Searching for the center of design

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“In the user experience community, we’re valiantly fighting against the infection of chooser-centered design, and the antidote we prescribe is user involvement.”Design is driven by many considerations. But on each project I’ve worked on, there seems to be a consistent center—a driver that determines priorities, direction, and the metrics used to measure success.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

mcmullin_090803.gifThe 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.

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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:

  1. Building buy-in for user experience;
  2. Applying user experience tools to the business side of the equation (ask me sometime about business personas); and
  3. 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.

Jess McMullin is a user experience consultant who helps companies innovate products and services. Through value-centered design, Jess works to maximize return on investment for his clients and return on experience for their users. A founder of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, he runs the popular IA news site iaslash. He is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Jess can be reached at banda(at)interactionary(dot)com.


  1. You make some good points about connecting with management. The Business mind, in many cases interested in the dollar value or the mission value, fails to see the user value in building designs that help users accomplish their goals. A user may be interested in what your companies mission is, but chances are they don’t want it screaming at them across the homepage. They came to your site for a specific reason. It might be for information or to purchase a product. Helping the user accomplish their goal while balancing business drivers is the key to success. The best way to get buy-in from management is to speak in the language they understand.

    Great article! I hope to read more from you in this topic.

  2. Hey Richard,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I completely agree about speaking the language of business – I ran a panel on that exact topic at the 2005 IA Summit in Montreal. I’ve also written about business and design (particularly design maturity and business fluency) on my blog at and at Ambidextrous Magazine.



  3. Great posting. Everyone on the team needs to have an understanding of the business context, i.e., how their actions contribute to or detract from the value of the product. Management likes the sound of UCD because it means that the users will like the outcome. They know that happy users are users who will diligently use the system. There are always three goals for a system 1) to support performance of the business process at hand, 2) to serve the needs of downstream processes with high quality data and 3) to produce high quality data to support broader management decision making, for example, as part of a data warehouse. As an enterprise data modeler, I am responsible for designing data structures that ensure that data that flows to downstream processes and into the data warehouse is of high quality. Where the user design can interfere is with directing developers to create unmanaged data redundancy, ambiguity of terms, optionality of data that is critical to the downstream and sometimes not persisting data that is needed downstream. If we work together, with a willingness to compromise on all sides and in an environment where everyone’s expertise is valued, the result will naturally produce high quality data as well as a high quality user experience.

  4. Jess, this is really great stuff. Thank you.

    I have been thinking about this from a different direction as I have recently joined a great group of business-centric folks who are interested in UCD, but I think the ends are the same and the point is similar.

    The way I put it is that UCD is really about giving users motivation to fulfill business goals. I think that is the same as achieving value for both side of this coin. It seems that my colleagues anyway have been able to appreciate this as they know they have no business if users aren’t motivated to come.

    On a separate note I think it important that for decades before there was UCD businesses were supplying people w/ great stuff. They do have methods and tactics that are quite useful in engaging customers to come forth and realize business goals. We should engage in those practices and quite honestly learn from them.

    — dave

  5. Wow Jess! This was a very timely article. I just shared with our web team here and it’s refreshing to see more about business context for IA/UE. Thanks and I hope B&A gives you the chance to write more! 🙂 -ML

  6. Thanks all for your kind comments.

    Mary, you raise a critical point.
    >Jesse James Garrett, in his seminal book Elements of the User Experience, includes business goals and constraints amongst those requirements that lay the foundation for a user-centered design process.

    I helped tech review Jesse’s book, and absolutely agree that good UCD practitioners already understand that business goals are important and need to be balanced with user needs.

    Value-centered design largely provides a platform for conversation with business – while we understand the importance of business goals, business sometimes doesn’t understand the importance of indivdual people’s goals. That’s where we typically start talking about user-centered design. Sometimes that works, but often business folks tune out when the focus is on the user. VCD puts the focus on something business can engage with – value – while bringing users into the picture. That simple reframing has helped several clients ‘get it’ rather than glazing over.

  7. Jess, in your research for this article did you come across any of the work by Larry Keeley of the Doblin Group? Larry talks about the need to balance (1) business viability, (2) technical feasibility, and (3) customer/user desirability.

    Your piece seems to advocate a balance between viability and desirability and I’m curious how you think technical feasibility should figure in the equation.

    Incidentally, Hugh Dubberly wrote an interview with Alan Cooper that discussed this 3-axis balance in greater detail. The interview was published by the AIGA about 18 months ago. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the article has been published electronically.

  8. Hi Bob,

    I’m familiar with Doblin’s online material, though I haven’t seen the particular piece you mention. I actually think that talking about technical feasibility is secondary. The content or product offering is secondary too – that’s why Offering and Delivery reside ‘behind’ the intersection of individual and business goals. While Delivery includes technical feasibility, I see that as supporting goals, rather than determining them.

    That said, I’d guess you (and Larry) would agree – both technology and the functionality or content offered should stem from goals, not drive them.

  9. Thanks for following up Jess. I’m wondering if you could elucidate on goals-based design a bit more. I’ve never thought it was adequately explained in the literature. For example, I could image a goal such as “connect with friends or family” and one way of fulfilling that goal might be “share photos”. However, I don’t see how you can have a meaningful discussion about that goal without describing how it might be addressed and how it might be addressed requires some conversation about the medium or technology that might be used.

    I’m not saying that technology should drive the product and certainly not that it should drive users but the unavoidable truth is that these products require a conversation between users AND technology and any such conversation has to start with a healthy respect for both parties. Sometimes the technology can come a long way toward the user, e.g. voice recognition, and sometimes it can’t, e.g. hand-writing recognition. The trick is to find those opportunities for moving them closer together so that the conversation can be more effective.

    At a higher-level I’m concerned whenever I see designers avoid, ignore, or downplay the technical realities of the situation because in doing so they alienate themselves from the process of building and developing the products, ultimately losing what little power they may have had in influencing and controlling the means of production.

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