And Now For My Next Trick…

Dan Saffer of Adapative Path has an interesting write-up where he questions the need for user research in interaction design. Researching your users is pretty widely considered to be key ingredient to designing an effective user interface.
From the article:

Most experienced designers have enough expertise to get many products 80% designed without ever doing research, and sometimes that 80% is all that’s needed. Research can be a useful tool, but it can also be an ineffective waste of time. Good designers make good designs, not research. Even with good research, you can follow users (and time and money) down some serious rabbit holes, never to return.

If we step back and look at the predominant thinking around interaction design, user-centered design clearly dominates. And that’s a good thing. For data gathering, it’s good practice to research user profiles and needs, or at the very least, go through an inside-the-mind-of-the-user exercise to really get a good understanding of their goals.
While this is all well and good in terms of gatherng evidence, I think the breakdown occurs when it’s time to go and build. That user data does not transfer over into a clear building strategy. That “magic” (and Dan himself calls it magic) happens in the designers mind. The role of user-centered design gives way at this point. It’s already done its job: established the backdrop for the real building that’s about to occur.
At the building phase, there’s a lot less known or agreed upon about how good design comes to be. It just sort of…happens. All that research and thinking and debating boils down to a few gut moves by a designer. We take the puzzles in front of a us and assemble the solution. As Dan quotes Michael Bierut: Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can’t really explain that part; it’s like magic.
I’m curious to hear if anyone actually has a methodology (even a rough one) that they use to attack a design effort. Or do they just stroll around the ol’ neighborhood waiting for the proverbial light bulb to go off.
In any case, I’m ok with this characterization. Heck, we’re not just designers. We’re magicians!

8 Comments And Now For My Next Trick…

  1. Larry B

    Give the designers too much power when it comes to the build and you end up with this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Homer_dreamcar.gif
    Nothing wrong with hindering creativity a tad for the sake of stability from the guys who are hammering the nails and welding the seams to make sure you have a sound build. This doesn’t sound too biased coming from a non-designer, does it?

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  2. Paul L

    I agree! I often find myself arguing (often with myself) over where to draw the line with user input. My rule is to consider the user throughout, but only interact with then near the end points. Get in their head early, then tell them to go away. Let the magic happen. Often you come up with many design iterations that get discarded in favor of more elegant solutions. Getting detailed feedback during that process may cause you to hold on to an inferior idea. Let the dust settle, and when you as the artist (magician) are satisfied, check back with the user.

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  3. Dan Saffer

    As part of Adaptive Path’s UX Intensive Workshops, I’m teaching a session on a framework for turning research into design concepts. It’s a pretty good method for trying to inject more research findings into the actual design. And yes, I’ll be talking a bit about magic. :)

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  4. Richard Ziade

    Dan:
    I dunno if you remember way back at the IA Summit in Montreal, I gave a talk about one possible approach to building interfaces.
    It’s interesting that programmers have many methodologies to solve problems with – object oriented, service oriented, a wealth of design patterns, but in design – we leave it up to the ol’ magic.

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  5. Jeremy Graston

    As an IxD’er, the magic for me actually happens when I play the role of user myself. I put on many hats and go into recon mode, being mindful of the business goals, I conduct mental note-taking as I audit sites and applications. While I may lean on a general best practices framework, my whole approach is both personal and empirical.
    Can’t remember who it was..but somebody well recognized in our industry (maybe it was Dan) says that Interaction Design and User Research are not sciences…but rather – they are crafts. I think Jared Spool and gang spent a whole 2hr podcast arguing this point. Given that it is a craft (in my opinion), the old adage about ‘Practice makes Perfect’ would make perfect sense then. An expert woodworker uses time-tested trusted tools but his knowledge of how fast a particular type of glue will dry and or how soft walnut is compared to hickory will vary to some degree from craftsman to craftsman.
    At the end of the day, while user goals might be achievable…predicting user action relies on the rare success of so many variables aligning perfectly that results are still fickle and unexplainable.
    I say, the magic is in the making…the experience of designing and perfecting the craft.

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  6. Tom D.

    Yeah, those damn users. They just get in the way of beautiful design. If they would just keep all of their silly requirements and “ideas” to themselves the designer’s life would be much easier. Who needs a workflow that fits a business when you can have an application that saws a lady in half?
    So, basically, is Dan arguing for designer-centered design over user-centered design? Or is it just the, ‘trust me, I know what’s best for you’ approach?

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  7. Rachel

    Tom, I’m sure Dan will pipe up and explain what he means. I *think* he’s saying sometimes as designers you have to go with your hunches – it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re abandoning UCD or fully embracing Genius Centered Design. It just means on a day-to-day design level, sometimes you say “this box feels better on this site of the page”. Ideally I’d like to see a full user experience centred design approach – looking at systems, users and environments where our designs live. (Yes, I know – optimist – a girl can dream, right?)
    The craft metaphor works well – although sometimes it feels more like alchemy and less like design if you’re working with less-than-ideal information. I think also the metaphor of artistic ‘social scientists’ speaks about design as well. We bring in so much from anthropology and psychology – the sooner we embrace that history of what we do as designers the sooner we can nail down how to ‘do’ things. Less strolling around the neighbourhood that way ;)
    Although to be fair, you can’t underestimate the role of just letting things percolate during a walk, or coffee break, or other ponderous opportunities. Design comes from the subconscious, and it needs to to percolate as well.
    (sorry for the percolate metaphors – didn’t have my morning java, evidently)

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