“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Why UX/UCD is not helpful any more … or is it?

It is so hard to not become a victim of our surroundings and this post is trying really hard to not do that.

I have a pretty multi-facetted history; however, that history has been linear in its movement away from technology and towards design. Not that these are opposites, but they have centers of overlapping communities. Each community with its own distinctiveness at its center. Language, methods, mental models, etc. And to be very blunt, my techy side was never really at the engineering level, and more at the social scientist level. Both though share a rationalistic and analytical tendency that allows them to speak more easily with each other like a Norwegian speaking with a Swede, as opposed to a Scandinavian speaking with a French person. This latter simile is more like that of a techie to a designer. Did you notice how the level of zoom changed? (important here).

As many have noted, I’m pretty passionate when I speak. This is a double-edged sword to say the least. I think passion helps you get listened to, but if the energy is not directly properly, it is often interpreted as being definitive instead of suggestive. Lately, there have been a lot of discussion (good discussion) about the relevance of “user-centered design”. Unfortunately, since no one really has a lock on what the heck UCD is, it is hard to have a conversation about it. Further, the idea that there are so many contexts for work makes it further difficult to come to any sort of group consensus about it. Further, people are in different parts of their career.

Some might say that this lack of cohesion of a single community of practice is at the core of the problem and it is hard to argue that. But that is plain cynical and I do believe there is more than binds all these differences than separates us.

Since we are trying to generalize, I will break this down to a common denominator. “user centered design” is the philosophy that we must in a measured and methodical way bring the user into various stages of the development process of products & services. The bold elements are there for a reason.  Measured is not necessarily quantitative, but it is declarative and can be related to the data of observation (in the (social) scientific sense of the term). Methodical is important because it relates to the intentionality of the observations and that they observations follow a method with a history, and a collection of case studies that support its use. This to me is the bare minimum in order to maintain that UCD is a useful, viable term for design.

User Experience is the result of any design artifact that uses UCD. It is NOT “experience design”, but an experience design can be a user experience. Further “user experience” implies by the use of the term user that the experience focuses on “use”. But that might push back the discussion a bit, so gloss over it if you felt the hair on your neck go up.

Now that we know what I’m saying when I say these terms we can move on. The reason I feel like these terms are still moot is because of history. It assumes that sometime in 1991 when Mitch Kapor first declared the software design manifesto or even further back when SIGCHI split from HFES or even further back when HFES formed that these were the first moments of UCD at all. We can look back to DaVinci and his work or we can look even further to the work of “de Architecture” by Vitruvius to see how human beings were being methodically considered in measured ways.

Even in modern times (turn of the century) the idea that we must design for humans has taken place well outside the realm of software design. Henry Dreyfus’ “Designing for Humans” is a core book of study for anyone doing Industrial Design, for example. And there are many more examples. So at best UCD is not describing something new, but describing something specific within a new area where it has been missing. Ok, that’s all well and good.

Today, though, we are designing in close collaboration with more and more types of people and the reality is that the language of UCD in practice and theory is couched in terms that while relevant to many looses relevancy for way too many.

So as someone who has declared that UX and UCD are dead, it is not out of insensitivity to the need that we constantly observe, measure, analyze and model, but rather out of a change of audience when I promote my thinking.

But to the contrary, Dave …

I just recently returned from the Industrial Design Society of America’s IDUS annual conference. There were more “design research” sessions than any other single topic by my best analysis. I didn’t attend many but one that really got me was one of the closing keynotes. It was a brilliant example of how we need to be engaged in observational and immersive research in order to get out of ourselves. What the speaker said is that “gut-based design is at best a derivative of conventions” and in order to leave convention we need new data.

At no time during his talk did this person once use UCD or any other language we would consider in our purview as UX practitioners. He was completely grounded in realm where anthropology and industrial design meet (quite often I might add).

But I hear so many people in software design whom UCD can’t be taken for granted and so many in the ID community for whom research is non-existent. This is why UCD/UX is still relevant for them. But for me, in my world, in my experience, UCD/UX ended about 5 years ago. Suggest to me that research is optional or disposable and I won’t take the job. If you insist that research is the core to great design, you’d equally loose my attention.

I teach research methods and I’m drilling into these students the idea 2 things:

1) you can’t start to design unless you know why and for whom

2) you can’t do research without designing it from the ground up

The dialectic between design and research is strong. You should never stop designing and you should never stop observing. Does observation always need to be methodical and measured? I don’t think so. It is more important to just get out of oneself and consider the world around you. There are contexts where observation has to be measured in order to be useful and the best forms of measured observation are methodical. But again, the goals and contexts will determine how and when.

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  • http://www.apogeehk.com Daniel Szuc

    Thanks Dave.

    “The dialectic between design and research is strong. You should never stop designing and you should never stop observing.” – YUP!

    The communications bridge between these 2 is critical as well.


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