Finding my feet in user-centred methods

The term User-centred design is rapidly growing in its use within design and business circles, however it could be suggested that in many ways the concept is not well understood by those who use it. To establish what User-centred design is, it would be logical to first consider the aims of such a design method; however it is important for this particular topic that from these overall aims we draw the implications for health care applications specifically.

At the core of user-centred design is the value placed by designers on the relationship between people and the objects they design, not simply the objects alone, concluding that the things designed do not exist in a vacuum, instead in relationship with the humans using them. Key to this is identifying latent consumer needs 1 (Shove, Watson, Hand, & Ingram, 2007). Research into user-centred methodology shows that as with other design process, the process is in many cases flexible. When I had the benefit of interviewing, Jonathan West, a Senior Associate of another leading organisation using user-centred design, The Helen Hamlyn Centre, he agreed; “I think you can define [user-centred design] as an intent, but I don’t think you can define it in terms of a discipline” 2 (West, 2012).

Defined by intent, not by process or outcome

As was suggested originally and reinforced by both designers practicing the process and the academics considering it, user-centred design is defined by its ultimate aim or intent. It is also apparent that there is no possibility of a ‘ten-step’ dictated process to reach this aim. This can be simply explained by the fact that if user-centred design does indeed place value “in the relation between people and things, rather than in things alone,” 1(Shove, Watson, Hand, & Ingram, 2007) all people are different; using designed objects and services in individual ways. To put it into more common design language – The user groups for each project have varying needs, and establishing the needs requires different methods depending on the users.

This is reinforced in the Design Council Magazine;

“So how do you become more user-centred? First, meet your user. Discover what they really do – not what they say they do – and what they want to do. Usability testing is a must – and should not be confused with market research and the inherent falsity of focus groups.” 3

It is clear that to conduct user-centred design there must be a degree of research undertaken to establish the needs and desires of the users the design aims to be centred around. If this is the case, is there a formula to follow? Is there a certain set of research practices that must be undertaken to make a design user-centred in the eyes of the design community? Jonathan west has already alluded to the fact that it is not possible to define user-centred as a discipline, thus not allowing for a set for designers to follow and other writing in the area appears to agree:

“The space of design research is as much like the novelists library or the cooks kitchen as it is the scientists laboratory or the marketers phone bank” 4 (Luvenfeld, 2003)

The evidence is building that whilst design research is key to a user-centred approach to design, there is not set regime, giving no ultimate restrictions. However to continue Luvenfeld’s metaphor of the cooks kitchen, there are of course combinations of ingredients that are tried and tested in producing desirable outcomes. Of course there are also unexpected combinations that produce unforeseen brilliance, but this sits alongside the ever present risk of a disaster waiting to happen whether through lack of experience or too great a risk.