Wherefore art thou, User?

Lately we’ve been hearing and responding to a lot of chatter in the only-boring-stodgy-Microsoft-types-do-research vein, with language that essentially boils all user research down to testing tools that hinder the creative design process (see Don Norman hates research, Michal Migurski comes out against it).

But user research, at least as we conceive and practice it, is a different animal altogether. Testing relies on existing objects or realities and measures response against them. User research for design and innovation observes, examines, imagines and inspires. Here are just a few things that good user research can do.

  • Broaden the scope. Instead of asking people what they think of these newfangled eBooks, we took a deeper look, to understand how reading is changing and what people value. This led to actionable, inspirational design insights such as, “Books are more than just pages with words and pictures; they are imbued with personal history, future aspirations, and signifiers of identity. And, “There are opportunities to enhance digital reading by replicating, referencing, and replacing social (and other) aspects of traditional book reading.” (Read about Portigal Consulting’s Reading Ahead project here)
  • Discover meaning. Design Continuum explored the car rental experience with a group of Harvard Business Students recently to discover opportunities for improvement and innovation along numerous touch-points throughout the journey, inspiring students to envision altogether new experiences beyond the typical drudgery of current practice. (Description of event on Design Continuum’s blog here)
  • Shift perspective. Wells Fargo engaged with a small number of customers to understand that consumers’ experiences and world views are fundamentally different from the internal company view. This shed a whole lot of light on how to improve communications and experiences across internal organizational silos. (Excerpt from a Forrester white paper on this project here)

Alex Faaborg of Firefox channeled Don Norman’s take on design approaches during a recent ZURBSoapbox event,

There are two distinct approaches to design. One focuses on user-research to find out what people need/want. This approach is exemplified by Microsoft and is used mostly to mitigate risk. The downside of this ‘user testing’ model is that users can lead you astray. For example, if you ask everyone what their favorite color is the average will be gray. The second tries to bring a specific vision to life and an impression of the user they want to have. This approach is exemplified by Apple and can result in huge success or failure.

Now, while Faaborg mostly touts the second more glorious path, he does acknowledge “If designers don’t know what they’re doing it could be a disaster.”

How will designers “know” what they’re doing? Or, in this heroic design model, is there room only for psychic, infallible, savant designers who do just somehow “know?” Where does this leave the consumer, or “user,” or, as they are also known, people?

We believe that including people in the process of designing products for people is a good idea, and serves to drive great design and business concept development rather than preventing it.


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