Why I See UCD as different

In my previous post exploring what user-centred design we established that central to the process is human-centred research, but also there is no set ‘routine’ that can be applied to every design process. So essentially it is all about people and talking to them as individuals.

Whilst considering what user-centred design is, is it useful to consider what user-centred design is not, what are the differing design methodologies that currently exist? In many ways, this is not a clear cut question, with a great deal of difference between designers who would supposedly be practicing the same design methodology, this considered there are some simplistic models that have been put forward to attempt to classify different design methodologies.

Laurel's Old/New Model

Brenda Laurel proposes the most simplistic model, specifically speaking in regard to the place of design research she refers purely to the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’ model,

“In the old model, market research was a back-end process, devoted primarily to the final stages of development including styling, packaging, branding, marketing and advertising. In the emerging paradigm, the process is being inverted, with design research as a front-end method, informing the development of products and services from the concept stage forward”

Whilst this is directly in reference to the place of research within the process, it is nonetheless a very perceptive comment on the difference of what Laurel calls “Human-centred design”. It is becoming increasingly clear that the primary difference between user-centred design and other design methodologies is the timing and importance of user focused research. In a user-centred process, the research is not only heavily human-centred but also present from the outset and throughout prototyping, again leading us back to the variety and flexibility of user-centred design research. It is likely that the methods will change and adapt a great deal throughout each project, not just for entirely different projects.

Shove's 'User-centred design'

In Design for everyday life, Shove identifies three areas within Theories and Practices of Product Design, one which is specifically identified as ‘User-centred design’. The other two remain to be interpreted to some extent, however there is strong similarities between what Shove names ‘ Product-centred Design’ and laurel’s ‘Old model’. Shove describes ‘Product-centred Design” as:

“The persistent, prevalent and politically important idea that designers can embed economic, ergonomic or semiotic value in objects in the process of turning them into consumer goods”

The idea portrayed here through language such as ‘embed’ imply a strong sense of the designer finishing a product, applying the meaning (whether aesthetic or semiotic) to an already existing functional object, not a comprehensive role for the designer in developing the product from the outset. This bears striking similarity to the focus-group driven, aesthetically minded ‘old model’ suggested by laurel.

Thirdly Shove et al consider a ‘Practice-oriented’ approach to product design. This is probably the least defined approach, with an admission that it has yet to be articulated or discussed on any major scale. The somewhat conceptual premise which at present would appear to have little hold over the profession of design is as follows:

“Designers do not [add value] to individual products but to the complex of material artefacts and practices of which isolated artefacts are a part. Accordingly, values of use and exchange do not reside in individual products or in the meanings attached to them. Instead and as Graeber also argues, value is best understood as an emergent outcome of the many actions in which goods are embedded and of which they are formed”

Is it really that new?

It seems design as a discipline has only recently considered user-centred design as a prominent design practice. Jane Fulton Suri, as creative director of IDEO, a global award winning organisation that “takes a human-centred, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow”, (IDEO, 2012) suggests that designers have only been thinking this way for about fifteen years:

“A few years ago it was simpler. Designers just designed things: objects like lamps, chairs, computer mice, cars, buildings, signage, page and screen layouts. Of course we knew that the things we designed affected people’s experience. But still, it was enough to design the thing”