Friday, June 19, 2015

"User" focused? Perhaps a Bad Idea.

For the past decade or so there has been a trend in design centric work towards titles that include ..."user"... user-research, user-centered, user-experience, etc. I am guilty of thinking in these terms myself. You may ask what is wrong with these ways of thinking and in some cases I think it's just fine. But, what keeps eating at me is the word itself — "user." It implies a very utility based concept of what a design is or should be. The design becomes a thing to be used — a tool. This again is fine provided you have a very broad definition of what a tool is. And that works for me. But I fear that few people hold that broad definition.

"Use" is largely singular in it's direction. "Use" based design focuses on artifacts that are acted upon or used to act upon other objectives. What happens to "meaning" when "use" becomes the priority. Humans are meaning making machines. So, when we design for use rather than meaning we forget that the artifact acts upon us whether we intend it to or not. Whether we like it or not designed artifacts change us. They mean something to us. They force meaning upon us and we have no choice in the matter because we are genetically programed to draw meaning from everything we experience.

Let's look at a very simple example — say a shovel... a sheet of metal strapped to the end of a stick that is used to move dirt. A poorly designed shovel sends a message to the person who will use it. Perhaps the meaning of such an artifact could be... "we don't really care... just do your job" or "hey we've got your money now and what did you expect... it's a SHOVEL!" If we understand that meaning will be drawn from everything we design then the way that we design shifts. "Use" is still there and as important as ever but a design then is not just about efficiency or utility.

Look closely at the wooden spoon pictured at the top of this post. There is meaning to be drawn from that spoon. It's shape, it's color, etc. means something. It will mean something different to different people. The person who will use it may not draw some deep profound meaning from it. But, there will be some kind of meaning drawn from the experience of using it. The tide of "use" in design is too strong I think to change things now. And that worries me... a LOT!

I would like to make a plea for — "Meaning-Centered Design."

My concern for this began some time ago when I read this article...

"The Birth of the User"

You should read it.