Four Common Myths in Human-Centered Design Research

February 15, 2017 in Human-Centered Design
Brett Leber
Strategic Designer

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Conducting research to inform the design of products and services is a vital process, but our understanding of how and why it’s done (even within the work of design professionals) is far from unified. Underlying all research and decision-making are beliefs we have about people, expertise, the role of technology, and even responsibility. The following are some common traps in thinking about design research, and possible ways to overcome them.

Myth 1. We are the experts, and users are our test subjects

The notion that people who have feedback to give are our test subjects is so ingrained in design research, it’s baked into the words we often use to talk about the most common of usability-feedback activities: “user testing”. But leveraging people for feedback on existing designs, while critical, undervalues the most important capacity of all people: creativity. The expert mindset asks us to think that only experts create. The participatory mindset, on the other hand, recognizes the creativity of non-experts, and invites them into the design process. Adopting a participatory mindset, however, is more than a democratic exercise: organizations that design with users — through codesign activities, ongoing engagements, and interacting with communities of use — are finding their way to unexpected ideas, many of which would have been missed otherwise.

When we approach users as test subjects, we ignore their capacity to be creative.

Myth 2. Users are the experts, and we are only their megaphone

One response to Myth 1 is to think the obverse: people are all experts, and the role of the designer is to simply listen to people tell us what they want — if a user doesn’t ask for it, it must not be important! This mindset, beyond invoking that Henry Ford “faster horse” quote, dangerously lets the designer (and other stakeholders) off the hook. The role of experts — those with domain knowledge, including designers who understand systems and interactions at varying scales — is to help shape situations into preferable futures. This means thinking a few steps ahead, but also advocating for product or service changes that will benefit a variety of stakeholders, not just one user. It means taking responsibility for the whole, and valuing expertise when necessary.

Championing (and amplifying) user feedback is important, but it’s not the only source of design direction. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Myth 3. User engagement only needs to happen once during a design cycle

Even when we think we understand the value of engaging users, there is a temptation to engage them only once during a project. Maybe it’s before concepts are generated (insight-driven or generative research), or perhaps it’s after concepts (or systems) are developed (evaluative research). But one engagement, even within a single design cycle — and even if it happens early — is generally not enough. It’s better than zero times, to be sure, but it falls short for the simple reason that the design — the output of a project — is constantly changing. The output that the project team understands while generating concepts is often very different once a concept is selected. Similarly, the design that is user-tested is often changed as a result of that testing. Should it be released to the world without any more feedback? Maybe, but not knowing if that change was a step in the right direction is a risk. As a result, designing and testing multiple iterations with people is the only way to mitigate that risk.

This “squiggle” model of the design process acknowledges how a team’s understanding of the problem and solution space radically shifts throughout much of the project. Engaging people outside of the design team more than once — and in a variety of ways — helps to ground that changing understanding. Source: The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman is licensed under CC BY-ND 3.0. Text added to original.

Myth 4. All design projects build toward a (technological) thing

You’ve decided you’re going to engage people multiple times in a design process (beating Myth 3); you value both their and your expertise (navigating Myths 1 and 2). “Time to make a thing!” This myth is perhaps the most insidious of these four, not because it’s necessarily “bad”, but because of what it leaves on the table. The belief that the output of a design project must be a new or updated thing — an app, website, or physical product, for example — is widely held. And yet some of the most effective designs hardly resemble “things” at all: they are services (and product-service systems), communications, policies, meetings, partnerships, strategies, and environments. This is one reason that when MAYAns facilitate the creative matrix activity — a scheme for inspiring new ideas at the intersections of distinct categories — we include rows as “enablers” for these types of solutions. And oftentimes, the solution is a combination of these intangible outputs and physical (or digital) things — an overall experience.

Some projects work toward the design of a technological “thing”, while others have a less tangible output or a combination of forms. Source: ABC TV Lady Fingers, the love interest of Thing, from the 1960s TV series The Addams Family.

Recognizing these four myths is a big step toward doing more effective and impactful work. By doing so, we will have more fruitful and nuanced conversations with users (that is, people); leverage expertise and systems thinking; bring people into our design process; and consider the full spectrum of possible interventions we can make in the world.

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