User-centered design has been a useful antidote to prevailing software and web development attitudes, which are reminiscent of early 20th century production-driven marketing approaches. As Henry Ford put it, you could buy a Model T in any color as long as it was black. Likewise, the dot-bomb implosion showed the risks of basing the success of your business on a wild (and often bad) idea.
But it’s an equally big mistake to focus our attention solely on users (which is one reason I’ve never particularly liked the term “user-centered design”). At worst, I’ve heard people argue we don’t know anything about designing for users except that which we learn through usability testing.
Focusing exclusively on users like this is just plain wrong — it’s the equivalent of software development’s discredited “build and fix” approach. But more importantly, it’s indicative of dangerous tunnel vision, and it hurts our profession, our businesses and clients, and, yes, our users.
First, this perspective ignores reality. Businesses will continue to develop new products (including websites and software) based primarily on someone’s vision. Telling them that’s the wrong way to do it just leads to UX professionals being dismissed as out of touch. This is a bad move at any time, but particularly when our professions are seeking to gain a permanent role in the development process.
Second, solutions in search of a problem occasionally do result in break-through products that are wildly successful. After all, who asked for the Sony Walkman, mini-vans with dual sliding doors, or the Internet? By focusing exclusively on users we risk becoming optimizers, not innovators. Granted, there’s a huge amount of work in bringing sites and software up to the level of good (or even good enough), but that doesn’t mean we should lose sight of building great ones.
Third, sometimes vision-based design is the most appropriate approach when aspects of a product are driven by questions of style and aesthetics. House of Dior once had a fashion show hit with a dress made from newspaper. Translated into a newsprint-look fabric, the dress proved to be a huge commercial success. Could user-centered design have predicted that? I sincerely doubt it.
That said, user experience actually has a lot to offer vision-driven design, especially in areas overlooked by conventional marketing research, which focuses on discovering expressed needs. Our user research techniques are effective at discovering needs people didn’t even realize they had. These unexpected bonuses are among the most powerful selling points for a product, and often become must-haves — think of the cup holders in your car. By uncovering such latent needs, we help make the ground more fertile for wild ideas to spring forth.
Likewise, we can provide guidance about which wild ideas are worth nurturing. By some estimates, nine out of ten product launches fail in the marketplace. (In that context, the dot-bomb era doesn’t look so bad…) Our knowledge and skills can make a valuable contribution to business: risk reduction. Marketing typically focuses on getting customers to buy or use a product. We focus on making that product something that they want to buy or use again.
Not only that, we can provide a few ideas of our own. In a sense, UX professionals can be like doctors to users: Users know their pain, but they don’t necessarily know what’s causing it (is it stomach cramps or appendicitis?), nor do they know the cure. But we do. As Darrel Rhea, principal of Cheskin aptly puts it, creating critical insights is what professional designers do.
In other words, we provide the new R&D: we make sure products are relevant and desirable.
So the next time you’re fighting over development proposals, ask yourself: does it really matter if the marketing people, the techies, or the office receptionist came up with the idea in question? Arguably, we provide better insights, but we don’t provide the only ones, and if a product is relevant and desirable, users will love it regardless of whose bright idea it was.