User led, centered or focused?

All designers talk about the need to understand users as part of the design process…indeed we often talk about “putting users at the heart of everything we do”.  But there is a clear distinction between being led by users (and what they think they want) and understanding what they need and developing new solutions around this.

There is a view amongst some in the design community that talking to users doesn’t deliver innovation or new solutions.  So what is the role of the user in the design process and should they be leading us or should we be focused on them?

There is a clear difference in the outcomes that should be expected from these two directions.  We frequently get asked to talk to users about “what they want”.  This is often prompted by the desire to have them involved and placating them around any change.  “What they want” tends to generate wish lists which are about fixing the existing problems and usually result in a solution that is pretty similar to the current situation.  We’d agree that it doesn’t deliver the leap forward in how things are done or the innovative change that clients are often seeking at a strategic level.

This is thinking about the now is a natural behaviour for users and it has its place in certain projects.  But there is a trueism in the old Henry Ford quote about if he had asked users what they want, they would have asked for faster horses (although we gather there is not much evidence he ever actually said this!).

From our perspective, the approach to user centred design is not asking people what they want but is in discovering the underlying need in a more abstract sense and using that to creatively find new solutions.  This still requires us to do all the good things around talking to users and observing behaviours.  But it then needs the expertise to stand back from what you’ve heard, analyse the information and the problem, understand the current goals and arrive at new insights.

This expertise has to be implemented carefully and the challenge for the design team is to remove the ego-centric point of view that we all naturally hold.  The capture of this broad data and evidence are useful in getting a picture of the diverse needs of the range of different users and the design team needs to hold onto this.

At some point in a user centred design approach, one does need to interact with the user community and get some feedback.  Is the new solution usable or meeting the underlying need?  Prototyping is almost always the best approach to this.

We see the role of the designer as providing two distinct roles – firstly as the expert in undertaking the wider task analysis and understanding the diverse needs of the range of users.  The second is as the filter for the feedback coming from users, using their skills to stand back and see the bigger, forward thinking picture.

We have to accept that innovation if often a punt into the unknown.  We have to try things and see if they meet the need and see if they stick.

But user centered design should not be simply user led.  Asking users what they want is never enough.  Not if you want to develop solutions that are useful, usable and provide the holistic experience that users need.  



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