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The Myths of User-Centred Design

Comment9Overview: Tim Parsons gives us a look at some of the implications of the ‘everyone is a designer’ thinking that is becoming more and more popular.

Thoughts: I can see some validity to his position.  He is coming from the perspective of a professional designer. The skill set and training that this group brings to a design project is vital.  However, when it comes to designing things or products – to say that the end user should be ignored is a bit short sighted.  Many product designers have gone through the soul killing process of creating a beautiful work, only to have it changed over and over again until it can be produced for the masses.  Why not talk with those you are designing for from the beginning and bring beauty to a collaborative process.  Very few designers have the luxury of behaving like highly paid artists. Most have to live in the practical world of making a living.

Original Post and Comments HERE at BlueprintMagazine.com

The Myths of User-Centred Design

Tim Parsons

The extent to which members of the public not trained in design should be involved in the design process has become something of a hot topic over the past few years. Before the emergence of user-centred design, except for consulting market research reports or focus groups, designers were largely left alone to channel their predictions of the public’s desires and behaviour into their creations. Today in many areas of design and architecture, seeking the opinions of the public, and even designing with them, is now considered good practice. Global design consultancies such as IDEO expound the virtues of the designer acting as a facilitator, working in teams with non-designer stakeholders. Co-design has become a business model, both for companies selling research insights and as a means of enabling the public to have a more direct impact upon the look of the products they buy.

The notion that ‘everyone is a designer’ is being heard with ever-greater frequency. It is the essence of the RSA’s new Design and Society agenda, launched recently with the mantra: ‘you knowmore than you think you do’. Its author, design director Emily Campbell, describes the profession of design as ‘common resourcefulness refined by a technical education,’ and believes that ‘design can re-awaken citizens’ own resourcefulness’. The programme of projects aims to transfer knowledge, currently the preserve of designers, to the public, on the understanding that it will give them the tools to become better citizens.

In parts, Design and Society is reminiscent of sentiments expressed in Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver’s 1973 book Adhocism– The Case for Improvisation, which, with a hint of anarchy, states ‘a new mode of direct action is emerging…where everyone can create their own environment out of impersonal subsystems. [Adhocism] cuts through the usual delays caused by specialization, bureaucracy and hierarchical organisation.’

Important though these developments are, one wonders where this leaves the professional designer working at the sharp end of defining the final outcome of our products and buildings. With the public encouraged to become designers, and designers encouraged to become politically active managers, the flair and talent for creating the physical, which has been the traditional currency of the designer, appears to be losing its shine.

The furore over Hilary Cottam, a previous Design Council director, winning the 2005Designer of the Year award (akin, as furniture designer Jane Dillon put it, to ‘giving the gold medal to the coach’) revealed that plenty of designers were stung by the encroachment of management upon territory conventionally reserved for celebrating the craft of the profession. In the cacophony of accusations, the form-givers missed an opportunity to eloquently state what their work brings to the public.

Regardless of the worthiness of a project, there is social and cultural value in having it physically shaped – ‘designed’ in the traditional meaning of the word – by someone able to make intuitive decisions about the power of forms, who has sensitivity towards materials and can bring about a result that has an immediate resonance with the viewer that comes before rational interpretation i.e. to create beauty. These are not skills found in everyone, and some cannot be taught.

With the upcoming launch of a company whose online software allows customers to ‘drive’ rapid manufacturing technology without any specialist training, enabling them to order products they have ‘designed’ themselves, professional form-givers may sense an attack from another flank. Digital Forming is a consortium of four partners who have developed a platform for themass-customisation of ‘lifestyle products’. Demonstrated recently at the Science Museum, the experience promises far more than it delivers. People choose a product (a pen, a lamp, a lemon squeezer or a pair of sunglasses), which is presented on-screen as a 3Dmodel along with a handful of sliders. Moving each slider changes a pre-set parameter and morphs the model, making it more faceted, smoother, lumpier and so on. The customer can then order their creation to be rapid-manufactured (a lusciousmisnomer in this context, being as it is, extremely time-consuming when compared to serial production processes) and posted to them.

The noble cause of providing people with objects they have a personal attachment with has been diminished by the restrictions placed on the user. In the name of ensuring they cannot modify the object so as to render it ‘useless’ the extent to which they can ‘design’ it is limited. It has already been designed. The user is simply choosing from among the many possible combinations of slider positions dictated by the team.

The aim of tooling up the layman should be to enable them to come up with ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom of the professional. The results may not be pretty to the trained eye and may be inappropriate in many contexts, but naivety has the potential to overturn blind convention to reveal the sublime. A system that limits the layman’s options to those pre-conceived by the professional renders itself impotent, not to say boring.

There has been much hype about the future of home 3D printing, but it no more makes product designers out of us all than sewing machines made us fashion designers, logging made us journalists or desk-top publishing made us graphic designers. If those examples are anything to go by it will actually increase the awareness among amateurs of the skills of the professional.

So designers need not feel threatened by the tooling up of the layman, either with design thinking or access to new ways of making. Both should be welcomed. But in the excitement we should recognize that there is still a place for the professional designer, both at the board room table and at the drawing board. Doing so will help us not to lose sight of what constitutes quality in the tangible outcomes of this evermore nebulous process we call design.

Tim Parsons 3D Design at Camberwell College of Arts and his book Thinking: Objects –Contemporary Approaches to Product Design, has recently been published by AVA Academia

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One Response to The Myths of User-Centred Design

  1. Hi Matt
    I’ve been embarrassingly having to Google myself as part of my SAIC tenure prep. and discovered your re-posting. Thanks! I’m glad the piece provided food for thought.
    I would however like to respond to your introduction, because I feel you have rather misrepresented my position. At no point do I suggest that users should be ignored. In my teaching I advocate talking to users and for many design projects it’s absolutely the right thing to do. The thrust of the article is that there is a weight of opinion that suggests user-centered methods and various forms of co-design are the ONLY option. I am simply stating that there are areas of design which do not, and should not require user consultation. There is ample evidence to suggest that design by committee is damaging to aesthetic coherence of a product. If the product in question is largely style-led, it is questionable the extent to which talking to users is necessary. It is also worth considering Robert Verganti’s take, that if you want radical innovation, you’re rarely going to get it from users as they will draw from their own experience and are not trained in “imagineering” (he sites the Nintendo Wii where users asked for better graphics and more immersive game play. Nintendo ignored them with great success). You imply with your closing lines that if designers are not engaging users they are behaving like artists and that this is a luxurious position. I beg to differ. There are plenty of highly rigorous designers who rarely, if ever, do user research or co-design but are able to analyze design problems, empathize and use intuition to generate excellent results. Most of the ones I know (even some very famous) do not make a lot of money! Thanks again – enjoyable debate.

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