Is User-Centered Design Broken – or is It Just Us?

Cennydd Bowles recently argued on A List Apart that User-Centred Design “may be limiting our field”. I don’t agree, and I didn’t agree with Jared Spool when he said the same thing at IA Summit 2008.

Funnily enough, I agree with many of Cennydd’s and Jared’s individual points, but I disagree with the overall thesis that UCD is past its best. It feels kind of flame-baity to me. Back in the days when Devs used to argue about Agile all the time, Ron Jeffries wrote this this allegory about development processes and baseball. It was a joke about how a group of fictional developers read the rules of baseball, decided to tweak them a little bit and ended up playing a version of it involving a rolled up socks for a ball and very little physical activity, so to make it more efficient. It was easy but they didn’t have any fun, and they posted an angry rant online condeming baseball as “problematic”. Yes, it’s a daft story, but Ron’s point is solid: before denouncing Baseball, Agile, UCD or anything else, it makes sense to stop for a moment and work out if you’re playing it the same way everyone else is.

These days, UCD is seen as a pretty vague process. Everyone makes up their own rules and we all get different mileage out of it. Historically there’s been various efforts to formalize UCD, but most design groups keep it pretty open – you go through iterations of analysis, creation and evaluation; usually trying to involve real users in the evaluation activities. You start with broadbrush concepts and divergent, broadbrush research – then you hone in to detailed concepts and convergent, detail-oriented research. That’s it in a nutshell. It doesn’t somehow spit out innovative products when you turn the handle, but hey – it’s a process, not a fairy godmother.

About a year ago I did some consultancy with an agency who ran about 100 hours of usability testing on a shonky Axure prototype under the name of UCD. It must have cost them about $150k, with barely no difference in the design before or after. They said their client wanted to be extra sure that the design was highly usable, so they added more research – but somehow forgot about the analysis and design bit. There aint no cure for stupidity, but this isn’t the fault of any particular acronym.

Maybe I’m being boring here. I agree there is a lot of bad design happening out there, but does that mean we need to “look beyond” UCD? In fact, I think we should look directly at it. Let’s talk about the common mistakes and the flaws. Let’s evolve it. But please, let’s not coin any new terms just yet.