UBC Life Building Experience — UX Case Study

Role: Project Owner & Designer
Position: Manager of Campus Experience & UBC Life, UBC

Table Of Contents

1 Challenge
2 — Research
3 — Planning & Design Strategy
4 — Design Highlights — A New Interior Vision
5 — Design Highlights — Eat Sleep Study Repeat
6 — Design Highlights — Space & Programming
7 — Design Highlights — Pain Pain Go Away
8 — Reflection
9 — Outcomes

1 Challenge

The recently renovated 20,000 sq.ft Old Student Union Building was underused, 5 million dollars over budget and felt unfinished. When the building opened, most of the public areas were underused; there was no buzz of activity and students reported that it ‘felt like an empty hospital’. It was a sterile-feeling building with bright lights, white walls and concrete floors, far from the vibrant student hub that was envisioned.

I was hired to research, design, recommend and implement interventions to bring the student resource building to life and turn it into the vibrant student hub it was imagined to be.

Known Constraints

  • No immediate funds available — implementation funding needed to be pitched for, supported by all three stakeholders, who then must go find funding from the larger Vice President portfolio.
  • Institutional Environment: risk averse, resistant to change, slow moving, committee-based, wrapped in bureaucratic red tape
Left: Largely unfinished south-side lounge Centre: Original youthful colouring book wall installation, students felt was ‘too young’ Right: Blank hallways

2 Research

Client Meetings
Reviewed historic project meeting minutes and vision statements prepared for architects. Worked with the stakeholder committee to understand the context of the project, its history and challenges. Worked with stakeholders to understand, question, draft and test an agreed-upon set of goals for the building.

User Research

  • User Interviews — 30 in person interviews with student users of the building
  • Power User Interviews — 10 in person interviews with, highly involved student club executives and campus leaders
  • Building Staff Interviews — 12 staff interviews including 6 unit directors and 6 less senior workers.
  • User Surveys In Person — 50 in person surveys completed
  • User Surveys Online — 50 Online surveys completed

Comparative Analysis, Observation and Contextual Inquiry

  • Site visits and and impromptu short interviews at loved and unloved student buildings on campus, to better understand what worked and didn’t work for students and why.
  • Online research of student resource buildings at other institutions.

3 Need Driven Design Strategy

After reviewing, aggregating and analyzing the research data with the client goals we arrived at the following design strategies.

  • Deinstitutionalize sterile feel and increase student flavour and sense of belonging to the look and feel of the building
  • Reclaim and carve purposeful ‘rooms’ out of unused larger spaces. Activate unused spaces with students from building open to close by providing a suite of solutions to various student user needs
  • Maximize seating/study/eating capacity to increase over all building user capacity.
  • Identify and communicate all building pain points — eliminate all glaring pain points that constraints will allow.


  • Without major funds available the reality is that we will not be able to make the building as beautiful as we would love to. However we will include recomendations for whenh
  • The majority of work will be focused on function, utility and significantly increasing use of the building.

In the next sections
The lightbulb marker denotes design decisions, implemented or recommended for implementation when more funding becomes available
The fruit marker denotes ideas that we considered low hanging fruit with large impact that we were able to prioritize, successfully fund and implement.

4 Design Highlights — A New Interior Vision

From ‘Science World, Hospital’ to ‘Lived-in, East-side, Study Cafe’

Needs — As previously mentioned students referred to the building as ‘sterile,’ ‘an empty warehouse,’ ‘institutional’ and ‘like a hospital.’ We also got strong feedback that the original and interior design elements felt too young for users: ‘we are in university not kindergarten’, ‘it sorta feels like empty science world in here’. Research regarding the places on campus that students loved to spend time and felt like they belonged in revealed a clear affinity to authentic, lived-in, often dimly lit and, in almost all cases, old spaces. Which is particularly interesting considering this was a 60 year old brick student building that was just stripped and drywalled from floor to ceiling with white walls and bright white LED lights and polished concrete floors . Outside of spaces on campus the most loved space to hangout and get work done in was hip and trendy-feeling coffee shops.

Solution — Reimagine the space as a giant, lived-in, east-side, community study cafe. One of the major constraints is that we were working with a limited budget. What if instead of working against the white walls, concrete floors and unfinished ceilings we used them to our advantage and embraced the feeling of a trendy cafe by introducing: art, wood, plants (yes artificial sorry) and as many study surfaces as possible to study and hangout in.

New Interior Vision: Mood Board Highlights

Supporting Design elements

Wood, Paint, Plants & Globe Lights Introduce affordable high volume, high impact design elements to bring the building vision to life. Secured funding to hire an architecture firm to design and recommend a plan to introduce these elements.

Partner With Vancouver Mural Festival to transform the white walls into a living and evolving art gallery. Successfully secured funding, approved and installed 8 murals inside the building.

Change Poster Policy to allow students to poster on the pillars inside the building. A simple, free and hugely impactful idea allowed the building to evolve and fill up over time with layers of student activities, parties, lectures and tutorial ads. While a little messy visually these artifacts of the community and student life add an overall sense of deserve student ownership to the entire building. Implemented.

A New Wood flooring Design to replace the functionally flawed (permanently stained and ripped after 4 months of use ) coloured science world carpets with attractive, durable and affordable wood vinyl that will cement the coffee shop vision and celebrate the remaining polished concrete. Secured funding for initial architecture firm drafts.

6 Design Highlights — Eat Sleep Study Repeat

Doubling Seating Capacity and Daily Building Use

Need — “I just need somewhere to sit down.” “The Libraries and the SUB are always full” “I want to study and eat somewhere where I am allowed to put my feet up and be a student.” “And! where we don’t have to buy something to not get kicked out.” The student population of UBC grows every year, in fact has doubled since the year 2000; however libraries and study space remain much the same as it was 20 years ago. Seating and study space was the single biggest need that emerged from user research. It was also very simple to fix, and provides more utility to students for dollar spent in terms of time used than any other need mentioned. We tested this by temporally setting up 10 tables and 40 chairs borrowed from the meeting rooms in an unused area of the main concourse. The tables were full almost immediately and remained full for the rest of the week.

Solution — If we achieve nothing else but significantly increase study seating in the building we will dramatically increase utility of the overall building for students, increasing the effective usable capacity (number of students who can use the building at once) and increasing overall daily building visits.

Eastside Lounge Redesign
Need —
 One of the largest and glaring under-utilized spaces in the building was a 100 x 50 ft block of space near the food outlets. There were 10 round tables and 2 long counter height tables placed in a T using up about only 40% of the total available floor space. The space looked unfinished and, without a clear repeatable pattern or theme, the limited furniture looked random. One of the biggest successes of the original design was the use of benches and long harvest style tables in the adjacent lounge. Along with the attractive visual uniformity, they afford users the ability and expectation of sitting next to strangers maximizing the available seating capacity. Benches also allow groups who do know each other to squeeze in more and more friends as they arrive, maximizing total seating use. One of the downsides of independent tables and booths is that once a single person has occupied the space, it feels uncomfortable for a stranger to share the table and pull up another chair, leaving the other 3/4 seats unused. The independently arranged tables at the neighbouring building don’t fill more than 60% of total seats during peak times during lunch.

Solution — ‘If it’s not broken don’t fix it’ — because this worked so well in the SouthSide lounge, we duplicated it in the EastSide lounge. 🍒 We secured funding and added another 80 study and eating spaces. We were also able to have the counter height tables cut down in height to save costs and use all of the existing furniture in the new seating plan.

💡 Reclaiming Hallways with Study Booths (+78)
 — Not all seating and study space is created equal — Students reported in large numbers that while the long tables were great for eating, hanging out and short 1–2 hour study sessions they weren’t as ideal for long-hall studying because they weren’t as comfortable and didn’t have back support. This underlined a need for a diversity of seating options for different purposes.

Solution — One of brilliant ideas that came out of competitive analysis of other successful student buildings was to use booths to maximize floor space in hallways. Hallways make up a significant amount of under-utilized square footage but also aren’t able house harvest style seating since it must be flush with the wall. Where a row of desk seating facing the wall maximizes capacity, sitting with your back to traffic, exposed in the middle busy hallway is a poor experience. Facing booths however allow the same total seats if they are 2 seats deep (4 seats total) and also afford a number of adored and helpful features and uses. They provide a safe, cozy, temporary home for groups of friends to setup on long haul study sessions.

They also afford temporary student ownership of the booth that contributes to overall sense of belonging in the building; the difference between visiting and setting up camp. When students setup a home base for the day or evening friends come and go, some stopping to say hi, others join to sit and eat lunch and others come and study, then leave for class and return to their base camp to study some more. 🍒 We were able to secure funding for 7 initial booths (28 additional stations) filling one section of the hallway making the case for 2 more wall section of booths (another 50 stations) once more funding is available.

💡 Expectation Setting and Optimizing Staff Meetings Rooms (+50)
Need — Students were frustrated that they weren’t allowed to study in what looked to them like an empty student study room, similar to what is available in the libraries; a problem of expectations. They were frustrated even more when they tried to open the door and found out it was locked. However these meeting rooms were actually allocated to the three staff units working the main floor, and considered limited compared to what they had in their previous offices.

Solution — 🍒When signage was added to the rooms we recommended that rooms read “Staff Meeting Rooms’ as opposed to ‘Meeting Rooms’ to solving the disappointment and frustration that arose when users’ expectations didn’t match. The staff meetings rooms are staff card access only and completely empty in the evenings. 🍒 By recommending and successfully implementing that the doors auto-unlock at the end of the work day, we were able to add another 50 seats to the building for evening studying from 5pm-1am at no additional cost.

5 Design Highlights — Space & Programming

Reimagining spaces to solve complex student needs to activate the building

💡Clubhouse & Coworking Space: Wework For Student Initiatives
 — Students reported the building felt more like a staff building than a student building. Imagining the space as a “student hub’ and ‘student focused building’ was a clear direction expressed by the stake holder committee. When compared to other successful student buildings and spaces that students reported they felt at home in, a major missing piece was student ownership and authorship. Other spaces typically had some form of student club office associated with the space. In this case there were 5 staff units working in the building and no student organizations. Two other spaces on campus came up in user research and comparative analysis: one is a startup incubator space, the other is the student engagement office. Both spaces have student initiatives formally connected to the space combined with physical work space that combines permanent formal offices with open format coworking space.

Solution — UBC Garage & Coworking Space formally connects student leaders with the building, actively involving students as co-authors and co-owners of the space. The office and coworking space anchor student leaders, their members and friends in the building. Students will know they can head to the life building between class and bet on finding someone they know. And the coworking space adds another 54 work stations activating an under-utilized area of the main concourse and increasing overall daily building use. We tested the concept and different floor layouts with semi-permanent event rental tables and chairs, within a week the space was known and packed with students. We piloted the shared clubhouse with 7 initial student initiatives.

💡 The Eastside Stage — low barrier flexible performance space
 — One of the known needs that came from students that organize events was more, low barrier space to host events. When the building was renovated it lost 2 major event spaces and performance spaces.

Solution — While working on floor plans to add more seating and study capacity we introduced the idea of adding a permanent stage to the room allowing the study/eating hall to become flexible performance and event space in the evening. We installed a permanent curtain to frame the centre windows leveraging the row of structural pillars to frame the space. The curtains can be easily drawn closed to create a cabaret stage experience for open mic night and comedy. And we purchased a set of dollies to allow the tables to be wheeled out of the way for larger standing events and concerts. The lowest use of the building is on Friday and Saturday nights when students are typically being social or taking a break from studying. Repurposing the space during these hours even further increases use and the diversity of needs the building serves.

6 Design Highlights — Pain Pain Go Away

Eliminating Low Hanging Pain Points

Resigned Room Numbering navigation system
Need — 
After the renovation, the legacy room numbers no longer made sense to the building users and staff members that we interviewed. They were based on old rooms and hallways that no longer existed with the new floor plan. This made it difficult for users to spot a pattern that would be helpful in predicting where you might find another room based on where you were currently located.

Solution — I designed and tested a new room numbering system based on the major service centres and office suites and the new circular building layout. The new system used 1100, 1200, 1300… to identify the 9 major service centres and resources in a clockwise pattern around the interior building circuit. Office and meeting rooms within the larger office suites and resources used numbers 1101, 1102, 1103… to identify and navigate to smaller rooms within or linked to the same resource. 🍒 After testing and installing the new system we received positive feedback from staff, student users and the on campus mail delivery service.

💡 A unified ‘UBC Life’ communications brand across UBC
Need — 
A visual brand for the UBC Life building was created by the architecture firm contracted for building signage however there wasn’t enough coordination with other campus departments. “UBC Life” was intended, in the future, to be used as a broader student facing communications brand linking together a number of student services. While the proposed architectural UBC life building logo was attractive it felt unconnected to institutional UBC branding, didn’t scale for digital use, and didn’t have buy-in from the Student Communications department already working on other instances where “UBC Life” would be incorporated. For building users it wasn’t obvious if the building was a UBC institution-backed resource or an extension of the AMS-backed student nest (the new student union building next door. These optics were important because UBC wanted students to understand the building was part of larger efforts to support student needs on campus.

Solution — 🍒We worked in direct collaboration with the Student Communications department to research and co-direct the creation of a UBC Life visual identity that could be used for their digital needs and that also clearly identified and linked the building as a connected institutionally backed resource.

💡Communicating interior changes on the unchanged exterior
Need — 
The interior of the building underwent major changes but these weren’t obvious to passersby when looking at the unchanged original concrete exterior. Solution — 🍒 I designed and installed a low-cost exterior branding package with the new brand identity that could be funded immediately. The print branding and window vinyl leveraged the blue colour that had been added to the exterior facets of the building. They were intended to draw attention to the colour and frame the entrance to create an overall greater sense of arrival and draw more attention to the new paint.

💡Brand New Stained Lounge Furniture
Need — 
Four months after installing the initial lounge furniture they became significantly stained from coffee and food spills. We identified part of the problem: users were placing their coffee cups and food on the cushions of the lounge furniture and inevitably spilling because there were no surfaces, coffee tables, end tables, etc. ordered with the lounge furniture.
Solution Part 1 — 🍒 While pitching for funding for additional furniture we included purchasing and refitting additional coffee tables to solve this problem for users eating their lunch.
Solution Part 2 — 🍒 The initial furniture was upholstered with a soft absorbent fabric. Spills were immediately absorbed into the fabric staining the furniture. We also approved funding to reupholster the initial furniture with attractive and durable, non-permeable, wipeable coverings that were better able to withstand the heavy use while the added eating surfaces, reduced the frequency of future spills.


  • Tripped daily users in the building
  • Doubled study seating capacity
  • Busiest Starbucks in Canada
  • Busiest Subway in Western Canada

7 Reflection

Incorporating Human Centred Design into Architecture and Interior Design

While getting acquainted with this project it quickly became clear to me that there wasn’t enough emphasis on human centred design or thinking from the end user’s perspective. From unusable knee depth of the lounge furniture, to the lack of eating surfaces to the lack of power outlets for studying students — many of the trouble spots of this project’s decision making could have been quickly and easily avoided by the talented experts working on the project if they had incorporated simple elements of human centred design into their planning process.

  • Ordering a piece of sample furniture and testing it by sitting on the furniture for a moment would have revealed the attractive and modern blocky look unfortunately meant that the knee depth was 4–8 inches too long making it impossible to sit on the chair with feet on ground and back against the rest unless the user is 6’4″
  • A short journey mapping exercise or walkthrough, acting out the experience of coming to the life building for lunch, would have quickly revealed a missing element: imagining sitting and putting down one’s food/coffee, one would immediately realize eating surfaces were missing from the lounge furniture plan.
  • As few as three quick user interviews asking students to answer “Tell me about studying on campus? What works, what doesn’t work, what frustrates you?” would have immediately prompted the obvious need to include power outlets at all study stations.

When decision makers aren’t the users:
This is the classic recipe for less than ideal user experience outcomes. In this case we had a combination of talented contractors and a committee of smart executive stakeholders. The problem is that all of the decision makers and contractors averaged 50 years old and none had been a university student in 2017. As a result they weren’t always able to make the best decisions for the intended users and our users got a product that didn’t quite work for them.

It’s really hard to buy or design skis for your daughter for Christmas if you don’t ski. You would never make a purchase without consulting and including your daughter in the process: discussing the type of skiing and experience level to uncover specific needs, and trying them on first to test that they fit and work properly.

The magnitude of public building projects underlines the importance of including users in the design process. Especially when considering function based buildings such as a University resource building or a hospital, it seems like there is a dangerous desire to build something especially unique and beautiful that might win architectural awards at the expense of the utility of the building. For purpose built public buildings of this nature there is a strong argument for bringing the user experience process into the greater architectural design process. Including users in the planning, design and testing process rather than guessing what they might need or want is the only way to guarantee decision making leads to a product that meets the intended needs for users.

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