10 October 2006

User-centred design not so good when designing breakthrough products

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“User-centred design (UCD) techniques […] don’t seem to work particularly well when designing breakthrough products,” claims George Olson, who is the principal of Interaction by Design, in a long article on UX Matters.

He claims that UCD techniques offer little assistance “to matters of aesthetics and fashion” and “can’t tell you how people will respond to products they’ve never seen before, products people have difficulty imagining, or products whose success is simply a matter of taste.” Instead Olson argues that in these cases “vision-driven design is sometimes the right approach. In such cases, the role of UCD is to help better the odds that a particular idea will resonate with a product’s target market and screen out those ideas that won’t.”

I wouldn’t put it so strongly. UCD techniques help provide qualitative insight in people’s living or working context and often reveal many unaddressed needs. These insights can then be creativily developed into design ideas for entirely new products and services, which can be tested in e.g. look-and-feel or functional prototypes. So even with breakthrough products, one can first follow an approach of undertaking a user-driven foresight study and/or contextual inquiry, before moving to the design phase. The trick is too creatively transform these insights into design opportunities, i.e. to make these insights ingredients of the design vision. At Experientia we deliberately chose to put a very strong usability expert and a very strong designer at the very top level of the company, and generally don’t design unless we have some qualitative data to feed the design work.

However, Olson then goes on to provide some clever insights and best methodological practices that can enrich many current practices in UCD research:

  • Look for real problems people don’t realise they need to solve;
  • Help solutions find problems; (I am ambivalent on this one)
  • Help users visualise solutions through mock-ups and prototypes;
  • Recognise that users may not get a product concept immediately;
  • Ask how users might use a product;
  • Give users something familiar to hang their hats on;
  • Plan for flexibility in the ultimate use of your product.

In short, an article definitely worth reading!

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