Comments on Looking Beyond User-Centered Design

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  1. My favourite design quote of late goes along the lines: “You can’t user research your way to Beethoven.” — Various

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  2. bq. “To treat design as a science is to retreat to the illusory safety of numbers.”

    I think this quote accurately summarizes where many of the problems with design today lie. In a society that is constantly shouting the value of data and numbers, designers are apt to fall in to this state of mind where what has worked in the past shall always work, because that is how the numbers show it to be.

    This is dangerous for us, because in doing so we give up so much of the freedoms that design allows us. I do believe data and numbers have their place, and that they _can_ provide us with some insight into how to go about with our designs, but I believe it is equally important to watch how far down the path of statistical design we go.

    Thanks for the good read, Cennydd.

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  3. I believe you’re right to be concerned about a commoditisation of designers that is implied by the curious notion that they should become somehow invisible. What is maybe more insidious is the commoditisation of UCD, the process, as a service. A service that can be bundled, utility style, into a subscription package for UX design. If you find yourself in a place where that’s the sales model, your versatility is severely compromised.

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  4. IMHO article brilliantly summarizes how the more UX side of the issue the author raises is more conducive to design thinking (the “looking beyond” bit).

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  5. I think the danger we practitioners face is that UCD is the easiest of the 5 to explain or “sell” to customers and internal stakeholders.

    But like most things it should be viewed as one of many tools you have to hand. Identify the problem, try a few methods and see what you get. Just self-regulate and know when you’re getting close to the 41 shades of blue.

    I agree with Tim’s comment that the commoditisation is something we should vehemently avoid as an industry.

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  6. The legacy of Le Corbusier was urban renewal: the wholesale destruction of older, human-scaled neighborhoods in favour of sterile office-tower plazas and -housing projects- apartment towers connected by highways.

    One could say that we’ve already gone through that phase - the replacement of the wild-west, handcrafted BBS and Usenet era with enclosed, hermetically sealed and proprietary communities (AOL, CompuServe, etc) which, in their turn, were eroded by the open Web.

    There’s always a push-and-pull between the idea of the master-planned One True City Site and the idea of consensus planning around sensible building codes (like New Urbanism, to carry the analogy further.)

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  7. I’ve seen the struggle between UCD and business goals, and while I do agree that it can complicate and prolong the process, I believe the dialogue is important to have.

    Great article — a flourishing of alternate viewpoints is vital to the growth of design practice.

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  8. Great article. In our everyday work, we as designers often know that there is a sort of golden rule that should be always followed (the UCD “science”), but we feel the need to overcome it and design a more accurate solution for a better user experience.
    Your article has the advantage to focus on this dichotomy.

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  9. Drowning designer drawing a picture of a drowning designer drawing a picture of a drowning… This designer is drowning in acronyms—ackpth!

    UI. UX. UC. What’s next? User Focused Design? User Task Success Design? User Transaction Accomplishment Optimization Design? Oi. Too many subdivisions.

    (Oh, and don’t even get me started on “design thinking”...)

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  10. Terrific article. Your assessment of UCD’s ignorance to business realities is often one of its most frustrating aspects. As a business manager, I’m trying to bridge the gap between those realities and what I want to accomplish (a usable design). Thanks.

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  11. While UCD is methodical, it is manifestly not scientific.  There can never be a universal truth to design.

    I think this is true in two ways.

    One is the way you particularly discuss in the article: design is not simply functional. Regardless of the design approach - UCD, task-driven, or genius - ‘design’ inherently involves creative expression and interpretation. The contribution of that expression to the user experience cannot be underestimated, while remaining almost impossible to quantify and measure.

    It’s also important to be clear that at times design research is, as you say “methodical but not scientific”. UCD often relies on small sample sizes, and qualitative rather than quantitative methods. (I’m sure Ben Goldacre would have something strong to say about the lack of rigour there.) Then there is a tendency with large sample multivariate testing to forget that usage stats tell you the ‘what’, but not the ‘why’. Given few UX designers are statisticians, there is a real risk of interpretation errors leading to harmful design decisions.

    Nonetheless the general principle of designing for *users* not ourselves will always be valuable. Genius and self-design require levels of empathy which many people lack. I never cease to be shocked how little businesses really know about their customers and what they value, and how difficult they find it to imagine themselves in their user’s position.

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  12. A good article whose impact is somewhat reduced by the gratuitous worship of style and “creativity” as manifested in other design disciplines. I am fairly sure that the people who have had the misfortune to live in any of the bleak housing projects inspired by Le Corbusier’s lofty ideals would have been better served by a UCD-inspired design approach.

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  13. I disagree with the assessment of the history of UCD. I would argue that the discipline of human factors engineering arose out of aviation psychology in the military and started the human centered design process in WWII. Although human-machine interaction design can be traced to earlier times as well.  Eventually this led to HCI and finally, being applied to the web. In the field of human factors engineering, genius and self design are often not options as peoples lives can be at stake. Research is necessary. We may be able to create an iphone/android app that thousands or even millions of people of like incomes, mindsets, and educations will download and enjoy. If they don’t find everything we want them to find or make some mistakes we’ll just fix that in the next release after they give a bad rating. It’s true, not everything deserves intense ethnographic research and multivariate testing but there is a reason UCD became hot, and that reason was thinking that we know everything about our audience without getting involved with them in any way.

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  14. Thank you, Cennydd—I really appreciate this exploration and see it as a good opportunity to instigate open discussion on how we *really* design great user experiences.

    Something I grapple and fight with as a designer who believes in the benefits of UCD, is the act of switching between more analytical thought processes to emotionally sensitive thought processes.

    Can anyone in this group offer practical advice to a designer who occasionally becomes “cold” to the feelings of users?

    Small addition: I did some Googling and found a reference to a study from Case Western Reserve University that talks about how our brains are challenged to switch between empathetic and analytical thought.

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  15. Great article, thank you. If I articulated how much I agree, I would be rewriting your article verbatim.

    We need to keep reminding the practice that UCD is a tool in the UX toolkit, not the practice itself. And while we are reminding them of that can we remind them the same about responsive design? Please?

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  16. I really wish we would could stop legitimizing the term “user-experience *design*” as if it’s a real thing. Now that A List Apart is using it, it further gives credence to those that dilute the term “user-experience” into nothing more than an adjective to describe a type of “design” style.

    Hey, I’m a graphic design.
    I’m a web designer.
    I’m a print designer.
    I’m an interface designer.
    I’m a user-experience designer.

    One of the above doesn’t fit. Can you tell me which one?

    That’s because UX is *not* a type of design, so can we stop labeling it as such? Yes, UX does incorporate design, but it’s a small part of the holistic experience of the user. In my opinion, visual design, what most want to link with UX, is quite insignificant when it comes to the user’s entire experience.

    When was the last time you thoroughly enjoyed using something that was beautiful but pointless? Or, have you ever been swept off your feet by a website riddled with grammatical errors and misspellings? That’s because design can only help reinforce a great platform for a user’s experience; it doesn’t create it, not by a long-shot.

    Not only that, it also misinforms. I can’t tell you how many HR people have advertised UX designer, UX developer, UX copywriter, UX puppy pooper scooper …

    This degrades the meaning of UX to nothing more than “hipster, pop-sci, cool style yo!” I actually hesitate to use the term user-experience or UX because it’s starting to feel dirty, tainted, faddish.

    I can just hear people now: “I gots the mad UX skillz bra! I tickle your right hemi with my nasty heuristicals bb!”

    Whew! Sorry, I know that was a fair bit of ranting, but it needed to come out. Thanks for letting me vent :)

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  17. Thanks a lot for this great thought-provoking article Cennydd.
    I’d like to offer some other perspectives on the value of up-front research in the design process.

    Genius and self-design modes could work really well, and also be faster in situations where the designer understands the domain and the target audiences sufficiently enough. We did this on a project last year and it was a success. (Although I did do some quick-and-dirty guerilla up-front research online as well - to validate some of my assumptions.)
    In specialist and expert-user domains though, jumping straight into design (as in solution definition) is often not an option. The level of required empathy simply does not exist a priori.  In those situations, it might not even be clear what the crux of the design problem is. The danger of creating a solution that is not fit for purpose is too big there. 

    I use up-front research largely as a concept-generating catalyst, not as a scientific hunt for reliable findings. Every time I did exploratory research, I came up at least with one new design concept, that I am sure I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise. 

    Re: Negation of style: I am not sure why would following a UCD process preclude the designer from impressing their own style in the design, or proposing a product with an opinion. We’re talking about user-inspired design, not user-led design, right?
    UCD in my opinion is not the culprit, it’s how it’s sometimes being applied.
    The same goes for the occassional business goals myopia.
    So thanks for raising this.

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  18. Firstly, as others have said, this is a valuable article and contributions of this nature are central to keeping the ‘UX industry’ (an increasingly broad church) vital and relevant.

    I would make two points, the first being that “genius design” and “self design” to me have always sounded like labels of convenience for design which has no process - dangerously close to “firing up Photoshop and hoping for the best”. Not what is meant by those terms of course, but I came from a world where uninformed designers were expected to make all kinds of functional, technical and visual decisions while staring at a white canvas in an Adobe product. Commercial projects bring with them constraints and pressures of all kinds, and I’m sure we have all had to cut corners and rely instead on our own experience. But a credible process is something to be valued.

    Secondly we should also keep in mind how often a user-centred design is completely synergistic with business objectives. If the two are diametrically opposed something is wrong.

    In my own experience commercial realities have tended to be the single largest influence on any design process - and the process should be flexible and robust enough to deliver effective results even when subject to compromise.

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  19. It’s unsurprising that a user-centered process can skew inexperienced designers’ loyalties away from business priorities.

    I heavily agree with your point. UCD sometimes misleads what really needs to be in the center which I think is a purpose or a problem that needs to be solved. UCD is a problem solving. Having that all said, UCD practitioners need to follow design thinking approach as well.

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  20. Justin’s “When was the last time you thoroughly enjoyed using something that was beautiful but pointless?” is echoed in Rian van der Merwe’s “lots of easy and pleasant applications that have no reason to exist” in Usable Yet Useless.

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  21. A well-balanced design process may well conform to the “90 percent perspiration, 10 percent inspiration” prescription. Consider:

    If UCD is treated as a scientific process that ultimately just boils down to yielding numbers that predict the highest probability of “design success,” then the commoditization that Cennydd refers to will certainly follow. What we must keep in mind is that users are human beings in all their infinite complexity, and that not matter how sophisticated we get at researching, measuring, and quantifying things like preferences, behaviors, and motivations, certain aspects of the human element will always remain unquantifiable.

    UCD is valuable in that it removes much of the uncertainty caused by unfounded assumptions: Do your research, and proceed with the confidence that you’re aiming at the right target. That alone might get you that 90 percent in most situations. By what UCD can’t do is provide inspiration. Yes, it might suggest where inspiration might be found and even provide a catalyst, but inspiration itself ultimately comes from within the designer who derives it from the empathy and connection we share as fellow human beings. And that 10 percent of the equation can never be commoditized. 

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  22. The article highlights an important and unfortunate disconnect:

    “...a user-centered process can skew inexperienced designers’ loyalties away from business priorities…”

    The problem is not that the user-centred process leads practitioners astray, but rather that top-level business priorities often lag the reality of user behaviour.

    It is in that ongoing disconnect between those closest to changing customer behaviour (i.e. UCD practitioners) and those tasked with preserving legacy business lines and delivering growth at the lowest cost of capital (i.e. executive management) that the seeds of long-term company failure are often sown.

    The solution would seem two-fold: firstly, making it easier for those with the best understanding of customers to influence business priorities.  Secondly, and just as importantly, structuring the organisation so that everyone - including the executive management - feels connected to the goal of solving customer needs and understands business priorities and customer priorities ultimately must be one and the same thing for a company to thrive.

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  23. Hi, interesting article which highlight the key role the designer(s)‘s skills play regardless of the process followed.

    A couple points I’d like to discuss:

    Usability testing versus Expert review in agency

    I have often been asked to conduct multi day user testing sessions on designs where the issues were immediately visible to the naked (but expert) eyes. The usability testing, while provide several smaller additional findings, just confirmed the issues I identified. So yes, technically, an expert review would have been a better use of time and money, and I have often been frustrated that the client wouldn’t just trust our expertise.

    But finding out things is only half of what agencies get hired for, and helping to settle internal arguments is the other half. It is much easier for a manager to overrule its internal stakeholders (including sometime his own designers!) by saying “user research has shown” rather than “this expert I hired disagrees with you”. While in reality in both case you are relying on the skills of the researcher/expert, there is a misconception that usability testing is easily repeatable by anyone and isn’t influenced by the skills of the researcher.

    Is UCD Usability testing a science?

    I believe that these are absolutely scientific, but that the word science is misunderstood. They are part of a soft science, comparable with other such as economics and sociology, who are best at spotting hard to quantify but important overall trends, rather than a hard science like maths, physics or chemistry with absolute and precise truths (i.e. “water freeze at 0 C under normal air pressure”).

    I have no doubt that UCD and usability testing are much more useful and less biased when conducted by someone who understand the science of psychological research. But you also need a skilled designer to make sense of the findings, and know how to used them in a business relevant way.

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  24. Interesting article Cennydd. Much I agree with, but some questions too.

    I completely agree with the emphasis on activity. As you say this must come from an understanding and interpretation of the domain. But where does that understanding come from? Aren’t the users an important part of the domain? We all know the dangers of talking only to stakeholders and subject matter experts with fixed and narrow views of want a system, product or service should or could be. Design from general principles and expert input is what leads to the classic ‘IT disasters’. Unusable systems that are a complete mismatch for the way people live and work.

    Also agree about heaviness. But many teams are moving to a little and often model of user engagement, starting with what the organisation already knows, then establishing a regular rhythm of research to fill gaps and test assumptions. Many of your concerns about research seem to come from a narrow definition - upfront, long, expensive, and qualitative only. For me, research is anything we do to find out more about the domain.

    And are self- and genius-design real, equivalent alternatives? In some simple domains possibly. But as other commenters have said, these approaches are often the refuge of designers who know they’re geniuses and feel that input from users stifles their creativity. Jeff Gothelf recently commented that in too many startups supposedly following Lean principles, engagement with users and testing hypotheses were the first things to get dropped. So there are lots of people out there who don’t need much excuse to never ‘get out of the building.’

    Of course we need to balance user needs with business goals and technological capability. But great design relies on a deep understanding of use. And where does that understanding of use come from if we don’t have regular contact with users?

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  25. The general thrust of this article - good designers use a variety of approaches, don’t be dogmatic - is to be applauded, but I struggle with many of the other points covered. My beef’s are about the semantics, but so is this article so it seems OK to nit-pick.

    Design and art are not interchangeable terms. I think there’s an important distinction between the two. We may like to think of ourselves as artists, hey, we work hard, we do great things, but is that art? An artist responds to the world around them and attempts to communicate a unique perspective. A designer is trying to make stuff for folks to use without them needing to read the manual first.

    Speaking as a genius-designer (woo hoo I’ve been promoted) who started designing digital products when all there was to refer to was called HCI, I have witnessed the scope of the designer increase as the practise evolved and matured.  The influence of UCD and UX has been immense. Is the web better than it was 10 years ago? You betcha. Is my design better than it was 10 years ago? You betcha.  As Cennydd notes, UCD and the growing knowledge around design patterns brought much needed order to the Worldwide Wild West Web and we learned how to do things better.   
    Has it become stagnant and samey? Not that I can see. Will people continue to innovate? Of course they will. Will Coca-cola and Innocent smoothies end looking the same? Err no. Don’t forget that branding plays a major role in all this touch-feely stuff too.
    Does UX ultimately negate style? I thought the role of UX was to create a blueprint for visual and functional design (which happens after).  I would also argue that the ‘invisible interface’ is a style in itself rather than a predictable outcome of UX.
    I also believe that the perception of blandness stems from the hegemony of the damn wireframe. Chip in if you’ve ever heard your client say something like ‘it’s very white, can we have some more colour please’ as they study them nervously.
    If, as a UX bod you feel the need to influence the interaction or visual style then make a prototype or work up some screens - in colour with bits filled in! 
    For me, that’s the line between UX and UI/UCD/whatever-its-called-nowadays.

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  26. I’ll admit I’ve been using a mix of self-design and user-centered design. A lot of my interface decisions over the years were less based on hard, quantified research and more on the simple question: “how can I avoid pissing people off?”

    My preoccupation with performance is even motivated by my own impatience. I wouldn’t want to wait 3-5 seconds for a page to load, so why would I force that on anyone else? I wouldn’t want ridiculous charges on my data plan, so let’s try some adaptive image solutions to not punish others for low bandwidth.

    Design certainly isn’t art, as design is meant to used. They’re both consumed by the viewer, but in different contexts. Art isn’t meant to be consumed in a practical sense, rather an evocative sense. However, there’s absolutely no reason that artistry can’t _inform_ design.

    I have a soft spot for interfaces that are beautiful _and_ usable, because I feel emotion is part of the experience. Using an interface should be seamless, but the design should present a personality of its own IMO.

    Isn’t it also true that engagement is part of the user experience? So then why am I increasingly able to identify apps or sites that used Bootstrap immediately? That’s a startling sign of the homogeneity to come from treating design like an exact science. When you build something to be used by people, the numbers can easily go a little pear-shaped. Designers who recognize that it’s equal parts art, analysis, statistics, psychology, and sometimes just plain common sense will always be relevant.

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  27. I hate to be pedantic but “a priori, from a logical interpretation” is sort of a contradiction in terms. A priori knowledge is that which already exists as truth. Experience simply uncovers what was already there.

    A conclusion reached through the logical interpretation of a process, by contrast, is based on rationalist doctrine =)

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  28. Speaking of pedantry, I am afraid “The transition between the Neoclassical and Modernist architectural eras” never happened.

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  29. An interesting article Cennyyd, though I feel like you’ve set up (and very successfully knocked down) a strawman version of UCD. In reality, the “user-centered” design process in an amalgam of the 5 design processes outlined by Spool - in any project, we might do a little research here, might use our experience and wisdom there, design for ourselves at times or focus on user activities in one particular user journey. Hopefully less of the no-design though.

    This isn’t the textbook UCD process but a.) the concept has always been very loosely defined as it is and b.) meaning is derived from use, and if the actual, practiced UCD process comes to be more like the amalgam then that is what UCD is. So I agree that a variety of approaches are needed - but the rubric of UCD is so broad and ill-defined as to already include these approaches. Have we really been held hostage to the textbook version of UCD?

    Also, to add to pedants corner - “Scientism” isn’t wooly or bad science but rather the belief that scientific reasoning is always sovereign over other forms of reasoning (such as emotional or political reasoning). I’d certainly agree that isn’t a recipe for great design though!

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  30. Great article Cennydd. I’ve seen you are hiring in London. Are you still accepting applications?

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  32. Thanks god, I find this article. It helps me to understand what I am actually doing with my thesis. I am recently struggling with my thesis.  The reason was that my thesis advisor kept rejecting my thesis because I wanted to use UCD method to design a web app to help users achieve a certain task. But my advisor thought the way I was doing it was not UCD. It was a big red flag to her because I didn’t ask what users actually want without implying the feature I already have in my mind.
    She thought I should forget about that feature and ask users how they wish they can have to complete the task.
    Now, I think I am actually using the ACD not the UCD. Because I already have insights about how to solve a problem for users. I focus on a particular activity of users and I try to streamline the activity and make it more efficient by the feature I designed.
    I wish my advisor can also appreciate the ACD, not just UCD.

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  33. I think that when talking about the negation of style this is something that happens and can keep happening in the world of UX.
    UX bears the thinking of the era has been born into and its completely devoid of any ideology or objective beyond “better metrics” and so, it can negate style, being style an expression of an ideology.
    As the author said, modernism or neo-clasicisim were not mere visual tricks, there was more behind the aesthetic. However, in the case of UCD there is nothing and this is what I don’t like about it.

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  34. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.