I regularly come across content on the web that talks about the importance of user-centred design and how it’s something your agency should adopt as a philosophy. If you design for users, you’ll attract and retain more of them. If you’re a designer, you probably already know this (at least instinctively). I love reading these articles and I love the idea of putting users first.
The thing is, I’m not a designer. I’m a digital marketer. And while I’ve always known people should be at the core of every campaign I run, “user-centred design” is a term that, over time, I’ve been feeling more and more uncomfortable with.
There are two reasons for this.
First of all, it’s the confusing, conflicting terminology. “User-centred design”, “user experience design”, “human-centred design”, “user-centric”, “user-driven”, “user-first”… the list goes on. For non-designers, this terminology can be confusing. Are they the same? Or different? For the vast majority of articles I read on these topics, there’s a good chance these terms are being used interchangeably, or maybe even in the wrong context. Should I care?
It’s not surprising that you see people asking for clarification of the terms. I asked one of our designers at August what he thought of the term “user-centred design”. Here’s what he said: “User-centred design is the process of designing and building a website or product where all key decisions are based on how the user will experience and use the end product. It involves extensive user testing by the targeted audience throughout the process. That’s very important to our job. It validates our decisions and assumptions”.
I could have easily asked him the same question, but replaced “user-centred” with “human first” or any of the other terms, and I’m pretty certain his reply would have been the same.
And here’s the second contributor to my discomfort: user-centred design is nothing new
In some of the articles I read, people proclaim user-centred design as a recent trend. Designing for the user is hugely important. But I’m pretty sure it’s not a “recent trend”. Not only was the term “user-centred design” coined in the 1980s, the actual concept can be traced back long before the web even existed.
Here are some examples.
In 1955, Henry Dreyfuss wrote Designing for People, a book in which he shares his thought process and experience from many different industrial design projects. From telephones to tractors, vacuum cleaners to alarm clocks, Dreyfuss was responsible for dramatically improving the look, feel and usability of dozens of consumer products. While this book wasn’t written about the web (which didn’t even exist then), it’s not hard to see that users were at the core of Dreyfuss’ world.
Another great example of user-centric design is the London Underground map, created in 1931 by Harry Beck. Tube maps existed before Beck’s design, but were typically laid out geographically, often superimposed over a city map. While technically correct, the design wasn’t usable. Beck believed that passengers riding the underground weren’t too bothered about geographical accuracy, they were more interested in how to get from one station to another and where to change trains.
While the London Underground map has been through a number of minor iterations, the design remains relatively similar more than 80 years later, and has been replicated by transport agencies worldwide. By putting people at the centre of the design, Beck created a truly timeless piece of work.
The term “user-centred design” was popularised by usability specialist Don Norman in his book The Design of Everyday Things (originally published in 1988, and expanded and updated in 2003). While the book focused predominantly on physical objects such as doors and clocks, the principles outlined in the book can be easily applied to web design. The running theme throughout the book is one of blame. Norman argues that when people make errors using an object, in most cases, the designer is to blame, not the user. The designer’s job is to create an experience that minimises room for error. In order to do that, they need to put the user at the centre of their design.
Designing for the user is clearly nothing new. In fact, some even believe user-centred design is dated, that it should be ditched for something better, and that it may even be harmful (interestingly, that last one was written by Don Norman, the guy who originally coined the phrase “user-centred design”). I’ll let you make your own mind up on that one.
But does it matter? Is it a problem that terms such as “user-centred”, “user first”, “user-centric” and so on are used interchangeably? And is it a problem that people consider user-centred design to be a recent trend, even though it isn’t? When you think about it, the two issues are linked. The reason we have conflicting terminology is because the concept of user-centred design has been around for decades. Plenty of time for new terminology to develop.
So, what do we call it?
You can answer that question by thinking about who you’re talking to. If there are subtle differences in terminology, you can bet that your clients, customers and the general public won’t know what they are. Your colleagues, and maybe even your boss, might not know what they are. But creating amazing experiences isn’t solely the responsibility of the designer. It’s a shared responsibility across everyone in your organisation.
At August, we try to avoid jargon. One of our values is “no bullshit” – with each other and with our clients. Jargon doesn’t make you look smart; it causes confusion. When you throw terminology at clients that they don’t understand, their trust in you will decline. But when you speak like a human, you’ll develop more positive relationships, and projects will run more smoothly.
But for me there’s one thing that stands out even more than the jargon. Regardless of what we call it, and regardless of how long it has been around, designing with the user in mind is critically important in creating systems and products that users will engage with.
Henry Dreyfuss, Harry Beck and Don Norman all knew this.
And now that we live in a highly-competitive, multi-device, ‘always on’ world, this has never been more important. Whether you’re creating a website, an app, or any other type of digital interface, if you create an experience that frustrates users, they’ll quickly find a better alternative. The user has to come first.
So, let’s start speaking like humans, and get on with our jobs. And as a designer, or marketer, or whatever, our job is creating amazing experiences for real people. That’s what matters.
Image by Antra Svarcs