What I love about my phone (and where most urban spaces fall short)

In the world of design, the term “user experience” or UX, has become synonymous with products, devices, and websites that are not just functional but also pleasurable to use. It’s a term that has bridged sectors, but lives primarily in digital interface design. This blog post explores how the UX design principles that catapulted devices like the iPhone to worldwide acclaim can be adapted to enhance urban design.

The iPhone: A Testament to User Experience Design

When the first iPhone was unveiled, it was not merely a new gadget; it was a groundbreaking redefinition of what a phone could be. Its development was a meticulous orchestration of technology, aesthetics, and deep understanding of user needs—achieved through innovative design thinking. Over the years, each iteration of the iPhone has not only introduced new features but also refined the user experience. From the touch screen of the first generation to the advanced camera systems of the latest models, each component was designed with the end-user in mind. The iPhone’s usability breakthroughs, such as the intuitive interface, accessibility features, and seamless integration with a broader ecosystem, all serve to create an emotional connection with users that goes beyond the device itself.

My question is: Do we think the same attention to user interface is being paid to urban environments?

UX Principles in Urban Design

The historical roots of UX design can be traced back to the mid-20th century, with the emergence of human factors engineering and ergonomics. In the 1970s and 1980s, the field expanded with the advent of personal computing, giving rise to usability engineering. Pioneers like Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen played crucial roles in shaping the discipline, emphasizing the importance of user-centered design. The term “user experience” gained prominence in the 1990s, and companies like Apple became notable for prioritizing the overall user journey. Today, UX design has evolved into a multidisciplinary field, encompassing psychology, design thinking, and technology, with a continuous focus on enhancing user satisfaction and usability across various digital and physical interfaces.

Here’s a simplified list of core design principles used in UX design, with my thoughts on how urban designers could be putting them into their own practice.

The pictures are all from a project I’m proud to say I played a role in: Hemisfair in San Antonio, which opened Phase 2 in October.

1. Prioritizing the User:

  • UX Application: Practitioners of UX design center their design process on users by researching their needs, goals, and pain points. Creating personas based on real user data informs design decisions that align with user preferences.
  • Urban Design Application: Utilize data-driven insights to understand the diverse needs, preferences, and behaviors of city dwellers. Create personas based on real urban data to inform the design of public space and amenities that resonate with the city’s unique demographics. Don’t design for the “average user!”
Prioritizing the user: Hemisfair’s Yanaguana Garden, San Antonio

2. Put Usability First:

  • UX Application: Usability is integral to user experience and contributes to the long-term success of a product. UX designers conduct extensive usability testing to ensure users can perform tasks accurately and efficiently.
  • Urban Design Application: Create legible urban spaces with clear function. Design them as behavior settings that are intuitively easy to use. Conduct usability testing by observing and analyzing existing behaviors and pedestrian flows. Use tactical experiments in the short term to test concepts and refine the design for optimal functionality. Give every urban space a defined purpose that is customized for you users!
Usability first: Hemisfair’s Civic Park in San Antonio
Usability first: Hemisfair’s Civic Park in San Antonio

3. Strive for Consistency:

  • UX Application: While creativity is tempting, consistency is crucial in UX design. Users prefer familiarity, so designers align their work with common patterns and interactions. Consistency enhances usability and learnability, making your product more intuitive.
  • Urban Design Application: Establish a consistent urban experience by aligning design elements with familiar human patterns. Incorporate affordances in the form of public amenities to accommodate people comfortably. Offer regular programming on a consistent schedule to encourage people to form a habit of using the space.
Consistency: Hemisfair's Yanaguana Garden, San Antonio
Consistency: Hemisfair’s Yanaguana Garden, San Antonio

4. Implement Visual Hierarchy:

  • UX Application: Utilize visual design principles like scale, color, and contrast to establish a clear hierarchy. A well-defined visual hierarchy guides users, reduces friction points, and enhances overall usability.
  • Urban Design Application: Utilize scale, color, and contrast in architecture and urban elements to highlight important landmarks, pathways, and destinations. A well-defined visual hierarchy enhances wayfinding and improves overall legibility.
Visual Hierarchy in Hemisfair's Yanaguana Garden, San Antonio
Visual Hierarchy in Hemisfair’s Yanaguana Garden, San Antonio

5. Empower User Control:

  • UX Application: Great UX design provides users with freedom and control. Allow users to correct mistakes, backtrack, and undo actions. Providing control improves the overall user experience.
  • Urban Design Application: Design urban environments that empower citizens with control over their surroundings. Incorporate interactive elements such as movable furniture, interactive art. Allow citizens the opportunity to influence and adapt the space, fostering a sense of ownership and satisfaction.
Empowering User Control at Hemisfair's Civic Park, San Antonio
Empowering User Control at Hemisfair’s Civic Park, San Antonio

6. Design for Accessibility:

  • UX Application: Consider accessibility for users with various needs, including physical, visual, auditory, or cognitive. Follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to ensure your product is inclusive and usable by a diverse audience.
  • Urban Design Application: Prioritize inclusivity in urban design by considering the diverse needs of citizens. Follow accessibility guidelines to ensure that urban spaces are accessible to people of all abilities. Designing for accessibility not only benefits specific groups but enhances the overall urban experience for everyone.
Design for Accessibility, Hemisfair's Civic Park, San Antonio
Design for Accessibility, Hemisfair’s Civic Park, San Antonio


The relationship between UX design, urban design, and experience design lies in their shared emphasis on understanding users, their behaviors, and creating solutions that resonate with their needs. Incorporating UX design principles in urban planning and design enriches the overall journey through the city, fostering a deeper emotional connection and creating places that are not only functional but also emotionally resonant and memorable.

#urbandesign #placemaking #urbanplanning #experiencedesign #UXdesign #publicspace #Hemisfair

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About Phil Myrick

Phil Myrick is an advisor to planning and development projects around the world and former CEO of Project for Public Spaces. Phil applies research into how people interact with their environments and each other to create vibrant places, destinations, districts, and developments. His strategic advice has helped his clients achieve their goals of attracting people, engaging people in their community, strengthening connections and social fabric, and stimulating economic development. Phil is married with two teenagers and struggles to satisfy his passion for being outdoors or on the water. https://philmyrick.com

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