Apr 11

Designers Don’t Like UCD

The UX designer and his design problems

I read an article recently that blew my mind. It lamented that three principles of user-centred design – focusing on users, measuring the effect of your designs and using an iterative approach – were being ignored by most designers.

What blew my mind was it was written in 1985. 1985! I thought, from the way everyone talks about them, that these were modern ideas. Yet here were two academics describing the same problems we face today, right down to a passionate call for more prototyping, five years before the web was even invented.

How utterly depressing.

Which got me thinking. What if something else is going on? What if these are still problems because designers never wanted to do them in the first place? That despite all the talking and writing and speaking and podcasting and tweeting about user-centred design, when it comes down to it, designers avoid user-centred design like the plague.

It sounds crazy. So I wondered whether there could be any truth in it.

Why Don’t Designers Like UCD?

Let’s start with focusing on users. It’s a gospel that every user experience designer preaches, yet often when you speak to them, and dig around a bit, it turns out that everyone has a different excuse for why they don’t do actually do it very much. Often revolving around time, or money, or difficult clients.

To me the truth seems far more stark. Talking to users means taking their views into account when you design, and actually designers would rather not do that. It’s much easier to throw up your hands and say, well, there’s no budget for that, so let’s just do the best we can in the circumstances. Which turns out to be very close to, let me just design this as I think it should work.

And don’t get me started on measuring your designs. It seems designers love anything that means they can avoid measuring things. Whether it’s the pervasive idea that you only need to test with five random passers-by or yet another UX missionary saying that analytics can only tell us the what, not the why, designers latch on to anti-measurement ideas like a pitbull with lockjaw.*

Why? Because measuring the effect of designs risks that the numbers will show the designs don’t work. So if designers want to just design things like they think they should work, measurement is a threat.

See? There’s a theme developing. Designers avoid principles that clash with their own interest in just making things like they want to.

So finally to iterative design. Seen from the perspective of a designer who only wants to make things like he wants to make them, iterative design is the biggest threat of all. While talking to users and measuring the effect of designs have an indirect impact on your work, using an iterative approach means explicitly acknowledging that the designs are wrong before you start. And worse still, you probably have to listen to someone else telling you exactly what’s wrong with your work.

So the little fantasy world where your design is great, and perfect, and right, comes crashing down.

OK, So What Am I Saying?

Basically that a lot of designers want to design things as they want them to be, that these three principles of user-centred design are a direct threat to that vision, and so consciously or not they avoid using these principles.

Because let’s face it, designers are persuasive. When we want something to happen, or something to be included in a project, or a process, we’re good at getting it. Look at how much time and money has been wasted on pixel-perfect wireframes over the last decade!

Ergo, if user-centred design principles are missing from projects, it must be because designers don’t want them there in the first place.

* And we wonder why no one gives us a seat at the strategy table…

Let me know what you think on @myddelton. If you want to blow your mind with some history read Designing for Usability (1985) and Myth of the Intuitive (1990). Or just come to the London UX Bookclub.