Just published! Our newest title, Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers, by
As design continues to impact our products, services, and solutions at scale, it is more important than ever to understand the systems and context that surround design decisions. Closing the Loop will help you make the invisible visible. It will introduce you to a powerful systems thinking mindset, and provide you with the tools and frameworks to define the systems that surround your work.
Read on for a lengthy excerpt from Chapter 1, “The Shortcomings of User-Centered Design”. Visit the book site to check out the book’s table of contents, testimonials, and all the other goodies.
You can buy a copy from your favorite book retailer, but if you purchase the paperback directly from Rosenfeld Media, we’ll include a free copy of the ebook.
We really hope you enjoy Closing the Loop!
Chapter 1: The Shortcomings of User-Centered Design
As a designer working in technology, I never thought I would see Black Mirror, the BBC show focused on a future of dystopian technologies, used for product inspiration.
I was in an ideation workshop with a client team that was working on a design strategy for augmented reality. We were talking about potential features and adding sticky notes with ideas to a whiteboard. During our discussion, we started talking about potential unintended consequences to features and design decisions. One of my colleagues brought up an example from the show Black Mirror in which soldiers, implanted with an augmented reality system, saw other humans as monsters that must be killed.
We discussed it for a bit, and everyone was quiet. Finally, one of our clients spoke up.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea — add it to a note on the whiteboard.” “Add what?” my colleague asked.
“You know, the idea that people can use avatars and disguise themselves.”
It was one of the key moments in which I realized that our methods — our user-centered design methods — were failing us.
We reminded our client that, no, Black Mirror wasn’t meant to be a feature inspiration — rather, it’s a cautionary tale. We reminded him that it’s a good example of showing the ramifications of technology — that not all scenarios are good. And that even if he were thinking of it strictly from the technical problem-solving perspective, that the horror of it should give him pause.
It showed me that the ideation process was too myopic, too idealistic, and way too technology-solution-centered.
And so is the rest of user-centered design.
The design practice is experiencing a critical moment in time. Designers design products and services, especially in technology, that often have millions, and even billions, of users, yet they often fail to see design beyond individual users and the immediacy of their interactions with the products and services they work on. They often fail to anticipate and design for the impact on those who are not the direct users of their products, or for long-term effects on those they design for. And before that, they fail to clearly understand the problem space and the context in which their products will live.
In order to address the problems of user-centered design, you first need to understand what it is, why this is an approach that is widely used, and why it’s so problematic in the first place.
The Beginnings of User-Centered Design
If you’ve ever seen a Dutch bike, known as an omafiets, you might notice that it’s got quite a different design than the typical racing bike or modern commuter bike. Its handles are swept back, curved toward the rider in a way that keeps your arms and wrists free of pressure when you are sitting upright on the bike (see Figure 1.1). This type of bike is a good example of user-centered design: it’s meant to make the act of riding the bike more comfortable and enjoyable. It’s designed for the context in which these types of bikes are used, such as getting to work, carrying kids, running errands, all while wearing street clothes, which is quite a different context than, say, a racing bike. It’s a design decision made more than a century ago that prioritizes how the rider experiences the bike. It does not appear to have prioritized a more efficient manufacturing process, or cheaper materials, although perhaps with the popularity of this design over time, these processes may have responded to the demand. Ultimately, it’s a design that puts the user first.
FIGURE 1.1: A Dutch omafiets is a good example of a product designed with the user experience in mind.
This type of design, which prioritizes the user’s experience, is certainly not new. However, a user-centered approach has not been inherent to, nor codified within, the design process, particularly in digital technology, until fairly recently. Much of the user-centered approach to design in the technology industry was pioneered by designers in the 1980s, and the spread of its ideas can be attributed to the writings of
In his 1988 book, The Design of Everyday Things, Norman referred to a conceptual model that has three parts: a designer, a user, and a system. The interaction between the designer’s decisions and a user’s actions is facilitated through what he called a system, which, in this case, are objects and products. This book popularized the notion of conducting user-centered research and framed “good design” as that which is intentionally directed toward, and considerate of, a user’s mental models of how things should work.
These ideas shaped the tenets of the modern user experience design practice. Designers in recent decades have rallied around and emphasized the importance of these ideas: Designers must develop an understanding of end users by engaging with them directly through the course of their design decisions! They should emphasize ease of use and efficiency as it maps to a user’s expectations!
These were much needed advancements in the philosophy of product design, particularly as many products entered the digital realm. For example, think about many products — particularly electronics — that existed before the popularization of user-centered design: the first personal computers or VCRs when they initially appeared on the market. They were barely usable, with buttons and interfaces that were impossible to decipher. The approach that has brought us the iPhone, and the obsession with user-friendliness, was a much needed shift that users of digital products have all benefited from.
This approach has been built upon and articulated in a process known as design thinking, popularized by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (also known as the d.school). The process was borrowed from a method called challenge mapping developed by
, which sought to emphasize problem generation and conceptualization prior to solution development. (See Min Basadur et al., “Discovering the Right Questions About the Management of Technology Using Challenge Mapping,” Management of Innovation and New Technology Research Centre, 1998.)
The five parts of the design-thinking process are typically articulated in the following way:
- Empathize: This phase emphasizes gaining empathy with your user and their situation, in order to understand the context in which your product or service will potentially solve something. It involves conducting foundational user research.
- Define: This phase is focused on taking your insights fromthe Empathize phase and synthesizing them to create problem statements, user journeys, or other aspects that will serve as a foundation for your ideas for solutions to your user’s problems.
- Ideate: This phase is where designers brainstorm on possibilities for solving for the problems identified and articulated in the first two phases. Often, designers ask “How might we [solve for X]? to spur creative thinking around potential solutions.
- Prototype: Core to the design-thinking process is experimentation. This phase occurs when designers create quick versions of design solutions — they could be paper prototypes, digital, physical, or anything that is lightweight — to take to end users for testing purposes.
- Test: In this phase, designers test the prototypes with end users, so they can continue to learn, iterate, and refine.
This process has helped many organizations take a user-centered approach to product and service design and development. It has also gained broader appeal as business leaders can see their return on investment for user-centered design. Apple is a good example of a company whose products have had wild success due to their user-friendliness, and many apps and services, such as Airbnb, which was founded by designers, have become prominent and widely used. User advocacy has become core to business decision-making, which has been an advancement from the bad old days in which users of products were poorly understood, seen as just buyers, or considered to be an obstacle to a business’s profits. An understanding of users has become essential.
And yet . . . this philosophy, with its thoughtful approach to how people interact with products, has led to a myopia in which designers — and others within organizations — have failed to recognize other consequences that fall outside the realm of the direct use of the products they are designing. There have always been outsize effects to both good and bad design. However, there is a growing sense among user-centered designers that the process does not address contextualunderstanding of people beyond just users, nor take into account impact at scale, nor acknowledge the complexity of the technology for which they are designing.
To clarify, there is nothing inherently wrong, per se, with the design-thinking process articulated previously. And, in fact, much of the criticism directed at the design process is actually related to how this process is practiced. For example, for the Empathize phase, the process itself does not necessarily prescribe who you need to empathize with. But in the practical and common execution of the Empathize phase, most practitioners are focused on one type of stakeholder only: the end user of a product. And this particular way, in which design thinking and UCD are commonly understood, informs how design is typically practiced far and wide.
Ultimately, there are three key problems with the approach and process of user-centered design that contribute to its shortcomings and lead to shortsightedness and potential unintended consequences.
- Users are viewed as nothing more than users.
- A user-centered approach does not acknowledge or address potential harm, and it limits the potential impact of design.
- A user-centered process does not inherently take into account the systemic forces.
Users Are Not Just Users
Users are multifaceted humans who affect others and are affected themselves by contexts that go beyond their relationship with the products they are designing.
Yet the approach in design is often oriented toward only the direct benefit of usage. Think about the tools that designers often use to create understanding about people: personas, user journeys, and user stories are common frameworks for synthesizing insight about users into something that can be used to make design decisions (see Figure 1.2).
FIGURE 1.2: A typical user or customer journey map articulates the direct relationship between a person and the product.
These tools, such as the customer journey map, provide nuances about an individual’s contextual situation as it applies to how they might perceive and interact with your product. They help articulate customer pain points when it comes to that product relationship, and they can be used to identify opportunities for making the product experience better. The commonality is that they tend to focus exclusively on an individual who might buy or use a specific product.
Take a mad lib that is popular in the product design process: As an [individual], I want to [do something] so that [I can achieve something]. Although it seems to take an outcome into account (the “so that” part of the statement), this mad lib is most often used to define software features. In most design processes, people are defined solely by their relationship with your product. This is the most efficient way to think about people — as users — but it narrows your purview of the ways their lives and situations interconnect with other people and circumstances.
In addition, designers tend to only design for a “typical” user. By focusing on a typical user, and trying to solve for their immediate needs, they can go through the motions of being a user advocate. Let’s take a designer working on a social media platform. She’s been tasked with designing a fun experience that allows users to look at their past year and enjoy photos and posts they may have forgotten about. Surfacing this experience keeps the users engaged and makes it fun and interesting for them to keep returning. She creates an experience: fun celebratory illustrations that include text that says, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it!” She engages evaluative testing to see which versions resonate most, and the feature goes live.
Although this is hypothetical, it is actually close to a feature that Facebook launched and continues to run. You may be familiar with the fallout from the platform’s “Year in Review” feature. In 2014, designer and developer
wrote a blog post addressing his experience with this feature. Rather than surfacing a fun party, an amazing trip, an excellent meal, or any of the other scenarios that Facebook’s designers may have considered, the Year in Review feature surfaced Meyer’s most-interacted-with post: the photo that he posted when his six-year-old daughter, Rebecca, died of cancer. Instead of celebrating, he was forced to relive his grief over and over again every time he logged into Facebook, because this feature continually surfaced in his feed for weeks on end. In writing about this experience, Meyer said, “The design is for the ideal user — the happy, upbeat, good-life user. It doesn’t take other use cases into account.”
The designers who worked on this feature almost certainly did not intend to cause this type of trauma for Meyer or other users like him. But they failed to consider people at the margins, who might not be having what they assumed to be the typical user experience.
The tools that designers use contribute to this “flattening” of people into users viewed in isolation of others. In addition, the narrow focus on ideal users, and a failure to recognize additional contexts, contributes to unintended consequences time and time again.
To continue with chapter 1, pick up a copy of Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers.