The most common driver I’ve encountered is “chooser-centered” design: Whoever runs the show sets the agenda. That doesn’t always mean the VP is in charge–the “chooser” might be a gung-ho lead developer. As Cooper illustrates in The Inmates are Running the Asylum, techies who are focused on the latest whizzy server platform can be just as unbalanced as a CEO obsessed over expressing the corporate mission, or a creative director who prizes aesthetics to the detriment of all else.
The key isn’t to point fingers at the culprits—it’s to find solutions. I know I’m preaching to the converted when I point out that client-centric, portfolio-centric, technology-centric, marketing-centric, and business-centric approaches abound, and all are flawed. We see the symptoms across the Web with CEO mug shots and vision statements on the homepage, or edgy visual design that wins awards but not customers. So what’s the answer?
In my mind, I hear your response: “We know better. We have the answers!” In the user experience community, we’re valiantly fighting against the infection of chooser-centered design, and the antidote we prescribe is user involvement. It’s the common rallying cry of the UX community: “Put the user in the process! Embrace user-centered design!”
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong answer.
Let me rephrase that—it’s only a partially right answer, and not the key consideration either. User-centered design (UCD) suffers from three significant drawbacks that disqualify it as the ultimate candidate for the center of design.
- In placing the user at the center of the process, UCD often ignores other aspects and the process and projects become unbalanced. In reacting to the prevalence of chooser-centric decisions, we grasp UCD with such zeal that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Kent Dahlgren’s CHI-WEB post Usability Contributed to My Layoff vividly illustrates the consequences of extreme user focus.
- Putting the user at the center of the process and setting the metrics for project success implies that user-centered design is the “right” approach. Assuming UCD is THE right approach suggests that there is a sort of moral imperative to pursue a user-centered methodology. This has a number of detriments. For people who tacitly adopt the moral imperative position, attempted evangelism can come off with a preachy “I told you so” attitude. When others don’t buy into doing things the “right” way, they are often dismissed as unenlightened luddites who don’t understand the importance of what we do. Thus, some practitioners develop a UCD inferiority complex–a resentful feeling that we’re not appreciated or understood. Often this results in the practitioner’s return to more comfortable territory–conversations within the UX community about methods or tools, or how engineers or marketing just don’t get it. And that leads us to what might be the biggest drawback of UCD.
- UCD information is rarely put in terms that resonate with others outside the field–the reality is that user-centered design evangelists often aren’t user-centered at all. We might address ROI, but in the same sentence we use jargon like contextual inquiry, controlled vocabulary, or experience map. While jargon is useful inside the community, and business decision makers are smart enough to pick up our vocabulary, it points to a deeper problem. We naively expect our audiences to learn our lingo, rather than understanding their needs and addressing executives and other decision makers with language and messages tailored for them. We don’t practice what we preach.
None of this means that user-centered design is wrong or worthless. But it’s only part of the picture–necessary, but not sufficient. To see the complete picture requires stepping back and developing a balanced perspective. Individually, practitioners often recognize the other factors at play, but collectively we don’t express the recognition very well.
To connect with decision makers and the people who influence them, we should treat them as “users” of the user experience message. And in this case, being user-centered means not blurting out “User-centered design is the answer!” at the first available opportunity.
While there are a number of alternatives for approaching user experience evangelism, I’m going to share one perspective that has worked for me to begin conversations with decision makers. I call it value-centered design.
(Before we go further, a caveat: Value-centered design isn’t the ultimate answer either, but I hope it helps in your own efforts to connect to decision makers).
The basic premise of value-centered design is that shared value is the center of design. This value comes from the intersection of:
- Business Goals and Context
- Individual Goals and Context
- The Offering (While it sounds like the title of a low-budget horror flick, “offering” is general enough for a wide variety of situations. For a particular project, this might be a product offering, service offering, or content offering)
- Delivery (How do we get it from the business to the individual?)
Consideration of these goals leads to a particular offering from the business to the individual, delivered through a specific channel. Together, the offering and delivery method create a solution that drives return on investment for the business, and “return on experience” for the individual—return where she gains some benefit for the time, attention, or money invested in the experience. Both parties are satisfied, and this satisfaction establishes the foundation for sustainable initiatives and an ongoing relationship. Meeting business and individual goals creates value, and that’s largely what design is about.
When value is explicitly placed at the center of design, we no longer have to explain what we mean by user-centered design. Our user experience toolbox merely becomes part of the complete picture, working to produce a great solution that meets individual and business goals. User needs are set on equal footing with business needs, and the solution is explicitly a means to achieving those ends, instead of an end itself.
While space doesn’t permit great exposition on the implications of value-centered design, I want to address some key questions I get from my peers in the user experience community.
- Isn’t VCD incredibly generic? Isn’t everything about creating value?
Well, the generality of value is what lets VCD speak to a wide variety of people and situations. However, it’s important to remember that VCD isn’t just about value as a platitude or ideal; value explicitly comes from meeting business and individual goals. The meeting of goals puts individual user goals on the same plane as business goals, which tremendously changes the conversation with business decision makers. In fact, when value is defined this way, everything isn’t about creating value. All those different centers we touched on–award-centric, technology-centric, self-centric approaches–all fail to generate value because they don’t satisfy both individual and business goals (and sometimes neither).
- Isn’t VCD just a reframing of current ideas?
The quick answer is yes. But it’s not “just” a reframing. It’s a reframing that does two key things: puts the user into a business context as an equal player with business goals, and uses language tailored to business decision makers. It also helps me get over my personal “I told you so but nobody listens to me” complex that I seem to share with many in the user experience community. Most importantly, “value” provides a common platform for taking current ideas and introducing them to a much broader audience in a way that “user” can’t.
- For something so broad, what real concrete tools come from value-centered design? How can I apply this in my daily work?
Well, I hope B&A will let me talk some more about this at a later date, but for now, here are three ways I apply VCD day to day:
- Building buy-in for user experience;
- Applying user experience tools to the business side of the equation (ask me sometime about business personas); and
- Creating a framework for looking at projects and the tools that they need to generate value.
Of course there are more questions about value-centered design. It’s not perfect, and it’s still evolving within my own practice.
Value-centered design starts a story about an ideal interaction between an individual and an organization and the benefits each realizes from that interaction. How that story ends is still being decided with every new project we pursue. I hope that VCD will spark the first chapter in some great success stories about using a balanced approach to create lasting, sustainable value for businesses and the individuals they work with.
- VCD grew from my work with Lou Rosenfeld playing with the Argus three-ring IA model: Users, Content, Context. [http://www.louisrosenfeld.com/home/bloug_archive/000024.html] However, that model is about describing IA practice, not a model that describes project priorities.
- My original VCD diagram and post over at Peter Merholz’s blog. [http://www.peterme.com/archives/00000172.html#16]
- Usability Contributed to My Layoff – Kent Dahlgren’s CHI-WEB post [http://listserv.acm.org/archives/wa.cgi?A2=ind0108A&L=chi-web&P=R3883]
- The Handbook of User Centered Design – “What is User-Centered Design” makes no mention of business goals.
- Applying the Behavioral, Cognitive, and Social Sciences to Products – Don Norman’s exhortation for the social sciences to understand business
- Gene Smith [www.atomiq.org] kindly discussed early drafts of this article, and it is much better for his contribution.