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What is an Architectural User Needs Survey?

August 26th, 2022 | 9 min. read

What is an Architectural User Needs Survey?

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The first phase of the architectural process is a time for researching and planning. Before design plans can take shape, your architect needs to understand your organization, your people, and their needs. 

One of the ways your architect will get to know your organization is through a user needs survey. The survey is one of the first items you will receive from your architect, and it is one of the many ways your team will contribute to the project. Your team’s responses will serve as the basis for your program, a document that outlines the project’s spaces and their requirements. 

User needs surveys are most effective when everyone contributes and provides detailed responses. This article will outline common survey questions and explain how your architect will utilize the responses. We will also explain how you can prepare for the survey. 

What is a User Needs Survey? 

A user needs survey is a series of questions that helps architects better understand an organization’s operations and culture. Often, surveys are sent at the beginning of Pre-Design. It is one of the first forms of communication you will have with your architect following your kick-off meeting. 

Generally, anyone who will occupy the completed space receives a survey—from employees to leadership. A diverse set of responses leads to the best results. Without hearing from a variety of users, architects are left making educated guesses about their needs. 

What Questions Will You Answer? 

Survey questions vary from project to project, and often, your architect will customize them to fit your industry or building type. However, most surveys include a few basic themes. 

Some questions relate to your current space. These questions help your architect determine what aspects of your space work and what needs to change. The survey may ask about the strengths of your space and its weaknesses or shortcomings. 

Other questions relate to occupants’ responsibilities and daily activities. These questions help your architect better understand your operations, organizational culture, and how to enhance occupants’ day-to-day experience. For example, you may be asked:   

  • What are the responsibilities of your department? 
  • How many people work in your department? 
  • What is your department’s growth potential?  
  • What do you do on a typical day? 
  • What equipment do you use? 

Most questions are spatial. Information about workstation sizes, storage, and department interaction will help your architect determine square footage and find a functional layout. Spatial questions may include: 

  • What items do you need to store? 
  • How often do you use a shared space? 
  • How many people do you normally meet within a shared space? 
  • What departments or people do you interact with most often? 
  • To what extent does your job require acoustical or visual privacy? 

Along with these questions, the survey may ask about your wants and aspirational goals. The survey should help your architect understand your immediate needs and goals that can be deferred to a later time. You may be asked if you have any “wish list” items and to prioritize their importance. 

How Will You Utilize the User Needs Survey? 

Throughout Pre-Design, you will refer to the user needs survey to set project goals and determine spatial needs. As one of the first items you receive for your architect, the survey is foundational to many Pre-Design objectives. 

Visioning Workshop 

Your architect may discuss the survey results in a visioning workshop—a Pre-Design meeting with a large group of stakeholders. In the workshop, you and your team will set and prioritize project goals.  

The survey results can help you understand everyone’s needs and create a more productive conversation. It can also start a conversation about how you currently work and what you would like to do differently, helping you find solutions that improve your experience.  

space use survey1

The survey can help you brainstorm project goals in a visioning workshop.


You will also reference the user needs survey throughout the programming process. A program is a written document that quantifies the necessary components of a building. For example, a program for an office may specify the square footage of spaces like: 

  • Workstations 
  • Private offices and open office space 
  • Conference rooms 
  • Break rooms 
  • Circulation areas (stairs and elevators) 
  • Common areas like lobbies 
  • Mechanical and electrical rooms 

Typically, programs are presented in spreadsheet form with an accompanying narrative specifying items like technology and equipment needs and occasionally details like finishes and required adjacencies. A complete program can provide a total building size and serves as a foundation for a cost-per-square foot estimate. 

If architecture is like baking, the program is a project’s “ingredients list.” The survey helps you determine which ingredients to include and their quantities. If you need to remove ingredients later, user data can help you assess the most important items.   

How Can You Prepare to Take the Survey? 

The user needs survey is most effective when it includes a large group of stakeholders. You and your team are experts in your daily operations, and your architect wants to hear from as many people as possible. It helps to set expectations with your team and encourage them to participate. 

At the same time, detailed responses lead to the best results. The survey forms the basis of the program, and thorough responses can help your architect size spaces, make the best use of your budget, and anticipate future needs. For example, if the survey asks about storage needs, it helps to list specific items. 

Later, your architect may follow up with different people or departments to dig deeper into their responses. Encourage your team to take their time with the survey and explain the importance of their responses.   

Learn More About Pre-Design 

A user needs survey is a foundational element of the early architectural process. It gives your architect a better understanding of your daily operations and helps them verify what needs to change. 

The survey also contributes to the programming process. Detailed responses from many stakeholders help your architect determine which spaces to include and their size requirements. Setting expectations with your team and explaining the importance of their perspective will make the survey even more effective. 

The user needs survey is just one activity you will encounter in Pre-Design. Learn more about this stage of the architectural process by reading about planning workshops