Can Design & Innovation Come From Users?

About a year ago, I was involved in a pretty exhaustive contextual design effort for a client. For the uninitiated, contextual design is similar to user-centered design in that it focuses on the users of a given product and breaks down and studies how they work. Habits, patterns, work environments are all carefully tracked and digested so that we can gather information to help us make informed decisions about their needs, their goals and the things they contend with on a typical work day.

Any interaction designer would agree that this information is invaluable. It reveals insights into some of the most subtle and nuanced aspects of users’ experiences and provides a great foundation for designer better products.
Most frame user-centered design as a comprehensive methodology that takes you from discovering the users and their goals to synthesizing that knowledge into an effective response: a new design. I don’t think it does this at all.
Users are critical sources of data for the environments, habits, tasks and motions they go through. A lot can be learned from them. But ask a user how to solve a hairy interaction problem, and they’ll often deliver a pretty convoluted response. This is understandable. People become very good at bad habits and their opinions on what they need will be colored by their own patterns. In other words, they’re top-heavy. They optimize their thinking to do what they need to do with the tools at hand. Ask them to “invent” a way to do things better, and you won’t get very much.
There comes a point in the design process where we actually have to design. I think user-centered design drops you off at the bus stop once you reach that point. Good designers take this background and sit down and design, often using their own intuition and experience to architect information and interaction. Good designers have good intuition. Great designers have great intuition. And so it goes.
Beyond just responding with a better design, I got to thinking: where does innovation come out of any of this, if at all? For example, in the project described above, a major part of the application was email alerts. Creating, managing, getting email alerts was critical for many users. Today, RSS is a technology that challenges email as a superior way to send alerts to people. No user (except for the extreme technophile) would’ve suggested RSS as a solution, or even wished they’d had it. Instead, they’ll ask you to rejig the pieces they already know of, and not much else.
I guess what I’m trying to get across here is that user-centered design eventually breaks down and stops becoming valuable when we’re staring at that whiteboard or Illustrator canvas and trying to formulate a solution. More importantly, I think it has boxed us in as interface designers such that we almost fear bringing something radical, but potentially groundbreaking, to the mix.
In short, it’s a reactive mindset that does a great job of calibrating us to absorb and digest user-centric data, but isn’t much help when the time comes to synthesize that data into something tangible. The problem is that there is nothing to synthesize that data with. There is no widely-adopted concrete approach to building interfaces today. Instead, we mostly feel our way around until it “feels” right.
In a future post, I’ll talk about an attempt to codify into a methodology some of the patterns that interaction designers do instinctively. Stay tuned!

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