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Is there any UX consideration that goes into the design/construction of stairs? I know there are various local building codes and the ADA which regulate these things to some degree but stairs at various notable buildings seem to have unique stairs.

Take the two images below. The top image is what I would call "normal" stairs in that they get you from one floor to another and probably meet all local codes/regulations. The bottom image is the Supreme Court (note the low-rise steps in the foreground). I've always thought that the odd steps force you to slow down and notice the beautiful building in front of you.

Is this a UX decision or simply a function of tradition?

"Normal" stairs "Monument" stairs

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I'm sure stairs can have a UX, but the example you are discussing seems more about art or design, not usability. Inconveniencing someone to make them appreciate art is rarely what a UX professional would recommend. –  Myrddin Emrys May 3 '12 at 18:50
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OMG yes, stairs that are smaller like in your lower picture annoy the heck out of me and require more exertion to get up! –  James Wilkinson May 3 '12 at 19:39
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@myrddin Emrys the rise and tread of stairs is ALL about usability. –  DA01 May 3 '12 at 20:44
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Another aspect of UX wrt stairs is the fact that most buildings have a door separating the stairs going up from the ground floor and the stairs going down to the basement. In an emergency, people rushing down the stairs pause long enough at the door to realize that they're actually at ground level -- so they exit the building, instead of going into the basement and getting trapped when the building burns down. Or maybe they don't even notice the stairs going to the basement, since they're not nearly as noticeable. –  Dietrich Epp May 4 '12 at 7:37
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If you use it, it has a "user experience" –  zzzzBov May 4 '12 at 15:40

6 Answers 6

up vote 36 down vote accepted

If you consider ergonomics and safety a part of User Experience, which I think it is, then yes - staircases have User Experience. Technically this means that there is relation between tread depth and rise height which, combined, is the pitch line. The angle of that pitch line should be about 30 deg and you have min-max values of both rise and height.

Stairway measurement

Image from Wikipedia

These measuerment is regulated by law which differs between countries, but I think they were not made by chance. Most probably these law regulated measurements have been tested before put into national laws. The proof of that I have not found (yet).

Ergonomically and for safety reasons, stairs must have certain measurements so that people can comfortably use them. Building codes typically specify certain measurements so that the stairs are not too steep or narrow.

Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Staircase#Ergonomics_and_building_code_requirements

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Everyone who visits me at my apartment always comments on the stairs leading up to the door because they are horribly designed. The rise height/tread depth ratio is terribly out of step (pun!). The rise height is very tall so you have to make awkward steps to get up and down them. +1 for considering ergonomics and safety as a part of UX. –  Mitch Malone May 3 '12 at 21:19
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+1 just for having a diagram! lol –  Mathew Foscarini May 4 '12 at 2:00
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I was not expecting such a great answer about stairs, nor was I expecting it so quickly. –  Ben Brocka May 4 '12 at 2:17
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Though I feel I should point out this is more the usability of stairs than the holistic UX :) –  Ben Brocka May 4 '12 at 2:24
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I think you completely omitted width of stairs or shape of stairway, what are essential parts of their UX. –  Frantisek Kossuth May 4 '12 at 7:52

As a matter of fact, all architecture hinges on user experience. Building a roof over your head is just that: to build. Architecture is the art of turning the building into a meaningful user experience. I used to work in brick & mortar architecture and now find myself applying many of the same principles to virtual space.

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There's a lot of overlap between building architecture and information architecture isn't there ! –  PhillipW May 4 '12 at 19:35

Yes, stairs have a lot of user experience. Stairs proportions have been already addressed in detail, but that's just the beginning.

Stairs should be as safe as possible. The surface must not cause slippage under any reasonable conditions - washing and rain included, "Wet floor" signs appeared after someone chose the wrong flooring material.

The surface must be easy to clean, including cleaning from ice and snow if those ever happen in the region. The surface must be strong enough so that it withstands all reasonable interactions without wearing out. One may argue, but maintenance folks who clean the stairs also have UX with the stairs.

Stairs should have no sharp edges - someone will fall once in a while and a sharp edge will make a difference between a mild bruise versus a serious bruise accompanied with a cut.

Btw a handrail is a very useful thing often neglected when designing the stairs but having a major influence on UX.

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I would argue that anything that is going to be 'used' by people, whether they interact with it or consume it has a user experience attached, and therefore there are UX considerations that should be taken into account when the thing is created.

Stairs are no different.

For me there are three considerations that I would take into account when designing a staircase and each is going to have an impact on the user experience: 1. The context 2. The practical 3. the aesthetic

The context

If you look at the two images included in the question, each staircase occurs in a particular context. The primary consideration in designing the fire escape was practical. How do I meet the local building regulations, get people as quickly as possible safely to the bottom of the building using as little space and money as possible. The designer of the stairs in front of the supreme court definitely wanted to impress visitors to the building and so lifted it up on a pedestal. The wide treads of the staircase, the material used and their impressive sweep are all part of increasing the drama of the approach. Each staircase has been designed appropriately for the context within which it is found. Swap them around and they would be ridiculous.

The practical

A staircase obviously has to do its job of getting people between two places that are at different heights. It needs do do this well in both directions, up and down (a ladder is much easier to ascend than descend). This consideration has been answered elsewhere, but the idea that a staircase should have a pitch of 30 degrees is not strictly correct. When architects design a staircase they use a concept called 'the going' of the staircase. The steeper a staircase is, the greater the ratio between the risers and the treads should be i.e. the treads should get narrower and the risers higher as the staircase gets steeper. There is a kind of middle ground at about 30 degrees where the 'going' takes the least effort and feels the most comfortable.

The aesthetic

Given the context and practical considerations have been taken into account, there are still an infinite number of ways to design a staircase. This is where aesthetic considerations come into account. How should it feel physically as someone walks up and down the staircase? Am I trying to communicate something with the staircase? Am I trying to elicit a particular emotional response? Am I trying to refer to a previous staircase designed by someone else? These questions are endless and are what makes architecture such a great art.

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Anything you interact with has a user experience.

Stairs are designed so that there's a converse relation between the rise (riser) and run (tread).

Of the examples, one is a fire escape...that's going to have very specific code regulations and is designed to get people out of the building.

The latter is more an architectural design statement. The grand stairs need to match the scale of the facade.

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"Anything you interact with has a user experience." - that's what she said! –  Mathew Foscarini May 4 '12 at 2:00

There's also a psychological aspect:

Here are some stairs in an art museum in France. ( Carré d'Art - Nîmes Museum of Contemporary Art )

Due to the use of glass in the treads my friend who doesn't like heights couldn't actually go up to the upper floors using the stairs and had to go to hunt out a lift.

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+1 I know people who hate to walk on glass stairs/floor –  Frantisek Kossuth May 4 '12 at 7:53
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That's nothing compared to that glass walkway built out over the Grand Canyon. Certainly that makes for a user's memorable experience. (See www.grand-canyon.com/grand_canyon_skywalk.htm for those with no idea what I'm referring to.) –  DarenW Jul 20 '12 at 3:05

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