Is user centred design wishful thinking design?

zondag 10 oktober 2010

I have been educated in interaction design and the user centred design philosophy for four year now. It has brought me some great insights in how systems are not created for the people who use them. Usability testing with a prototype is one of the best ways I know to see if a user can do his or her tasks in a system. This sad I think the user centred paradigm is implemented in ways in witch it doesn't work.

It is a skill to imagine stuff in your head. I think a or at least most designers have this skill. You give them a story or a concept and they can create a image of it. It is needed to create if you can't imagine what is not there you can not create. It comes so natural to designers they forget is a skill. Most people can not experience what they have not experienced. Even harder is to put this into words. Most people aren't experts at imagining they can't even tell what makes them happy. Most of our decisions are irrational. This doesn't our decision making is subconscious it just means it isn't rational.

I think not every discussion can end with we have asked the users in a questionnaire or a interview and that's why we chose A instead of B. You as a designer are responsible for the choices you make in a product. With usability testing you can test if a product is usable. Why is this so important? This is the reason why some big companies can't innovate. They ask there users do you like this new prototype. The user says no. An other company makes a real product out of this product and the user switches to the new product an the big company goes bankrupt because they didn't innovate. A great book on this subject is "The Innovators Dilemma".

A other instance where I think user centered design is not the right choice is in traffic. User centred design is crowd pleasing. It does what the user want. It's goal is to make the user comfortable. In traffic this is not the thing you want. You want a user to be alert. You want to have his full attention. When you make traffic user centred the user doesn't have to think and can lead to dangerous situations. "Don't make me think" might be sensible for websites but not in traffic where you want your user on top of there game.

The last example I want to give you web2.0 products. A product where the user must make content. The user must solve his own problem. The designer in this case must make the tools and maybe stimulate motivation in such way that the user wants to participate. Most web2.0 projects are developed out of user frustration and the user scratching his own back. This form of design is more focused on process instead of product. (See model below)

I think user centred design in the way it is thought doesn't fit as perfect as we might think. You can't put the weight of all the decisions on the back of the user. Thoughts on how you should design for user will come next posts.

A lot of thanks to Jasper Schelling who helped to explain the difference between data and process.

4 reacties:

Wim Rampen zei

Hello Matthijs,

Interesting thoughts, although I would like to suggest to frame "user-centered" a little more widely than "pleasing". In my humble opinion User Centered Designed is all about meeting the desired outcome.

As per your example of "traffic" the user's desired outcome would likely be to get from A to B safely and comfortably (and quickly would probably be in there too..).

The same argument applies to your Web2.0 example. The user wants to participate, share, connect, discuss etc.. These are all important "jobs" users need or want to do. Designing for systems that facilitate these "jobs" should also be considered as user centered design, if at least the designer has the interest of making the user's Job more easy & seamless..

I agree with you that if user centered design is focused on the product or experience only, it is framed too narrowly. If it's applied in the context of the Jobs users are trying to do and outcomes they are trying to achieve, it fits perfectly. In my humble opinion that is.

Let me know what you think!

Wim Rampen

Mathijs van Meerkerk zei

Hello Wim,

Thanks for your reaction. I agree that you say with you that if you see user centred design in a broader terms you can say those examples are user centred.

But this is not the point I wanted to make. I have been thought User Centered Design both at my bachelor studies and my current master studies. They do a good job in asking users for there opinion. They ask users if they like a idea but what they forget is that a user can only experience what he has experienced. That seems logical but it is not. Computer scientist and designers alike have the skill of putting abstract ideas into artefacts a user can manipulate. This skill allows them to do there job.

What they constantly forget is that this is a skill and not something that any user possess. In asking the user what they want they forget that the user can't answer this question. Otherwise he would have already done it.

Still complete projects founded on the we told the user about A and he didn't like it. It is your task as a designer not just to repeat what your user says but to be empathic. Look to the user situation and see where your product will of will not fit. Not just based on the user saying yes or no, but on your skill as a designer to see where and how the user might need this product.


Wim Rampen zei

Hi Mathijs,

I think we are on the same page. I also argue it doesn't make sense to ask the customer what they want as they have many problems articulating that. It makes more sense to try uncover what they are trying to achieve. Designers may have the capability to "sense" this because of their empathic skills, but the fact in life is that it is always better to research thoroughly and validate your hypothesis (or assumptions).

May I suggest you read these papers on Customer Centered Innovation by Bettencourt and Ulwick both from Strategyn ( Innovation Agency:


Both provide some good insights into the "jobs-to-be-done" methodology, which in my view is the appropriate answer to your caveat with asking users what they want.

Do you think we are on the same page?

Wim Rampen

Mathijs van Meerkerk zei

Hallo Wim,

Thanks again for the nice reaction. I like this discussion a lot. I scanned the papers the paper shortly and what I understand of them is that they are a great way to make incremental innovation to make what your existing product better suited for your customer.

But what about the breakthrough innovation. The stuff that can not be found in near the user. Witch horse do you bet for the next big thing.

I also agree that you can't rely on designers gut feeling. So what are you going to do? A great way to do this is by Lead User Innovation:

You could also ask the question why you should innovate and not let your users do that hard task. Toolkit design is something that is really nice for this goal:

I think we are on the same page but I belief there is more much more to explore in this field. For example the mental model of the user is very important. Simple thing can have a great impact. I think the complexity is not well understood.


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