Monday, May 11, 2009

The poverty of user-centered design

Everything is user-centered ...

"In the dim distant past, some of us used to distinguish our work from the masses by declaring proudly that we were ‘user-centered’. At one time this actually meant you did things differently and put a premium on the ability of real people to exploit a product or service. While the concern remains, and there are many examples of designs that really need to revisit their ideas about users, I find the term ‘user-centered’ to have little real meaning anymore. It is not just the case that everyone claims this label as representative, after all, who in their right mind would ever declare their work as not user-centered and still expect to have an audience? It is more a case that truly understanding the user seems beyond both established methods and established practices.

I will leave aside there any argument about the term ‘user’. Some people have made careers out of disimissing that term and proposing the apparently richer ‘person’ or ‘human’, but the end result is the same (though I prefer to talk of human-centered than user-centered myself). The real issue is methodological.

First, claiming adherence to user-centered methods and philosophies is too easy; anyone can do it. Ask people what they would like to see in a re-design and you have ‘established’ user-requirements. Stick a few people in front of your design at the end and you have ‘conducted’ a usability test. Hey presto, instant user-centered design process. If only!

Second, and more pernicious, the set of methods employed by most user-centered professionals fails to deliver truly user-centric insights. The so called ’science’ of usability which underlies user-centeredness leaves much to be desired. It rests too much on anecdote, assumed truths about human behavior and an emphasis on performance metrics that serve the perspective of people other than the user. ISO-defined usability metrics refer to ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ and ’satisfaction’. These do not correlate so one needs to capture all three. But who gets to determine what constitutes effective and efficient anyhow? In many test scenarios this is a determination of the organization employing the user, or the thoughts of the design team on what people should do, not the user herself. Maybe this should be called organizational-centric or work-centric design. If I wanted to start a new trend I could probably push this idea into an article and someone might think I was serious."    (Continued via InfoMatters, User Experience Network)    [Usability Resources]

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