The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Centred or Informed?

– March 29th, 2005 –

This has been rattling around my head for a good 9 months now and I think it’s high time I went into labour so to speak.

About 18 months I got into the whole User Centred Design approach. I championed the use and creation of Personas on particular projects, got into user flows and scenarios, conducted user interviews and performed other research. This was all before any design was done. This really got me thinking and Jeff Veen’s latest post sparked me into action.

Is UCD too dogmatic?

User Centred Design is just that, a design process with the user at the centre. It’s a widely used process, and works very well in producing a product that the user can use.

The thing is, and what Jeff hints at in his post, is that things aren’t always that cut and dry.

UCD is quite a rigid methodology, some would say dogmatic. It requires resources - money and people, but most importantly it normally requires a culture shift either within an organisation or on the part of a client. Here lies the problem.

Culture shifts

Culture shifts are time consuming, expensive and don’t always work. Key stake holders have to buy into the shift very early on and drive that change from the top. Even less ‘top down’ organisations have to have a key figure motivating that change across the divisions that need it. But UCD process is fundamentally a company wide shift in approach and culture. Let me give you an example.

A print design company, established over 15 years ago, offers a full service to it’s clients from Branding and Signage to Websites. It’s website offering has grown from brochure ware sites, to complex applications. It’s team has therefore grown to include more web specialists rather than print designers. The creative director is the linch-pin of this company - what he says goes - and he’s steered the company’s creative direction for 15 years.

So, you’ve got this company whose creative director is used to working in a particular way which has served the company and industry well. I like to call it the “Designer Knows Best” model (hmmm, DKB methodology, got a ring to it don’t you think?). All of a sudden a shift of culture is required by the company to meet market demand. UCD rears it’s head. And all of a sudden, it’s not about methodologies, it’s not about users, it’s about designers and their egos - end of story.

Maybe this example is a little cut and dry, but the fact of the matter is designers are taught to be problem solvers from a very early age (in career terms). Especially in print/branding circles it is the designers who deliver solutions (true, research generally informes these solutions) but rarely does the dogma of a UCD process enter into it.

User Informed Design methodology

What i’m talking about here is user research informing the design process. In UCD, this is formalised. You conduct tests, you design, you test again - iterate, iterate. Don’t get me wrong it’s a good model, but in a competitive market, where budgets are tight, there is simply not the resources, or impetus to change culture for a UCD process to be followed.

What i’d like to talk about is instead of User Centred Design methodology, many of us have already adopted a User Informed Design methodology.

The key differences between the two are:

  • Past experience. Use past experience rather than repeat user research
  • Get down and dirty. Adopt a similar working model to SCRUM. Get in there and start prototyping and designing straight way. Test informally as you go along.
  • Graphic designers do graphic design. Use research to guide functionality and UI - not graphic design. (I’m sure many graphic designers feel disenfranchised by Information Architects and Usability Designs solving a lot of the problems and leaving it up to the designs to “do the pretty stuff”)
  • Boost ego. If your Creative Director is a bit a dictator, work with him to get at least some testing done but try not to prove him wrong - he won’t like that. Try and prove him right, that way next time you propose more testing he’ll probably say yes.
  • Forget science. Scientifically gathered samples and the subsequent agency fees for recruiting are expensive. Unless you want to adopt a strict UCD approach and have the budget and will to do it, forget the scientifically gathered sample.

In conclusion…

So some of this may not come as a surprise. To conclude, it’s really all about being more flexible, relying on internal resources and your own experience with working with users before. It’s about getting down and dirty with prototypes early and let the user research inform the design rather than dictate it.

Filed in: design, information-architecture.

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