Saturday, February 02, 2008

Redefining User-Centered Design, Part 2

Two aspects to design ...

"In Part 1 of this three-part article I talked about some of the flaws of a traditional User-Centered Design (UCD) process. Here, we'll take a look at a solution to some of these problems, and see examples of products designed without the aid of UCD.

The Two Faces of Design

Although many designers rely on process alone, there are, in reality, two aspects to design.

The first is, of course, process, which is how we arrive at the solutions we create. The second is the design itself—the part of the solution that the customer actually touches and with which he interacts.

UCD addresses only the process. It doesn't tell us how to achieve a usable interface. But a process, no matter how effective or time-tested it may be, doesn't automatically result in a usable or desirable product. And if your product is usable and desirable, it doesn't matter one bit which process you used to get there, as long as you can repeat it.

Hence, in addition to looking at how to improve the speed and quality of the processes that lead us to the solution, it's also vitally important to look at the solution itself.

First, let's look at a few ways to solve some of the problems of UCD with a process that is fast, effective, and capable of fitting into real-world development cycles. After that, we'll take a look at the design of the interfaces themselves.

Activity Centered Design

Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and Jakob Nielsen's partner at the Nielsen/Norman Group, released an article in June 2005 titled, "Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful." In the article, Norman discussed the idea of Activity Centered Design, which, despite being an old idea, has yet to be thoroughly explored in the software world.

Like UCD, Activity Centered Design (ACD) is a process. Unlike UCD, however, ACD focuses not on the least stable part of the design equation—the user—but rather on the activity an application is meant to support.

This distinction may seem subtle—after all, studying an activity can mean studying the people that perform it—but it's actually pretty dramatic. It means that, in many cases, a product can be scoped, designed, documented, built, and released to wild success without researching a single end-user.

How is this possible? To answer this, let's take a look at the building blocks of ACD.

First, ACD is based on activity theory, which basically asserts that an activity occurs whenever a person interacts with an object for some particular reason (e.g. A person who is hungry performs the activity of eating by grabbing a cheeseburger.) The advantage of studying an activity instead of a user is that activities, unlike our highly unreliable users, are in many cases quite stable.

Users can pull us in several different directions, constantly contradict each other's demands and so-called needs, and struggle to get their goals addressed in an application. When studying activities, however, this problem largely disappears."    (Continued via Peachpit, Robert Hoekman)    [Usability Resources]

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