User Centered Design is Dead. Long Live User Centered Design.

“The days of user-centered design are numbered.”

In his recent talk at the MIX11 Conference, August de los Reyes spoke about his conception for the future of design. It is one in which ‘alignment’ with natural modes of interaction will be more important than traditional usability. ‘Learn-ability’ will be increasingly important. As the field progresses, new technologies are created and we better understand ourselves and our world, “user centered design will become increasingly irrelevant.”

 

Now before anyone storms off, or whatever the digital equivalent is, I’d just like to put this out there: August is only saying what the rest of us have been thinking. At least all of us designers. We have long known that user-centered design as it is most often practiced today, is not a good design process in and of itself; not a ‘best practice,’ if you will.  Nothing revolutionary or innovative can result from the established user-centered design process that places user desires at the apex. I’ll give the classic example to illustrate: Could the iPod have come from a user-centered design (UCD) process? Of course not – if Apple had asked what type of music player people wanted, the answers would have been about a better CD player – smaller, better, fewer skips, maybe easier to hold, but a CD player nonetheless.

 

Users don’t know what they want. They know what they have. So asking users’ opinions can often prevent good, but radically different ideas from coming to fruition. The iPod was a new way of thinking about the problem of portable music. Instead of iterating on the existing paradigm, Apple threw out the paradigm and started anew. A user’s imagination is not a barometer of good design. People don’t like change, so new designs must not only be significantly better than the previous system, they must also be fully realized before being introduced. These restrictions do not mean the designer works in a vacuum. Research and user observation are still important for enabling designers to understand the domain they are designing for and the goals and needs inherent in it. A designer’s job is to critically think about new technologies’ implications and opportunities as well as natural ways of interacting with the world to synthesize those ideas into new means for accomplishing goals. Not gain approval for one design or another as judged by a panel of users approximating the target group.

 

Why then, is user-centered design so popular? Well, it is very good at producing a refined end result. It may not be the best end result, but it will be the best that particular result can be. By this I mean that UCD is good at refining the little things – color, layout, etc. It is not however, good at defining the problem or creating revolutionary solutions. But some executives think that it could be, since it is based on data and data always has the answer. Data doesn’t contain the answer if it is meaningless, just as users can only know what they already have. Creating innovation is the work of the design team and it cannot be achieved through the incremental improvement UCD allows.

 

Unlike August, I don’t think user-centered design will become completely irrelevant. I do think that it will be relegated to a small part of some design processes where it will refine an already defined solution, similar to the role of participatory design in the discussion on a recent IxDA panel debate by August’s colleague, Adriana Gil Miner, who pointed out that “Participatory design is not about asking what users want, but observing their behavior.” (It also seems to me that there isn’t actually a difference between user-centered design and participatory design, but that is a discussion for another blog post.) Her point on feedback is cogent as well: “While users’ feedback is absolutely necessary too, it’s important to know when to solicit it –– engage it too early and it can suffocate the best ideas.” This idea relates to my point about user imagination. Moving forward, UCD will get out of the way and let designers do their jobs: observe, understand, identify and ideate.

 

What do you think about user-centered design? And how does it affect your role? What about the increasing trend of crowdsourcing?