XII.2 March + April 2005
Page: 75
Digital Citation

Beyond human-centered design?

Nico Macdonald

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The Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) 2004 conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, featured a panel on the theme "Beyond Human-Centred Design?" which asked whether a diminished view of the user and corporate cowardice leave people short-changed with respect to the design of new products. Three panelists constructed the following positions after the panel discussion.

Today the concept of user-centered design is entirely accepted by practitioners, and largely accepted by clients, though it is still often honored in its breach. More than ever, business leaders are focused on users—or, in business terminology, consumers. Business is driven by focus groups, consumer surveys, market trends analysis, "cool spotting," and even ethnographic research.

The recognition that people should be the focus of the design and development of computer-based systems is undoubtedly positive. However, this development may mask more questionable changes in business practice.

While user-centered design has come to the fore, innovation in design is at a low ebb. Yet the challenges of designing interfaces are greater than ever. The personal computer is no longer document-centric, but used for a plethora of activities and tasks, in a variety of contexts. The WIMP graphical user interface can no longer support people using personal computers. Digital interfaces are appearing on more and more devices, in the home, in the workplace, and in public spaces. Increasing numbers of devices are connecting to networks, and in developed countries Internet access is becoming pervasive. The need for pioneering design solutions is greater than ever.

Business has become so close to the customer and so blinkered by research that it is losing the confidence to innovate. It is wary of creating products and services people might discover they want (or discover new uses for), and fights shy of discontinuous or grand-scale innovations.

In design, the advocacy of the user is often presented in terms of victimhood rather than recognizing people's innate abilities and adaptability. The idea that humans are proactive and problem-solving determiners of their own situations has tended to be replaced with a view of them as relatively incapable.

Is user research helping designers to really understand the people for whom they are designing, or blinkering designers' view of possible solutions? Is user-centered design ensuring that products fit the needs and contexts of users, or is it acting as a bulwark to qualitative developments in interface design? Is usability ensuring that design concepts are honed to people's abilities, or is it suffocating the design process with iterative and incremental approaches? Does human-centered design deliver the best tools for people, or shape tools with low expectations of users? Do tools developed in this manner empower people, or do they encourage a therapeutic relationship with users?

back to top  Robert Reimann, Bose Corporation, Framingham, MA, USA

The very idea of moving "beyond" human-centered design should be provocative to designers and others in the group of professions that collectively create products, services, and environments. The term human-centered design was coined to distinguish a practice of designing specifically to meet human needs from other practices: the "technology-centered" development of systems by engineering organizations, and the "business-centered" marketing of products and services whose primary goal is to maximize profits, regardless of how well the products serve the people using them.

Human-centered design places an emphasis on conducting qualitative user research to better understand the people for whom a particular product or service is targeted. It is a process-oriented set of practices that combines design intuition with analytical tools for discovering and validating user goals, needs, and desires. A critical part of the process is the transformation of user requirements into creative design solutions. This latter part of the process is the least well-articulated, and this lack of articulation can easily lead to the misconception that a human-centered design process is not a creative process. This is, of course, far from the truth. Understanding users more completely permits design creativity to be focused where it will have the greatest impact, leading to more innovation, not less.

To truly understand how this is so, we need a better definition of innovation. Innovation is widely misunderstood; it is often narrowly applied to advances in technology (by engineering organizations) and to methods and processes for reducing product and service costs (by business organizations). Looking at innovation from a human-centered perspective, however, yields a third viewpoint. It's my assertion that these differences in the understanding of innovation are a significant cause of business taking less risks in what most designers would call product innovation, not the over-analysis of users in the blind service of human-centered design principles.

I would suggest that ingenious ideas, methods, or things are clever solutions to problems that follow these four rules:

  • They allow people to do more with less (or seemingly less).
  • They let people do desirable things that they couldn't do before—or do them better/easier.
  • They save time, effort, money, or all of the above.
  • They can generally be implemented without undue cost and difficulty.

Now that we have precise definitions of innovation and ingenuity, let's return to the differing interpretations of innovation held by the design community and the business community. Designers tend to focus on the first two rules of innovation:

  • Allowing people to do more with less (or seemingly less).
  • Empowering people to do desirable things that they couldn't do before-or do them better/easier.

In contrast, business people tend to focus on the last two rules of innovation:

  • Saving time, effort, money, or all of these.
  • Implementing without undue cost and difficulty.

This divided focus can create a mismatch in expectations, as well as a gulf in communication. When business people look for innovation, they may often not know exactly what they are looking for. Engineering presents innovative concepts in terms of technological advance, and businesses seize on the cost-reducing aspects without also considering opportunities for better meeting the needs and desires of customers. It is up to designers and other human-centered advocates to highlight the aspects of design innovation that will capture the customer's imagination, and serve them better.

From the point of view of business, successful innovation is usually construed as anything new that positively impacts the bottom line. Thus designers need to be ready to articulate their vision of innovation in a manner that business stakeholders can understand.

This can be a challenge. It's difficult to link business success to pure design innovation, because there are so many variables beyond the reach of designers. A product can be brilliantly designed but poorly manufactured, or perfectly manufactured but poorly distributed. It makes sense that business leaders often choose to lavish funding on the variables they best understand, which tend to be in manufacturing or distribution. Of course this means that they may be missing tremendous opportunities. Businesses are caught in a quandary of desiring real innovation (even if they don't understand it), but being too conservative to take risks. This is precisely where user research and design can help: by developing and validating innovative concepts backed by a solid understanding of user behaviors and goals.

So then, are human-centered design methods responsible for lack of innovation? I believe the opposite to be true—it is an insufficient use of these tools that is the real problem. Generative human-centered design methods are critical for establishing a context for the kind of design innovation I've described. These methods answer the following questions, and others:

  • What are people currently doing?
  • How are they currently doing it?
  • What problems does this cause for them?
  • What things can't they do that would really help them if they could?
  • What might they want or need to do in the future?

What then is the solution? First, design educators and design organizations need to better integrate generative research into their design training, making sure that designers learn these methods as creative tools for generating design, not simply for analyzing it.

Second, designers and design programs need to focus more on communicating the business value of design. Many corporations aren't yet willing to invest significantly in design innovation because it's still viewed as a risky "black hole" of funding, or besides the point (the point being the bottom line)—and designers aren't able to effectively communicate their value.

The key to achieving the kind of human-centered innovation I've described is for human-centered innovators to lead the process. Designers must be trained in generative, qualitative research techniques such as ethnography, personas, and context scenarios. They must take back to their drawing boards the creative insights that they alone can glean from users, and transform them into solutions that meet goals and exceed expectations—both of the users and of the business.

back to top  Martyn Perks, independent consultant, London, UK

The potential of what technology can do for society inevitably raises many questions on how we put it to use. On the one hand, faith in technology is a reflection of how society sees itself. On the other hand, we mediate our need for new technology daily by being able to understand, prioritize and solve real problems. There remain urgent problems that need very real solutions. Without innovation, society is unable to move forward at any great pace. Without a serious undertaking in research, experimentation, challenging convention and, importantly, taking risks, none of this will happen.

Good design is central to making this happen. It mediates myriad factors—and focuses on finding problems to solve. Without the designer, other factors—such as technology—will unduly influence the final outcome. As we know, lack of design input can result in ill-thought-out products and interfaces that are bad at doing what they were supposed to do. As a design methodology, human-centered design is a welcome tool for understanding and balancing the many priorities and tensions between the client, the end-user, and the technology.

However, designers often succumb to outside pressures. It's not that designers are deliberately cautious. If we don't fight caution and risk-aversion, we will be unduly constrained, and unable to move beyond the here and now. But what history has shown us time and again is that the prizes far outweigh the risks involved getting there. And let's not forget, people are brilliant at adapting to change, new circumstances and embracing the future. A belief in the human agency is central to this. Going beyond human-centered design means focusing on the future and all that it entails. Humanity has come a long way. By expertly using design and technology it can go further still.

back to top  Aaron Oppenheimer, Design Continuum, Boston, MA, USA

I don't want to be contrary, but I don't believe we're living in a particularly innovation-poor time. One can point to the Web and declare that we're not seeing "innovation" in the sense that Flash was an innovation at a time of Shockwave, which was an innovation at a time of image maps, and so on. On the other hand, current developments at the back end of network technology allow us to do things such as print boarding passes before we leave for the airport—which is much more valuable to the overall user experience of interacting with an airline than any interactive gizmo on its home page.

Any discussion of the value of design tools must include the broader context for design. The majority of "interaction design" is not screen-based, and the majority of "interaction designers" are not designing for the screen (and they may not refer to themselves by that term). The design of appliance interfaces, car dashboards, medical devices: all of these should be considered when we talk about the application of "user-centered design" tools. In most of these cases these tools may not be used at all, much less overused. For many organizations, interaction design takes the form of technology-push (where development engineers assemble sets of features, then hand off to the marketing department and its focus-group-oriented evaluation processes) or sales-pull (where the sales and marketing groups poll their distributors for the list of "hot" features, then demand their implementation from the engineering department). True "design," as we view it in the Web and software world, is woefully lacking in many of the places where most of the world's "interaction" is defined.

For me, the real dangers related to user-focused design methods result from our failure as designers to successfully communicate their power (and their drawbacks) to the larger community, leading to misunderstanding, inappropriate application, and missed opportunities. Contrived "Voice of the Customer"' techniques end up standing in for "real" UCD process because business can't tell them apart. Outreach in our community is lacking; it's only recently that we've had practitioner-oriented conferences to discuss real-world applications of these tools and techniques, and these tend to focus on screen-based design to the exclusion of more general discussion of what "interaction" is and can be.

Design is a means, not an end. "User-Centered Design" is merely a toolkit, and like any tool it can be overused, or not used at all. Including user need and performance in the design process can help with defining the features of a product or application, as we all know. But the question is not "Is the business use of UCD shielding consumers from real innovation?" The question should be, "Is the misunderstanding and misuse of UCD tools by business failing to give useful product ideas their due?"

back to top  Continuing the Discussion

There was some debate about whether the premise of the discussion was false. Reimann noted that human-centered design currently has a greater role in scoping and validating, rather than proposing, innovations, but that innovation could and should be driven by human-centered design methods. An audience member argued that the best thing for users is also best for business.

Considering the nature of users, Perks said we should not reduce the human condition to needs. Oppenheimer argued that real innovation lies in seeing higher needs, and that we should "get out of the Web window."

We expect this discussion to continue, at SIGCHI-sponsored conferences and elsewhere. It has already prompted some commentary, and this and future responses will be documented at

back to top  Author

Nico Macdonald is an experienced event programmer and chair, and panel facilitators. He has chaired panels at DIS2000, DIS2002, CHI2003, the AIGA|CHI2002 FORUM and DUX2003. He is author of What is Web Design? (RotoVision, 2003) and is an established writer on interaction and Web design, whose work has appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and U.K.

Robert Reimann is manager of User Interface Design at Bose Corporation, and former Director of Design Research and Development at Cooper. He is co-author of About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design; Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann (John Wiley & Sons, 2003)

Martyn Perks is a user experience consultant who writes in the UK media about design, technology, and politics.

Aaron Oppenheimer is principal product behaviorist at Design Continuum. The company's clients have included Hewlett-Packard, General Motors, Sunbeam, Harvard Business School, and Samsung. Oppenheimer holds a degree in computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.

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