The Importance of Physical Environment in User Experience

The Importance of Physical Environment in User Experience

For many, the world of User Experience is often confined to the digital realm, but have you ever considered the impact of physical environments on our daily experiences? The physical environment and how the spaces and objects relate to a digital product can dramatically influence our experience – and therefore how we need to design to enhance that experience.

Good Product design teams strive to understand users’ behaviours, needs and pain-points to inform their design decisions. Great insight can be gathered through interviews, testing and other research methods. 

However, those research efforts too often focus solely on the digital solution or space, overlooking the physical IRL environments and factors that surround the user. 

We’ve seen it ourselves on projects – field or ethnographic research can be considered too expensive, too time-consuming or too “fuzzy” to be worth investing in.

And yet, it is often this real-world observation that can provide the most dramatic and perception-changing insights. 

In many cases, not considering the environment can lead to critical failures.

Breaking down

Consider a breakdown recovery app. Many of your users are stranded roadside, sat on a grass bank, possibly with upset children, possibly in the rain. It’s a position of significant stress and short focus. This is not the time for pushing your new membership deals or promoting a rewards scheme. The user needs quick, simple and urgent action. Imagine how that might inform a design.

The world is not quiet

Alternatively, consider an interaction design for a Graphical User Interface in a working environment such as a bar or a factory. These environments are loud and likely poorly lit. How would these factors inform the design of any interface? Critical sound alerts would be redundant in this environment. We’d likely also need to consider high-contrast visual treatments for low-light situations. In reality, observation of these environments would lead us to observe a myriad of vital considerations that would inform our design.

A bumpy ride

Consider the design of an interface for someone in a moving vehicle – or as we worked for L3 Harris – a commercial pilot training flight simulator. Without having observed the trainer inside the simulator, watching them bumped and swerved around as it simulates real flight, it’s hard to imagine how that physical environment might impact the interface. In reality, it means more tactile buttons, core interface elements around the edges of the screen (so thumbs can be used as the user grips the screen) and a dark environment visual treatment.

I guarantee many of the findings would not have been realised in a meeting room workshop, or even through user interviews.

To not understand and act upon these real-world observations is to deliver a poor experience and fail to capitalise on opportunities to make your product meet and exceed user needs. To do this, you need to observe them in the first place. For this, there is no replacement for actual in-field ethnographic research. Or to put it simply – get out there in the world. Go to the place where your users are, and watch them go through both the specific tasks and their wider activities. 

When testing prototypes or designs, consider if you can do this in the precise environment they are likely to be used in. This isn’t always possible or practical so also consider to what extent you can replicate the important factors of this environment to best validate design decisions.


UX professionals must see the bigger, holistic nature of user experience, including both electronic and physical spaces. 

The importance of physical environment in user experience cannot be overstated. By considering the physical environment, UX professionals can create memorable and seamless experiences that positively impact users’ daily lives. From game controllers to public restrooms, it’s time to shift our focus and embrace the holistic nature of user experience, ensuring that our skills and expertise extend beyond the digital realm.

Andy Curry
Andy Curry
Articles: 16

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