Study-#1 Results: Eye Tracking Public Architecture

by Ann Sussman, RA + Hernan Rosas

The results are in for Study #1: Eye Tracking Public Architecture. How do people look at these buildings? What immediately draws their eye? Do some buildings make people feel happy and others less so? How does architecture enhance or degrade the public realm?

Researchers at theHapi.org ask these kinds of questions and use state-of-the-art biometric tools to help answer them. This summer, the nonprofit invited participants to take part in a series of studies using iMotions-online eye-tracking software, to learn how we actually look at buildings, exploring both our conscious and non-conscious, or subliminal behavior.

BuildingStudy#1 used images from a 2020 Harris Poll, originally put together by the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), which paired traditional and modern civic buildings and asked: “Which of these two buildings would you prefer for a U.S. courthouse or federal office building?”

Over 2,000 Americans took part in the poll, conducted online, and the answer came back that nearly three-quarters of participants (72%), across political, gender and socio-economic lines, preferred traditional architecture for U.S. courthouses and federal office buildings. Could the survey possibly reflect biological biases that are hardwired in us – as innate as our need for water and air?

Employing the same paired images as in the survey, theHapi.org, used eye tracking to reveal how people actually take in the images. Eye tracking is a key biometric tool that follows non-conscious and conscious eye movements. Frequently used by marketers since the 1980s to better understand and predict consumer behavior, when applied to architecture, eye tracking lets us forecast human behavior in the built-environment, including how quickly people will find a front door, or whether they spend time gazing at a facade. It can even predict which buildings people will easily walk towards, and which they ignore.

For the biometric study of the Harris Poll, also conducted online, using iMotions software, 62 participants looked at the same images on laptops, using web-cams to follow their eye movements taking in each scene on screen in brief, 12-second, intervals.

Here are the findings – the original study images appear first with the colorful eye-tracking results below them:

Pair #1

Eye-tracking data is collected and aggregated to form heat maps which glow reddest where people look most, and fade to yellow, then green, and finally, no color at all, in areas ignored. Note above how the reddest and largest heat map falls on the traditional building, the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building, (EPA headquarters) in Washington DC (at right). The modern, Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, at left, also in Washington DC (HUD headquarters), did not draw the eye the same way; people barely focused on any of it.

And that was the remarkable, and remarkably consistent, finding this eye-tracking pilot-study revealed; no matter where the buildings were in the U.S., traditional civic architecture consistently drew viewer attention and focus while modern-style counterparts did not.

For instance, in the pair below, the Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse (at right) in Cleveland, Ohio, clearly captured attention; we see how much of the building’s facade glows bright red. While, in contrast, the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse, in Phoenix, Arizona, (at left) barely has any strong red hotspots.

Pair #3

The same thing happens with the U.S. Courthouse in Toledo, Ohio, below left, and its modern counterpart, the Hansen Federal Building, at right, in Ogden, Utah:

Pair #4

Even more so! Note how the modern-style building barely generates a single red dot; this indicates the brain did not direct people to focus on it, and they didn’t! With its repetitive parallel lines, it is systematically ignored and always will be.

These kinds of eye-tracking studies matter and suggest how biometric tools are critical not only for advertising but for assessing architecture – because they show how the human response to visual stimuli happens. Design is about interaction, and with biometrics, we literally ‘see’ how the interaction starts and how different cues prompt very different results. These studies let us piece together and predict behavior in the built environment and help us understand the 2020 Harris Poll findings too.

We can theorize that people tended to favor the civic buildings they most easily could look at; people tended not to favor buildings that didn’t draw their eye and that they could not readily focus or fixate on.

“When you know the mechanism, you can use that understanding in countless ways to drastically improve the human condition,” notes author and MD, Nadine Burke Harris. “That is how you spark a revolution. You shift the frame, you change the lens, and all at once the world is revealed, and nothing is the same.” (The Deepest Well, 2018)

Indeed, this is what we can now do in our time, known as a new Age of Biology, by understanding ourselves better, honor innate human predispositions that acknowledge our subliminal need to connect to our surroundings, and in so doing build better places for people. For in the end, making urban spaces and places that both respect and reflect our biology will make for a happier and healthier public realm. What could be a better goal for our time?

After all, as Francis Bacon, the reknown 17th-century English philosopher, noted:

‘We cannot command nature except by obeying her.’

Isn’t it time to follow the wisdom?

###

Here are the four remaining eye-tracked Harris Poll results: 

Pair #5 compared the Frank M. Scarlett Federal Building, in Brunswich, Georgia, at left, with the U.S. Court House, in Waco, Texas, right.

Pair #6 paired the Martin V. B. Bostetter, Jr. U.S. Court House, in Alexandria, Virginia, at left, with the U.S. Courthouse in Newport New, Virginia, at right.

Pair #2 displayed the National Archives Building, in Washington DC, at left with the Hubert H. Humphrey Building (HHS HQ), also in Washington DC, at right.

Pair #7 showed the Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House, in Louisville, Kentucky, at left, and the Hammond Federal Courthouse, in Hammond, Indiana, at right.

All original paired images ©National Civic Art Society (NCAS); All heat maps ©theHapi.org

Links to recent articles further revealing how human perception of architecture and urban planning happens include:

  • Many posts on GeneticsofDesign.com

And, finally, if you are interested in taking part in future Biometric-Building Studies, do check out:

BuildingStudy#2 – it is still up; your participation will help reframe our understanding of Architecture and how it impacts people.

#2 Link:

https://my.imotions.com/collect/v108/#s/ea769cdc-e215-4cfa-8de2-1f603063d191?iMotionsLocale=en-US

Other on-going BuildingStudies, #3-#5, are here:

We hope to have their results out soon.

Questions: email Contact(at)theHapi.org

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Ux+Design/2023 – Call for Proposals: 2nd International Conference on Urban Experience and Design                                                                              

CALL FOR PROPOSALS:

On April 28, 2023, Tufts University and the Human Architecture + Planning Institute, Inc (theHapi.org) will host the 2nd International Conference on Urban Experience + DesignUx+Design/2023. Researchers, scholars, architects, planners, designers and students, are all invited to submit proposals for presentations. The conference will take place at Tufts University, located just outside Boston, Massachusetts, and builds on the success of The 1st International Conference on Urban Experience and Design in 2019. 

Speakers will explore the implications of ‘embodied cognition’, cognitive architecture, biology, and evolution, as well as new research methods and techniques for using biometrics in urban planning, architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture. The first Ux+Design/2019 conference attracted speakers from across the globe and papers were published in the 2021 book: Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm.  

Today, the design professions and their academic counterparts find themselves in the midst of a historic transition, which in a first, provides a scientific foundation for their disciplines. Neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and psychology, coupled with powerful new biometric tools able to measure the human experience of place, provide new information and methods for understanding, creating and assessing architecture and urban spaces.

This conference will bring together creative thinkers from around the world who are advancing knowledge in these areas, helping to shape a new kind of design practice, one that embraces the unconscious responses we have to external stimuli and is evidence-based.

We welcome proposal submissions (abstracts between 200-350 words) that succinctly explain the specific problem you are exploring, the questions you are asking in your research, methods, data, results, and implications for urban experience and design theory and practice.  Include your name, email address, and present affiliation.  Abstracts are due October 15, 2022.  Notifications will be made on November 1, 2022 and 15-20 page papers will be due by March 15, 2023.   

Email abstracts to: Prof. Justin Hollander, justin.hollander(at)tufts.edu.

Conference hosts: 

Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University, Somerville, MA, USA

the Human Architecture + Planning Institute, theHapi.org, Concord, MA, USA

©Becky Chen, geneticofdesign.com

For information on images above, check out: https://geneticsofdesign.com/2020/07/18/the-case-against-all-glass-facades/

?s: email contact (at) theHapi.org

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Take part in theHapi.org’s Building Studies #2-#5, using eye tracking – before we take them down!

Anyone with a laptop or PC with webcam can sign in; on a Mac, link to it from Google Chrome or Firefox (and it’s best to do so in a quiet space with minimal distraction.)

Here are the links – check them out before we take them down:

Building Study #1: (taken down 8/4/2022; results out soon!)

https://my.imotions.com/collect/v105/#s/08436aa3-324e-4d32-818c-166e77dfea6b?iMotionsLocale=en-US

The studies below are up:

Building Study #2:

https://my.imotions.com/collect/v108/#s/ea769cdc-e215-4cfa-8de2-1f603063d191?iMotionsLocale=en-US

Building Study #3:

https://my.imotions.com/collect/v108/#s/152c1e7e-20a8-4628-9084-e17d9036e2e5?iMotionsLocale=en-US

Building Study #4:

https://my.imotions.com/collect/v109/#s/409af02a-27cd-436a-986e-8c64d935b5aa?iMotionsLocale=en-US

Building Study #5:

https://my.imotions.com/collect/v109/#s/7ce0d33b-c461-421e-973f-c4654307e88a?iMotionsLocale=en-US

These studies use state-of-the-art eye-tracking and facial-expression-analysis software from iMotions.com, a global purveyor of biometric tools for human behavioral research. Once on site, the studies first direct you to eye-tracking calibration slides – where you simply focus on a shape as it moves across the screen – before image viewing begins; the studies take about 3-to-4 minutes each. Each also concludes with a brief series of calibration slides. And then takes a minute-or-two to upload data collected.

theHapi.org hopes to be able to share results next month; And feel free to reach out if you have any questions or other concerns; email: contact@theHapi.org

More info on these biometric Building Studies, sponsored by theHapi.org and GeneticsofDesign.com, here:

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Take part in theHapi.org’s Building Studies #2 + #3, using the latest biometrics to understand how we ‘see’ buildings!

Anyone with a laptop or PC with webcam can sign in; on a Mac, link to it from Google Chrome or Firefox (and it’s best to do so in a quiet space with minimal distraction.)

Here are the links:

Building Study #2:

https://my.imotions.com/collect/v108/#s/ea769cdc-e215-4cfa-8de2-1f603063d191?iMotionsLocale=en-US

Building Study #3, which includes brief videos:

https://my.imotions.com/collect/v108/#s/152c1e7e-20a8-4628-9084-e17d9036e2e5?iMotionsLocale=en-US

These studies use state-of-the-art eye-tracking and facial-expression-analysis software from iMotions.com, a leading purveyor of biometric tools for human behavioral research. Once on site, the studies first direct you to eye-tracking calibration slides – where you simply focus on a shape as it moves across the screen – before image viewing begins; the studies take about 3-to-4 minutes each. Each also concludes with a brief series of calibration slides.

theHapi.org hopes to be able to share results next month – stay tuned! And feel free to reach out if you have any questions or other concerns; email: contact@theHapi.org

More info on these biometric Building Studies here:

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Call for Participants: Take part in theHapi.org’s Building Studies – Online!

How do people look at buildings? What immediately draws their eye; do some buildings make people feel happy – and others sad?

Researchers at theHapi.org (the Human Architecture + Planning Institute Inc) ask these kind of questions and use state-of-the-art eye-tracking software to answer them. This month, the nonprofit’s inviting participants to take part in a series of studies using iMotions-online software, to track how we actually look at buildings exploring both our conscious and subliminal responses. The project starts with this 4-minute Building Study#1 – now online!

All are welcome to take part, simply click on link below:

https://my.imotions.com/collect/v105/#s/08436aa3-324e-4d32-818c-166e77dfea6b?iMotionsLocale=en-US

Anyone with a laptop or PC with webcam, can sign in; on a Mac, link to it from Google Chrome or Firefox (and it’s best to do so in a quiet space with minimal distraction.)

theHapi.org’s Building Studies investigate the way that humans actually interact with buildings – moving beyond aesthetic opinion – to collect biometric proof about why and how humans respond the way we do to built environments, establishing criteria for building better places, and improving our health and well-being in the public realm.

For, as Dr. Claudia Miller, of the University of Texas School of Medicine has famously stated: “Architects have a greater ability to improve public health than medical professionals.” We think so too, and believe this important research establishes the metrics for doing so.

If you’re interested in learning more, or have ideas for a study or collaboration, feel free to reach out to theHapi.org. The email: contact@theHapi.org

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How Do We See the World? Like the Animals We Are!

Eye-tracking Times Square, NYC, creates ‘heatmaps’ which glow red where people look most ©iMotions.com

State-of-the-art biosensors, including eye tracking and facial expression analysis software, help us confront something not always considered – our intrinsic animal nature – and how it directs our behavior subliminally much more than most realize.

When applied to understanding our experience of the built environment, these game-changing technologies let us ‘see’ the unseen, breaking down how our interaction with environments happen. They reveal the hidden mechanisms driving our experience, making us understand why we find some places stressful and intrinsically avoid them, while sense others as the opposite, inviting and approachable.

…”When you know the mechanism, you can use that understanding in countless ways to drastically improve the human condition,” explains Nadine Burke Harris, MD, in her remarkable book on human behavior. “That is how you spark a revolution. You shift the frame, you change the lens, and all at once the world is revealed, and nothing is the same.”

Interested in learning more about this revolution or join? Check out this free podcast on exploring Architecture with iMotions, on April 28th, 2022:

https://imotions.com/blog/human-architecture-dynamic/

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How Faces Make Places – Scotland

Our forthcoming book, Face-i-tecture, How Faces Make Places, shows the power of face-like facades to win us over—worldwide. Up first, a trip to the Scottish Highlands, a cool, wet destination, where finding shelter becomes important after a day-long hike. Far from the bustle of Edinburg or Glasgow, visitors find it here in “bothies” which are unlocked huts, open to all, free of charge – like the one below.

Note this bothy’s welcoming ‘face’; you can easily ‘see’ its windows as eyes, the door, a nose and the steps, perhaps, as a mouth.

Run the photo through 3M’s Visual Attention Software (VAS), a biometric tool that approximates where people look at-first-glance, or in the first 3-to-5 seconds, and you start to see our animal nature at work. VAS predicts how we take things in subliminally, before conscious-viewing comes online, creating images where people look, called Visual Sequence Diagrams that track first, second, third and fourth fixations or focal points:

Note how the symmetrical windows draw us in immediately, then the building edge and roof line. And what happens if the bothy loses the eye-like windows? We Photoshopped them out to see – and learned fast:

The building becomes less welcoming. We simply can’t look at it the same way. The bothy doesn’t draw us in as easily. The heatmaps, below, which aggregate viewing data, glowing reddish where people look most, fade to black in areas ignored. Note how the windowless cottage is more in the black, with our fixations directed to its roof; while the one with windows catches our attention drawing our eye more evenly over its façade. This makes it seem more there, present as though waiting ‘to see’ us. Which is, of course, exactly what you’d want to see and feel after hours of hiking the Highlands – a bothy waiting for you to show up!

. Welcome to face-i-tecture! – that under-acknowledged yet powerful attribute of the built environment that make us feel at home in a place without our realizing it. 😉

Hikers in the Highlands – click on images to enlarge

For more on face-i-tecture, check out:

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Architecture that grabs us? It’s on the supermarket shelf!

When I saw this box on the store shelf, I had to get one!

The cottages seemed warm and welcoming, as if waiting to see me, suggesting a cozy community. What could be more inviting in winter? I honestly felt happy picking out that box. It also shows a walking path between buildings – that is car-free – no traffic congestion here, in fact, no cars to speak of.

No wonder I went for the tissues, even though I hadn’t initially planned on buying any. Who wouldn’t want to be in a place like that? It shows a charming space where people implicitly feel safe; and what more do people really want in a home or community?

I soon learned that Kleenex, from multinational Kimberly-Clark, based in Irving, Texas, (valuation $44 billion), isn’t the only brand using charming and historic architecture to get us to shop. Check out the plastic bag and box below.

This new item (both the box and plastic bags inside) from IKEA, founded in Sweden, known as the world’s largest furniture retailer (valuation $21 billion), feature Stockholm’s famous 19th-century-and-earlier architecture, where tourists gravitate today.

And when you use these bags, put sandwiches in them, say – it does feel special! No wonder, they use the same timeless patterns that make us feel most at home in a place, and secure in a space, no matter where we’re from.

It’s fascinating to see how billion-dollar retailers seriously consider client feelings in the built environment – including ones not widely acknowledged, like the power of car-free streets and old architecture to make people feel safe and happy – to drive sales of things that have nothing to do with buildings at all.

Retailers know the strength of our attachments to place, and how these feelings are powerful enough to spill over to anything – including a box of tissues or plastic bags.

It is time for that knowledge of our hidden human behaviors to be better understood by developers, designers and planners today, to make our future environments healthier and happier. (It’s why we created this blog!)

Let’s use the appealing designs, sketched on tissue boxes, in the real world to create a public realm we can care about. Feelings, after all, do matter. Future generations will thank us.

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Last minute gift-shopping? Check out new titles here for inspiration!

Interested in building a better world, improving the outlook for people and the planet in 2022? Keen to understand the critical link between buildings and our biology? Then check out these books, written and edited by members and colleagues of The Human Architecture and Planning Institute Inc (theHapi.org), our affiliated non-profit.

Links to publications below; for Routledge Books use Discount Code FLR40 for 20% off at check out:

  • Keely Menezes, Pamela de Oliveria-Smith & A. Vernon Woodworth – Programming for Health and Wellbeing in Architecture (Routledge)
  • Ann Sussman & Justin Hollander – Cognitive Architecture, Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, 2nd Edition (Routledge)
  • Justin Hollander & Ann Sussman – Urban Experience and Design, Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm (Routledge)
  • Don Ruggles – Beauty, Neuroscience, and Architecture: Timeless Patterns and Their Impact on Our Well-Being (AbeBooks)

For videos, including of eye-tracking architecture and the recently recorded Book Launch for Programing for Health and Wellbeing in Architecture, check out theHapi.org YouTube channel.

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Programming for Health and Wellbeing in Architecture Book Launch: Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Human Architecture and Planning Institute held a global, virtual event to celebrate the publication of the new book Programming for Health and Wellbeing in Architecture on December 9, 2021.

Here’s the recording: https://youtu.be/WaEmnGOFW6c

In 20 chapters, this book makes the case for a new vision for architectural programming and practice, one where evidence-based design, systems thinking and a deeper understanding of our innate biology is brought to the fore. The goal is to highlight how human and environmental health are connected and frame a new paradigm that creates built environments which actively promote our health mentally, physically and socially – rather than the reverse.

Vernon Woodworth, co-editor, led this multidisciplinary discussion, with many of the book chapters’ authors, four of whom are instructors at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) and four of whom are on the Board of theHapi.org. All proceeds from book sales go to the BAC.

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