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Cennydd Bowles on UX & Design

Looking Beyond User-Centered Design

· Published in Web Strategy, Interaction Design, User Research · 32 Comments

User-centered design has served the digital community well. So well, in fact, that I’m worried its dominance may actually be limiting our field.

The terms “user experience design” (UX) and “user-centered design” (UCD) are often used interchangeably. But there’s an important distinction.

UX design is the discipline: what we do. Precise definition is elusive, but most attempts focus on experience as an explicit design objective.

User-centered design is a process: how we do it. Again the specifics vary, but usually form shades of the same hue:

  • Research. Immerse yourself in your users’ worlds to understand what they do and why they do it.
  • Sketch ideas that address these learned needs.
  • Prototype the most promising ideas to evaluate them more accurately.
  • Iterate through testing, repeating steps as required.

Other design processes

UCD is the dominant design approach within UX, so pervasive that some UX designers behold it as the Platonic ideal of design. Deviation from the UCD faith is even met with derision. A naive recruiter whose job specs aren’t explicit about direct user contact soon learns not to reoffend.

But other design processes are available. Jared Spool’s article 5 Design Decision Styles explores alternatives to UCD, including:

  • Self design, aka “scratching your own itch.” The designer acts as a surrogate for the audience. It’s convenient and quick, but clearly only reliable in narrow circumstances.
  • Genius design. Genius design has no first-hand research phase. To anticipate user behavior, the designer draws upon stockpiled experience, imaginative analogy, and psychological fundamentals.
  • Activity-focused design. Here, the designer addresses users’ primary tasks rather than any underlying needs. Tasks are derived a priori, from a logical interpretation of the domain, rather than from research.1

It seems arbitrary to regard these alternative design processes as inferior substitutes. Surely other modes can fulfill the broad UX mandate of creating experiences?

Weaknesses of UCD

UCD’s ascendancy deserves historical context. Its success came largely as an antidote to what preceded: the Wild West of the early web, dominated by Hey-This-Looks-Cool hackery. UCD offered rigor (or at least the perception of rigor; see Scientism below) that helped the immature web refocus on its audience. But that phase is long past, and the more experience I earn, the more flaws I see in UCD’s finery.

Heaviness

UCD simply takes longer than genius or self design. Clients typically identify research as the culprit, meaning the research phase is usually targeted when time is short. The UX industry has countered this variously through client education, seeking shortcuts, or by slipping research in without formal consent. But—whisper it quietly—some design research is wasted effort. For research to be valuable, it must:

  • be free from sampling or cognitive biases;
  • address issues that are central to the product;
  • offer genuinely new insight; and
  • be used to forge new ideas, not to validate predetermined decisions.

In these circumstances UCD is unparalleled, enabling breakthroughs other modes can’t. But I think UCD advocates overstate how often these planets align. I argue that genius design and iteration will often achieve better results in the same time.

Someone with experience as not only a designer but also as an attentive user has built up an unconscious repertoire of patterns and approaches that suit various contexts. As this library grows, it frees the designer from the need to research every problem.

The UX industry appears to acknowledge the relevance of genius design by its adoption of the expert review—a tool that epitomizes the approach—but often feels it has to prop this review up with user validation. It’s hard to escape the thought that the primary function of this redundancy is to retain the appearance of neutrality.

Negation of style

Among the UX community’s favorite quotes of late:

“[Good design] dissolves in behavior.” —Naoto Fukosawa
“The best interface is no interface.” —various
“Great design is invisible.” —various

At first glance, these are elegant statements of aesthetic intent: the user should never notice the designer’s influence. This “disappearing designer” motif holds self-sacrificial appeal, and for many interactions it’s great advice. I don’t want my tax forms to bear any trademark flourishes. However, when we extend this line of thought to its logical conclusions, these quotes start to look like mere slogans.

By negating the idea of a designer’s influence, we also negate the idea of style within the UX discipline. We’re saying that, done properly, it should be impossible to tell one UX designer’s work from another’s. There should be no signature elements, no philosophical movements, no overarching tenets except that of transparency.

The commoditization of designers that this idea suggests is troubling. Moreover, style is crucial for a creative discipline’s evolution. The best writers and architects—whose work, just like UX design, has function and engenders experience—have unmistakable styles. Throughout history, daring work from iconoclasts has sparked entire movements, and thus transformed creative practice. The transition between the Neoclassical and Modernist architectural eras, for example, wasn’t simply a case of replacing Doric columns with perpendicular glass. It was a total reframing of architecture and its values. Modernity usurped antiquity.

Is our form of functional art any different? In a system that deprecates style, is there room for a designer to pioneer entirely new approaches?2 If not, are we happy with the resultant ideological homogeneity?

Of course our designs must put users first. But there is never just a single way to meet user goals. Instead of trying to deprecate style, we should embrace it as a way to drive our practice forward and lend personality to the things we make. In a marketplace of bewildering clutter, products with a damn opinion are by far the most interesting.

Scientism

Given its academic influences, it’s not surprising that UCD has been sold as a science. Empiricism runs through its discourse, to the unfortunate extent that the UX industry often oversells the certainty it can offer.

Scientism—akin to Colbert’s “truthiness”—is the veneer of science where little scientific validity exists. While UCD is methodical, it is manifestly not scientific. There can never be a universal truth to design. Solutions applied in one context may fail magnificently in another, and the few governing principles (Fitts’s Law, the Gestalt principles, and affordance, say) give at best partial guidance. Some supposed laws, such as the “magical number 7±2” persist in ill-informed fringes of UX, despite being largely rebutted.

While researchers and designers can learn plenty from the scientific method, design simply does not yield to scientific analysis in the way its scientistic proponents wish.

To treat design as a science is to retreat to the illusory safety of numbers, where designers are mostly seen as agents of skewing the odds in your favor. This can start a race to the bottom as design gets less and less leeway. Weak leaders overtest in lieu of trusting designers to make decisions: it’s just a small step from there to the infamous forty-one shades of blue.

Imbalance

Finally, I’m concerned about the mindset that UCD can instill in its practitioners.

It’s unsurprising that a user-centered process can skew inexperienced designers’ loyalties away from business priorities. Some claim that this serves as counterweight to the business-first leanings of other employees. The argument strikes me as infantile. When a designer adopts simplistic, reductive arguments that ignore business reality, it undermines him. It limits his potential influence. Only the well-rounded designer who can fight for what’s right while accommodating business reality will be seen as a true leader.

What next?

I don’t expect UCD’s pre-eminence to change. Nor do I think it necessarily should. But a design community is most healthy when it shares a respectful variety of opinions. I don’t see that in the UX industry today, and I hope we can begin to appreciate the value of alternative design approaches.

The designers who will stand out in future will be those who are familiar with many modes of design. These designers may have a favorite, of course—and UCD is an excellent candidate—but they also have the versatility to draw on other processes when suitable. Perhaps they will even pioneer new approaches to add to our toolkits.

Notes

  • 1. I’d argue that much of what’s labeled UCD today is actually activity-focused design, but that’s a separate article.
  • 2. Whence our Le Corbusier?

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