Big Idea Saturdays: Design With (Not For) Your Users

#2 Design With (Not For) Your Users

We so often assume that we are always designing in the best interest of our users; we are being objective and thoughtful in our decisions. But unlike the scientific process, the design process is very much subjective. We pick our hypotheses, and we personally choose what observations are important, each stroke of the pen on paper is one that is driven by personal intent. Any two designers can come up with wildly different solutions to problems at hand. But, in an objective field of study, a solution isn’t valid if two separate scientists cannot reach the same conclusion.

So, where do we go from there? It is surely impossible to take a creative project and put it under an objective lens, but it is not impossible to take a creative project and put it under reliable criticism.

You may have read this New York Times article about the $300 house competition. The articles remarks on the many problems with the concept and execution of the idea that I will not go into detail here (but read the article, it’s worth it). Due to our personal egos, and aversion to critique (often strengthened by years of class discussions and review sessions), we sometimes fall into our own personal design bubbles. This is dangerous not only from the point that we can miss potential solutions by not accepting outside input, but it can also be dangerous because we can miss the voices the people we are trying to work with, the user.

Design should never be a way to work for someone. You are never building something to save a user from their poor, wretched lives. A thought like that ignores not only basic human dignity, but also puts the designer on a pedestal above the very people that make a successful design, the users. IDEO’s human-centered design toolkit does a great job of explaining this is detail, and it warrants restating. Design needs to be a conversation, and a process that works with the user, not for the user.

Sometimes we believe that we know better than our users. And even the best of us do it; it’s an entirely subconscious result of a subjective field. But, it can have devastating consequences, when we begin to assume that we are here to save people from their own lives, we ignore the fact that they might be perfectly happy with the life they have. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be designing water filtration systems, or new medical devices, but it does mean that we need to ask people what they need before we start to assume we know.

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