The Timeless Way of Building Software, Part 1: User Experience and Flow

The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander [1] was exciting. As I read it, I kept making parallels between building/town design and software design.

Architecture

We’re not talking any kind of architecture here. The whole point of the book is to explain a theory of “living” buildings. They are designed and developed in a way that is more like nature in many ways—iterative, embracing change, flexibility, and repair.

Design is recognized not as the act of some person making a blueprint—it’s a process that’s tied into construction itself. Alexander’s method is to use a language of patterns to generate an architecture that is appropriate for its context. It will be unique, yet share many patterns with other human-used architectures.

This architecture theory includes a concept of the Quality Without a Name. And this is achieved in buildings/towns in a way that is more organic than the popular ways (of course there are exceptions and partially “living” modern architectures).

User Experience

Humans are involved in every step. Although patterns are shared, each building has its own appropriate language which uses only certain patterns and puts them in a particular order. The entire design and building process serves human nature in general, and specifically how humans will use this particular building and site. Is that starting to stir up notions of usability or user-centered design in your mind?

And emotion is heavily involved too. The quality has no name. But the logical process takes that into account. Good patterns are acknowledged based on human experience of implementations of that pattern. The use of a building or town takes into account how people feel, and how they experience it.

Even the design takes into account the imagined experience, and should in fact be done on the actual property with the customers and users [2]:

Dr. Ryan told us, after his clinic was built, that this one week he spent with us, shaping the building, was the most important week he had spent in five years—-the week in which he had felt most alive.

Now, years later, seeing the building made real—-even though he has since moved—-he remembers that week, standing in the fog, making chalk marks on the ground as we laid the building out, talking about hte place for the entrance, the place for the greenhouse, the places where people could sit, the fountain, the small gardens, the rooms, the arcades…

This sounds to me like stuff that would fall under the user experience (UX) umbrella. I consider UX to be a larger umbrella than Interaction Design (IxD), with IxD and marketing and some other stuff all underneath UX.

The disciplines of User Experience and Interaction Design normally operate in the context of computer interfaces (such as websites, apps, display/button panels on devices, etc.). But just the names themselves allow one to imagine an easy mapping to other domains like architecture and urban development. And this Timeless Way philosophy seems to resonate deeply with the philosophy of User-Centered Design and the various overlapping UX philosophies, at least as I interpret the current state of things.

Flow

The Timeless Way uses patterns. Equally important, these patterns are structured in a “language.”

And that language should flow through the architect’s mind—and the architect could be anybody really.

I still remember the first time I used a pattern language in this way. I found myself so completely caught up in the process that I was trembling. A handful of simple statements made it possible for my mind to flow out and open, through them—-and yet, although the house which came was made by me, born of my feelings, it was at the same time as though the house became real, almost by itself, of its own volition, through my thoughts.

It is a fearsome thing, like diving into water. And yet it is exhilarating—-because you aren’t controlling it. You are only the medium in which the patterns come to life, and of their own accord give birth to something new. [3]

Hopefully that quote is inspiring. In regards to “You are only the medium…” I think it’s important to realize that the individual probably must oscillate between various kinds of cognitive states. In psychological flow [4], one perhaps has less sense of self, so you might say they are “a medium” for a time. There’s certainly still a lot of cognition going on though, even if you have lost a sense of self.

The quote by Alexander above reminds of the feeling when one is in the flow of writing a piece of fiction—you are in control, and maybe even plotted the fictional future out, and yet the characters and dialogues take on a life of their own and seem to write themselves through your hands. I suspect that is a similar feeling.

I have written a lot of code and made robots in flow states. To me, engineering and art and writing are all very similar—they are all acts of creations. It’s quite a thrill, being a god of some arbitrary tiny domain for a short while.

Comparing flow of architecture building with writing and robotics is quite interesting to me. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s possible to integrate Timeless Way style patterns for latter two.

A Question (No Conclusion)

Certainly patterns are well known in software development and certain UX subdisciplines like UI design, but are there the kinds of patterns and structures that could lead to Timeless Way style pattern languages?

References

 

  1. Alexander, Christopher, The Timeless Way of Building. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  2. Ibid, p. 453.
  3. Ibid, p. 426.
  4. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

 

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