The New R&D: Relevant & Desirable

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“I’ve heard people argue we don’t know anything about designing for users except that which we learn through usability testing.” Somewhere in the process of evangelizing user-centered design, user experience professionals seem to have forgotten the value of vision-driven design.

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.


  1. Thank your for a well written article.

    However I think that the critique of user-centered design is somewhat misplaced. Inherent in the word design is the visionary and innovative elements that Olsen seem to assign only to what he calls vision-based design. Thus, user-centered design is no “dangerous tunnel vision” but a sound approach where the creative visions of the designer are quality checked against the needs and demands of the user.

    User-centered designers are creative people who have enough common sense to check the value of their vision thereby trying to avoid that “nine out of ten product launches fail in the marketplace”.

  2. There are some distinctly different attributes here. Call these meta-visions if you like…

    *Making a vision real for those not blessed with the ability to do so*

    *Using your vision of tomorrow to deflect the pedantic mechanics of today*

    *Providing a lens to focus the blurry concepts and ideas of others*

    These still remain user centred precepts, but nomore around need and utility. Those tireless ‘users’ we’re so fond of should be allowed to dream a little. Perhaps part of our role as designers is to help them achieve this?

  3. George Oslen is right. User-Centred Design is held up too often as the sole technique for developing usable products – as opposed to an extremely useful one. But he could of gone further. How often is User-Centred Design actually, in practice, a User-Influenced Design. The popularity of “discount” usability methods, the distance of the user from the design process, organisational issues that don’t stop managers speaking for the user, the impractical cost of many full-blown user-centred techniques — these all real-world problems combine to taint the methodological purity of the method.

    Worse, the method itself is a difficult sell in a constrained business environment. Managers hear User-Centred, but would much rather it was Business-Centred. Where in User-Centred Design does it talk of either making money or lowering costs? To pressured business people, it will sound like a very academic methodology. Of course you can argue that happy users are more profitable that probably incur less costs. And those are frequent outcomes. But they are not specific goals of the method.

    And the method itself is too often a cloak, for young user experience designs to don the white coat of methodological respectability, rather than argue out issues on direct business terms.

    And yes, the word “design” might inherently contain visionary and innovative elements, but the words “user-centred” rather obviously locates that vision and innovation solely within the domain of the user.

    As experience designers age, may be they will feel more confident using their own experience to offer a vision and combine that with appropriate user-centred input. Methods are a way of ensuring a common level of competence. They are not a substitute for vision.

  4. This article reminds me of a quote I’ve seen attributed to David Ogilvy:

    “Some use research the way a drunk uses a lamp post: for support rather than illumination.”

    . . . a good reminder that user research is best used to INSPIRE design, rather than DRIVE design.

  5. I don’t believe that vision-driven design and user-centered design are opposed or concurrent in any way. Though it is very refreshing to read something that reminds us that we are creating PRODUCTS rather than TWEAKING the users great ideas (and I have heard this!), I disagree that vision-driven design is neglected when approaching a project with the user in mind.

    I believe larger part of Web sites originate from an envisioned idea internal to the business rather than some market research to see what consumers would like “invented”. However, without this research and all subsequent user-centered technicalities (IA, usability testing, etc), that ‘vision-driven’ design could be totally misguided.

    “Focusing exclusively on users” is exactly the OPPOSITE of the “build and fix” approach. It is MEANT to make better designs and avoid fixes (I really did not get it why did this article said otherwise).

    Both approaches – user-centered and vision-driven – are complementary and essential to the final success of project; the first guarantees innovation and the later performance.

  6. George, can you provide a definition of this so-called “user-centered design” that you’re referring to that has all these negative traits that you comment on? Sounds like you’re just confusing incompetent attempts at user-centered design with that done by people who actually know what they are doing. How about a definition of this “vision-based design” that you’re referring to as well?

    You argue for products that are relevant and desirable, as if this is something new and different, rather than a primary focus of user-centered design.

    “does it really matter if the marketing people, the techies, or the office receptionist came up with the idea in question?”

    No, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what the idea is built upon and if it will be given the scrutiny it deserves.

  7. User-centered design is a problem when it replaces brainstorming and marketing needs. I was impressed with a recent article about Ideo. I get the impression that everyone at Ideo thinks user-centered which give a great framework to their brainstorming.

    Another danger in user-centred design that management can lose its delusions that they are trying to please everyone and then try to do it! major mistake. Georges comments about the mini-van reminded me of Alan Cooper talking about how the Dodge RAM became the best selling pickup because 80% of people hated and the other 20% loved it. That’s user-centred design too!

    Too often companies try to market based on usability and usefulness. Almost always a mistake. People shop by features. Usability and usefulness are much bigger players in retention. If I remember correctly, marketing is one of the three legs of Donald Normans product success stool.

  8. George, your article truly resonates. I’ve always done my information architecture as a content manager and a product designer. Usability was part of QA, not a driving force. I don’t mean to discount its importance, but simply to put it in perspective. Business requirements have always been the determinants for my architectures, and as such, I succeeded in developing products and services that enabled new revenue streams. And increased revenues isn’t unrelated to happy customers. If usability were truly the primary buy consideration for end customers, then our entire computing environments would probably be radically different. While I wish this were true, I agree whole-heartedly that it’s unrelated to the realities of our present form of capitalism.

  9. Usability is often based upon a ‘can people effectively use this?’ scenario, when just as important – maybe even more so – is the question ‘do people want to use this?’. Desire, emotion and ‘fun’ are hypercritical considerations in the design of a new product/service. ‘Fuzzy, messy, inspired’ creative vision and data-driven usability (or, teeshirts and lab coats) do make somewhat strange bedfellows, but are a necessity…

    I’ve always wished for a better term than (the patronizing) ‘user’ – they’re people too!

  10. As long as you fail to define what you mean by user-centered design, then there’s little value to your discussing it other than for mental self-gratification. It certainly doesn’t come across like you know what you’re talking about…

    My take: user-centered design is not a process, methodology, or family of methods. It’s a philosophy of simply considering the capabilities of the concerns of the users of a system in the creation of that system, as contrasted to technology-centered design where the capabilities of the technology are the primary or sole drivers in the creation of a system.

  11. I’ve seen this argument time and again.
    The problem with many “experts” (design, usability included) is their stalwart belief in a single methodology (often their own) as the best and only way to achieve success in design.

    Bottom line, I’ve never seen a situation where there has been a single, correct approach to designing a product or service.

    Design practice is both an art and science. As much as we search for a scientific formula, it is impossible to distill design completely into a set of rules, methods, principles etc. You can’t deny the subjective side of design practice. I have yet to find any model that can encapsulate the full breadth and nuance of human expression.

    So I think good design practice involves selecting from our own arsenal of tools and applying them to a problem with both a scientist and artist’s eye. Part of the process involves applying something like usability testing, part involves using your emotive gut to guide your pencil across your sketchbook, and finally (since design in the real world is never cut and dry) part involves factoring in business needs and constraints.

    That’s for starters, there may be even more parts to a design practice, given the situation…

    What amazes me is the fact we all nonetheless scratch and scrape so hard to assume the expert stance and quantify what we encounter. I guess it has to do with our inherent desire to find pattern and, ultimately, meaning in what we see.

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