Places for People - Assessing user needs

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

User needs - How do we know what users of spaces want

Seeing spaces - the 'townscape/landscape' of environmental settings

This is not the place to attempt, even superficially, to investigate the vast literature that exists on how people see and how they interpret what they see. Useful introductory texts for those working in site planning or design are the books: Foundations for Visual Project Analysis, Smardon et al., 1986. (Part Two of that book deals in some detail with the basic visual process and how we interpret what we see); and Elements of Visual Design in the Landscape, Bell, S., 1993.

However, it is useful for all involved in site planning to be aware of quite how complicated a field of study this is and the factors which make it so. Without a grasp of this, it is difficult to understand the complexities involved in the apparently simple task of identifying the beautiful landscape.

Psychologists have pointed out that when we look at the world we see what we have learnt to believe is there, we see in terms of our education, we see what we have been conditioned to expect.

The apparently simple act of seeing is, in fact, very complicated. From the time we are born we try to learn to understand the world and to make sense of it. As we move round in a world of objects, we quickly have to learn to understand spatial relationships, the positioning and arrangement of each object, its shape, its colour and its use.

Without this information we would be perpetually confused. However, it does take time to learn to read all the visual messages that the environment gives us. We do this most readily when we see a benefit to the self or to the group, of learning quickly.

To some extent each individual learns independently and, therefore, it is perhaps inevitable that there are differences of opinion about the detailed composition of a scene.

However, it can be shown that despite the differences, there is a great level of agreement between people with similar backgrounds, a common level of education, common life experiences and common cultural background. This factor has a bearing on the finding that those within the design professions tend to see things in a different way from the general public of which they are a part (Greenbie, 1981).

One of the worrying factors of which site planners and designers need to be aware is that they are in danger of having different values from the people for whom they are designing.

The different ways that individuals see have been studied in detail and perception psychology has shown us that although each individual lives in a personally understood environment, the individual's perception and attitudes are influenced by the society of which the individual is a part and the place to which the person belongs.

See Kaplan S. & R. eds., 1982, Humanscape.

User needs

Settings and users


Assessing user needs




High density



Seeing spaces


Designing for Children's Play in Housing Areas

Designing for the l
ess able bodied

Links and References

Books and papers

Bell, S. (1993) Elements of Visual Design in the Landscape, E & FN Spon.

Greenbie, Barrie B (1981) Spaces. Dimensions of the Human Landscape, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Kaplan S. (1982) Attention and fascination: the search for cognitive clarity. In Humanscape: Environments for People (ed. S. and R. Kaplan), Ulrich's Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Smardon , R.C., Palmer, J.F. and Fellman, J.P. (eds.) (1986) Foundations for Visual Project Analysis, John Wiley, New York.

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
Terms of use: Any involved in education or training may copy the contents of these web pages with the proviso that they always make reference to the origial copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
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Map21 Ltd

Latest update 12 Dec 2003