Explaining Water to Fish

Seems like user-centered design just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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We’re told that user-centered design is limiting and we need to look beyond it. It’s just not good enough, because it doesn’t consider all the variables involved. Jared Spool tells us that user-centered design never worked. Even Donald Norman weighs in to discuss ways that human-centered design may be considered harmful.

It is right and good that designers evaluate and critique the process we follow. User-centered design as a methodology has limitations, which have been clearly articulated by these masters of our craft. Activity-centered design or even self-centered design are equally valid processes to follow, under the right circumstances.

I’m compelled to take a moment and remind everyone that the real benefit of user-centered design isn’t the specific points of the process and methodology. User-centered design is a transformative values system because it is user-centered. The idea that we—all of us, an entire gazillion dollar industry—are focused on designing and making products for other people to interact with is so mind-bogglingly huge, we don’t even notice it.

That we focus on users is unquestionable. It is so fundamental it almost doesn’t bear talking about. We take it for granted because it’s the water we swim in, like the fish in this anecdote from David Foster Wallace:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”… The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

Being user-centered is the most obvious, ubiquitous, important reality of our industry. Which means we lose sight of how much our work really means.

Sure, businesses have always cared about their customers. But in a mass-media, broadcast world, communication only went one way. With only three channels to choose from, TV shows didn’t have to be that good. With one newspaper controlling the distribution network for an entire city, people couldn’t get the news from anywhere else. Once they bought the book, what difference did it make if they liked it?

Even if you made a product for people to use, what did it matter if they found it usable? Sure, you might get a few typewritten letters about your clock radio or frustrated calls to customer service about your microwave, but the customer had already paid up.

The verbs we use to describe what people do with our work—use, navigate, interact—all underscore the power, the agency, that sits in the user’s hands. The value of the web, of social, of mobile, all rests on the foundation that the work we do requires the active participation of the audience, and that the value of our work is only measured through their engagement.

[W]e are witnessing the birth of a whole new world. The digital revolution is, in fact, changing things far more dramatically than the hype-mongers of tech Internet ever imagined—only not in the way that they and their investors hoped. The move from a society dominated by print and broadcast mass media to the age of interactivity is at least as dramatic as the move from feudalism to capitalism.

It is easy to lose sight of how different our world is from the world of just a decade or two ago. Businesses cannot treat their customers as passive “consumers” any longer; every company is in the user experience business. User-centered design is more than a methodology. It is a values system that has changed the very water we swim in.

8 Reader Comments

  1. I agree with the basic point, and yes, it still needs to be trumpeted to anyone who hasn’t yet heard it. I disagree that we need to set up strawman arguments about theoretical monopolists to make the case, though.

    Amazon lists over 8,000 results for clock radios. And 13 pages of manufacturers. Surely enough choice to be going on with.

    There were three national radio, later TV networks, once (ABC was legally spun off from NBC due to monopoly concerns, in fact), but there was, and is, plenty of independent, locally owned TV and radio stations; and if you lived near the borders, Canadian stations too.

    The problem for local media is much more recent deregulation and consolidation – where previously markets had more choices, now there are fewer due to radio and TV stations simply being shut down and/or merged into large owners like Clear Channel. Newspapers face some of the same issues, in addition to their well-known revenue problems – but it’s a stretch to imply that this lack of choice was designed in from the start.

    Some of this mythology, of the uncaring corporation that offers zero choices, comes from 1950s ‘mass society’ theory – the idea that people were easily manipulated and would just go out and buy whatever they were told to, by faceless corporations and ad-men who had an interest in limiting your information; the world as Truman Show.

    Given what we now know about what motivates people – their sense of individuality, self-expression/realization and in-group social competition – this view has been strongly critiqued, in books such as The Conquest of Cool, The Rebel Sell and others.

    It doesn’t take the arrival of the Internet to realize that user experience matters. Industrial designers were doing this decades before we were born. Why are Olivetti typewriters and Braun stereos still beautiful and useful objects today? More broadly, service designers could learn a lot from Ritz-Carlton and how they empower employees to make things right for customers. There isn’t an app for that…yet. 🙂

  2. The notion that “user-centered design is a transformative values system” is something I haven’t seen articulated quite as directly in recent weeks. Thank you!

    You’re right – it’s easy to critique the details of a reality that seems obvious to us. What worries me about some of the conversations I’ve heard, which aim to discard UCD or substitute it, is that they assume user-centered thinking is untouchable, and unchangeable. I’m worried that if we adopt tools that come from the non-user-friendly mentalities that birthed those tools, we might lose sight of what’s only recently become such an obvious reality.

    Anyway, this article is well timed and very on point. Thanks and I’ll definitely be sharing this around.

  3. I agree whole-heartedly with everything here. What amazes me-even today, is that people still don’t understand why this point – that the customer is ultimately at the center of everything a business does – is so impactful.

    It truly is like trying to explain water to a fish.

    Yet fish have been swimming in water forever, and successful businesses have been working to meet customer end-goals since forever. It works. There shouldn’t be any questions about it. So why are there?

  4. You haven’t actually addressed the issues that were raised: There are issues with UCD, and they aren’t solved by looking at it in a more abstract manner. As AJ Kandy says, people cared about users before the internet. 90% of your article is rendered incorrect by that alone.

    To the remaining 10% I’ll say this: Would your design be better if you took your users’ perspective, or used their experience, or asked them what they wanted? The answer, as many are finding out, is “maybe”.

  5. I agree with Sunny.

    Focusing on engagement and activity is not a good measure of positive user experience or a predictor of long lasting customer loyalty. It can distract, delay and frustrate users that are attempting to accomplish tasks and are looking for efficiency. And it is not true that engagement with a service necessarily leads to engagement with the provider or their user community. When you buy a cow you aren’t buying the farm. The availability of social media doesn’t make it central to the service or the reputation of the service. There are still many products and services that make sales despite their poor quality.

    If customer loyalty, reputation, and repeat sales increased without increased user activity, life would still be good. On the other hand, if increased engagement and activity didn’t lead to more business, than who cares.

    There are too many business looking to collect meaningless “likes” or other clicks, and using metrics that ultimately do not impact their business or truly add value for their users.

  6. “Explaining water to fish”. A few short & well-chosen title. And it is such a general concept : in the real world, as well as metaphorically… ?

  7. Tex: I think you’re interpreting her use of engagement too specifically. I don’t think she’s using the term as marketing hucksters do. Engagement can be as simple as using a product as it was designed to do, which might only include one use.

  8. Yes, when I said “engagement” I didn’t mean it in the marketing huckster sense. I meant it more broadly. Our work only matters if we deliver value for users, and they are engaged, participating—if they are equal partners, in a sense.

    I know “engagement” gets used by marketeers to refer to quantitative metrics such as “clicks” or “likes.” I was tempted to use a different word, but I happen to like what engagement connotes in its broadest sense. Let’s reappropriate “engagement” for our own use.

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