard for IT to think like this. Also, you might be replacing something you already have with something that does the same thing. Sometimes the problem is not the tech- it’s the UX. And if you replace the tech to get the same UX- you are left with the same problem. This is fresh in mind for me as a common thing I hear is ‘we are not happy with our Condeco room booking panel- can you guys provide an alternative? Here is our requirements list based on what Condeco does”.

  • The must haves and nice to haves are immediately siloed to this one feature set: EG room booking. But how does it fit into a seamless UX with other elements of the building and workplace?  You are also just looking at what you have and asking how it could be a little better. Instead of discovering new opportunities to improve the UX or find new ways of working.

  • Network and security can be designed and scoped just like the UX. You should not rule out technology based on your assumptions from a POC. Instead you should work with the vendor or integrator to design the perfect balance of security and flexibility.

  • The scale of a POC is not an indication of real world performance. It is likely that products that scale well- find it hard to set up a small POC. And products that are aimed at small deployments do not scale well. And I've never seen a POC that is truely a production environment- so what is the value?

The IT selection process of running everything through a POC leads to selecting the wrong technology and 5 or 6 different technologies rather than a single integrated platform. The UX suffers greatly as each system has its own user interface.  This might be different systems with no integration across the following: visitor management, reception booking (room booking God-view, car space management, loan equipment and other requests), room booking panels, room finding maps, room availability reporting and room control. And this is just the rooms!

How do you scope UX across the building and tenancy?

The previous example shows how many siloed systems there can be in one tenancy basically just for rooms. But there’s even more silos to break through. These include kitchen, catering, desk finding/analytics, lockers, air quality (and other workplace wellness goals), retail and service integration, transport, media and digital signage, etc.. etc... . So how do we break through all these walls and help create a seamless UX? I think it is as simple as assigning someone to that role but first- scoping the UX effectively.

UX is not graphic design. The result of UX is your requirements list and IT's role is not to POC products- but to identify the integrations and dependencies needed to deliver the UX journey. You start the process by mapping all your types of users and building their personas. Why are they in the building? When/why are they not in the building? How do they meet/ collaborate What tasks do they perform?  How do they socialise? Do they live near the office? What are their fitness goals?

You then list all the spaces (assuming you have already gone through a process with Interior designer and know what spaces you need). Then for each persona you ask- what happens in this space… and this one when they are in it? And what is the journey from one space to another. Basically, how do they get to the building and what is every interaction with space throughout the day?

Finally, imagine everything is connected- what opportunities for workflow automation are there? i.e. can we replace the need for any user interaction and trigger actions automatically from data and/or profile information? Remove any double handling and aim for a single record or truth.

The main tip here is don’t just list every type of user and every type of space without thinking of the journey between spaces. Automate as many workflows as possible.

The UX scope will result in a long list of dependencies. At this stage it is important to have someone that sits across all the stakeholders to make sure the project can access all the required dependencies.  This will be across the three main areas of a smart workplace:

  1. Facilities / Real Estate

  2. IT

  3. People and culture.

Don’t get me wrong about my position on the  IT department. I’m not trying to undermine their value in the earlier sections of this post. I just think they need to focus on exactly that: their value. And that’s project related- not UX scoping. There is one project (my colleagues will know the one) that comes to mind where our client did not have an IT department. They are a real estate company so they tick box one and we had a number of stakeholders from HR so that’s box three. But two years later, and the job is still open. They had great ideas and scoped really cool user experiences but there was no one internally steering them to the right dependencies. And we were stuck trying to do something that was sometimes impossible because of fundamental IT problems.  

Some of our best work at ACA ,such as PwC, had all three areas above working closely together. If any one of those is missing from the mix it is, at the very least, a hard project to close off. And at worst- a failed project.

I’ll end with a list of easy to achieve workflow automation ideas if everything is connected to a single record of truth and a single automation platform.  But please let me know your own ideas!

  • Room booking: automatic workflow: Visitor management pre-population

If you invite external visitors via exchange/O365/Google/IBM Notes- then this should pass onto the visitor management system so reception can have a list of who’s coming today. This will speed up the sign-in process. We could of course automate a lot more but this is a good starting point.

  • Room booking: automatic workflow: Room Control

If you search for a room based on requirements- e.g. “I need a room with a TV,” the room should be able to automatically carry out a function related to those requirements like turning on the TV and initiating wireless sharing.

  • Room booking: automatic workflow: catering requests.

Most room catering in a workplace is simple- it shouldn’t require a seperate catering system. Map out all the possible catering rules and work out if you can just apply those as meta-data in your room booking. And if the room booking system is already tied to the email platform (exchange) you can use the service account to send requests to the kitchen.

  • Room Check In: automatic workflow: video conference dialling

Most conferencing end-points have great APIs. Including web-based platforms such as SfB. So if you have everything booked- the call should be up and running by the time both ends turn up to their space. Just walk in and start collaborating.

  • Visitor management: automatic workflow: car space allocation

Room booking, visitors and car space- could all be from one record of truth. Map your workflows between these three areas. Allocate car spaces, apply payment rules to different types of users (e.g. open the boom gate automatically for VIPs)

  • Visitor management: automatic workflow: building/floor/room access

If we go beyond just having a list of pre-populated visitors- we could email QR codes to external visitors and allow them temporary access to the building based around their booking.  Obviously consider your security options but we have allowed this for a number of projects.

  • Desk Finding: automatic workflow: Locker allocation and control

Find a desk- allocate a locker. Sounds simple but a lot of people run two seperate systems for this in a hot desking environment. Classic example of the problem I described in “UX is not about technology- so don’t let your IT department run the process. “

  • Desk Finding: automatic workflow: user preferences

Allow users to save their favourite preferences  to be triggered when they arrive at a desk or room. This could be desk height, lighting levels, climate and even favourite coffee order for different times of the day.

  • Locker booking: automatic workflow: laundry services

Maybe once a week you have it set to have laundry access your locker and take any washing to return at the end of the day. This can automatically charge your account and the system can provide temporary access to your locker- even if you change lockers every day. This could be used for any service. Basically a locker could be a personal PO box in your workplace.

  • Room booking: automatic workflow: transport timetable.

Most cities have a public API for transport timetable data. Could this be used in room booking rules- or to improve any other user experience?  

  • Coffee order: automatic workflow: payment processing

Have rules that decide when the company pays for catering (e.g. requires an external customer to be with the employee) and when to automatically charges any stored credit card the employee can add/manage.

  • Slack chat: automatic workflow: room booking and/or visitor management

If you use slack or similar you will find your employees almost live  there most of the day. So why make them use a different interface? Bots can allow for any feature provided by other user interface elements. e.g. “Hey @deskbot find me a space with a standing desk”

  • Friday Drinks: automatic workflow: vending machine control.

This is one we haven’t done. But is very easy with the right dependencies. We have been playing around with these new vending machines that can mix drinks and make cocktails. We have access to their control unit and can send commands from our triggers. Therefore- the input can be anything you can think of. A simple order page or how about this idea: our Chat Bot can recognise key words like “Friday” and “Drinks”. We can automate your Friday drinks booking in any room- and have your favourite drinks automatically dispensed from one of the smart vending machines. This is something we are going to set up at ACA. But vending machines in general are at a point where anyone could have their own Amazon Go like experience in their tenancy. Let me know if you have any ideas for smart vending machines in your workplace or smart building.


The Problem

  • There is currently user interface overload in a building and tenancy

  • This is due to silos between the tenant and building. And additional silos at the tenancy such as the workplace.

  • This is amplified by technology purchasing and scoping coming from IT.

  • This creates a product first approach- missing out on new opportunities to improve the UX by perhaps removing the product altogether.

  • It also leads to more of the same- “let’s replace one room booking system with another” when the underlying problem is the UX not the technology providing the UX.


  • Have business units and HR scope workplace features

  • Consider the journey between spaces. If this is a new fit-out or building- the Interior Architects would be all over this.

  • Aim for workflow automation and single records of truth.

  • Have IT identify all the integrations and dependencies required to deliver the desired user experience

Jon McFarlane.