Is UCD Really Broken?

23 Jun 2008 - 10:39pm
5 years ago
61 replies
3446 reads
ambroselittle
2008

I've been following the frequent allusions to Google, 37signals, Facebook,
et al (including Jared Spool's presentation) as evidence that UCD is somehow
broken with interest. There's no debating that these products have been
successful, but it is also worth considering that they are the exception,
not the rule. As such, they can't be the basis for guidance
towards repeatable results.

I could be wrong (*no really*!), but it seems to me that the goal of UCD is
not so much to be innovative and groundbreaking but to add some degree of
reliability in terms of actually creating something that meets folks'
needs. I would suggest, FWIW, that innovation is nice and sometimes quite
lucrative, but you can't bank on it. You have a great, innovative idea or
you don't, and UCD won't deeply affect that, but that doesn't make UCD
something that should be tossed out. For the *vast majority* of apps that
are, I hope we all agree, not terribly innovative and yet at least have the
potential to serve the needs for which they were conceived, UCD is about the
most promising approach to building the right thing, the right way. Agile
is a close second for those who don't have the skills/knowledge for UCD.

Can you over invest? Absolutely, but abusus non tollit usum.

[I tend to think that some blend of UCD with Agile is the sweet spot for
most software.]

As for innovation and the dreamy potential of advancing the industry towards
some fanciful new future, well, most businesses can't bank on that, and even
most who aspire to that will fail regardless of process or lack of process.
I don't think it's wise to base an entire discipline like IxD upon such
aspirations, nor is it wise to toss out process--the point of which is to
provide some repeatable consistency, even if imperfect and not particularly
sexy. By nature, process is not geared towards innovation but rather
towards producing *reliable, repeatable* results, which is what most
businesses need and want, and any sustainable profession should have the
concerns, needs, and wants of business stakeholders close to heart over and
above laudable, if unrealistic, dreams about the future.

So I guess I don't really get the controversy.

--Ambrose

Comments

25 Jun 2008 - 9:38pm
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

>
> > As for the people who pay the checks? All they care about is getting a
> > great product. If you design great stuff they don't care how you did it.
> > Guaranteed.
> >
>
> Andrei, I caution you against making broad generalizations like this.

Actually, I completely agree with Andrei's statement. I've never once seen a
company who cared about how you achieve great products, as long as you do it
(and can repeat it). And I've worked with a lot of companies, ranging in
size from Fortune 500s to 1-man startups.

-r-

25 Jun 2008 - 10:21pm
ambroselittle
2008

On Wed, Jun 25, 2008 at 7:57 PM, Jared Spool <jspool at uie.com> wrote:

> Since my name was cited in the original post, I did want to suggest that
> I've been talking about this problem for years.
>
> Most recently, I wrote about it here:
> Surviving Our Success: Three Radical Recommendations
> http://tinyurl.com/5z78qs
> (Unfortunately, a bit hard to find on the unusable UPA web site. And
> nobody can explain to me why it's a PDF.)
>
Hi Jared, it was good to meet you in person yesterday. Thanks for
replying. Looking at this article, I hear what you are saying, and in fact
I agree with your suggestions wholeheartedly--100%%%. I'm not even a
usability pro historically, but one thing I've tried to tell folks at my
company is that UX is *everyone's* responsibility, not just some consultant
or small consulting team within the company. Everyone needs to be
reoriented towards users.

I agree it is the only way that this important shift in the way so many
software dev shops will scale--there will never be enough UX folks,
certainly not enough highly educated designers. That is in fact one reason
I'm so keen to engage you all--to understand this field better and try to
formulate new ways to inculcate user centrism into the common software dev
shop. I'll be glad to help out how I can in exploring these new ways.

[BTW, UX pros shouldn't worry; you'll never be out of a job if this works
because it will only make what you do more and more widely known and
appreciated.]

All that said, I still come to different conclusions about the value of UCD
per se. That different usability folks found different problems does not at
all invalidate doing usability reviews. That you want to teach these
techniques to the teams themselves also says you think otherwise. I get the
sense your issue is less with UCD and more with consultative UCD, based on
this article, and in that I agree that consultations only have so much
value--they'll only address the particular problems (maybe not even all of
them) at that particular time on that particular project.

I would also point out that doesn't even mean that consultative reviews are
not valuable. They'll amost certainly find something, even if they don't
find everything, and some improvement is better than none in my book. But I
totally agree the ideal is to help these teams to think better about their
approach to software creation.

> Basically, my thoughts are that, for many folks, UCD is a dogma. These
> people treat it as the only viable way of thinking about product design.
>
That is sad.

> However, there is no real evidence to suggest that following UCD
> dogmatically produces any better designs than ignoring it dogmatically (like
> Robert seems to want to do).
>
I don't know why it has to become dogmatic. There are only so many ways to
create software. Folks don't have to adopt a full, formal, dogmatic UCD
(whatever that is) to get value from it.

> In fact, all the evidence seems to suggest that it's a gestalt effect that
> any success is derived at all. In either of the above pieces, you'll hear
> (or read) about my thoughts on how the techniques of UCD are really just the
> stone in the soup. I believe that something else -- something we never talk
> about -- is what actually provides the best designs. (Just like it's
> something else that makes the soup, not the stone.)
>
I'm not sure the metaphor is apt in this case. UCD is definitely adding
important flavor. It's just not the whole soup. I think you're selling
yourselves short if you take this view. Maybe you've just grown too
accustomed to the flavor?

> I'm way to busy this week to actually say anymore than this.
>
Well, I appreciate what you *have* said in any case. I realize I'm late to
this discussion, as it were, so I hope nobody but me is taking my opinion
seriously. :-D

--Ambrose

25 Jun 2008 - 10:25pm
ambroselittle
2008

On Wed, Jun 25, 2008 at 10:38 PM, Robert Hoekman Jr <robert at rhjr.net> wrote:

> > As for the people who pay the checks? All they care about is getting a
>> > great product. If you design great stuff they don't care how you did it.
>> > Guaranteed.
>> >
>>
>> Andrei, I caution you against making broad generalizations like this.
>
>
> Actually, I completely agree with Andrei's statement. I've never once seen
> a company who cared about how you achieve great products, as long as you do
> it (and can repeat it). And I've worked with a lot of companies, ranging in
> size from Fortune 500s to 1-man startups.
>

While we're sharing anecdotes, I've worked with a lot that do care and
talked to a lot of folks (being big into the software dev community as
I have been) who work at a lot more companies where they do care. As a
further anecdote, these folks don't even call what they do "products." They
call them "projects," which is actually more telling than you might think.
So again, let's not make too broad generalizations.

I might suggest that being in the design/UX field, the kinds of companies
you work with are going to already be, dare I say, somewhat enlightened.
Rejoice at your good fortune! :)

Good night!

--Ambrose

25 Jun 2008 - 11:00pm
Andrei Herasimchuk
2004

On Jun 25, 2008, at 6:54 PM, J. Ambrose Little wrote:

> On Wed, Jun 25, 2008 at 11:07 AM, Andrei Herasimchuk <andrei at involutionstudios.com
> > wrote:
> "As for the people who pay the checks? All they care about is
> getting a great product. If you design great stuff they don't care
> how you did it. Guaranteed."
>
> Andrei, I caution you against making broad generalizations like this.

If I sat down with a few business executives and showed them two
versions of their product, as well as showed them substantial proof
that one of the products, which had been tested over a three to six
month period, returned significantly higher customer satisfaction,
fewer rates of return, higher sales throughput, but that the product
was designed by a 21 year old in college who did it in his dorm room
and knew nothing about UCD, and the other product was designed by
their in-house design team following company approved UCD methodology,
those executives wouldn't say, "We'll use the product designed by our
in-house folks since they obviously followed the correct procedure."

Those business executives would take the better product designed by
the 21 year old who did it solo without using any methodology at
all... then they'd promptly fire their entire design team.

If that's a broad generalization, then consider me guilty as charged.

--
Andrei Herasimchuk

Principal, Involution Studios
innovating the digital world

e. andrei at involutionstudios.com
c. +1 408 306 6422

26 Jun 2008 - 2:22pm
ambroselittle
2008

On Thu, Jun 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM, Andrei Herasimchuk <
andrei at involutionstudios.com> wrote:

> If I sat down with a few business executives and showed them two versions
> of their product, as well as showed them substantial proof that one of the
> products, which had been tested over a three to six month period, returned
> significantly higher customer satisfaction, fewer rates of return, higher
> sales throughput, but that the product was designed by a 21 year old in
> college who did it in his dorm room and knew nothing about UCD, and the
> other product was designed by their in-house design team following company
> approved UCD methodology, those executives wouldn't say, "We'll use the
> product designed by our in-house folks since they obviously followed the
> correct procedure."
>
> Those business executives would take the better product designed by the 21
> year old who did it solo without using any methodology at all... then they'd
> promptly fire their entire design team.
>
> If that's a broad generalization, then consider me guilty as charged.
>

Hi Andrei,

I appreciate the reasoned response.

I see a few problems here:
1) This assumes someone has invested up front to build the two versions for
the executives to pick from. That might happen in a design competition, but
not under any normal business circumstances that I've come across.
2) Executives often either defer decisions on how to build stuff to lower
level folks, and those folks, knowing their accountability to their execs,
are going to care about reliability, predictability, and accountability from
the folks they bring on to make the thing they're responsible for. This
isn't true across the board, of course, but it is true enough to account for
it in any general discussions about how to go about making good things.
IOW, it may be true that certain level execs don't care who things get done
as long as they get done, but often the folks that the actual makers
(designers, devs, whatever) have to interface with, sell to--please--do
care.

How about a little empathy for these middle managers? You're asking for a
ton of trust to just say give me a budget and you'll get something great at
the end--don't worry about what happens in between. I think we'd all like
that, but I can see how such a proposal would cause a lot of discomfort for
them, especially since they regularly have to report on progress, which
implies some knowledge of a plan/process through which the team is
progressing and some sense that the plan/process is not ad hoc, i.e., that
it has been used successfully before.

Anyways, I feel like we're on a tangent, arguing about something we
needn't. The question is not whether or not UCD is the only way to make
great things; I've yet to see anyone (in this discussion) claim that. The
question--the one I posed anyways--was whether or not UCD is broken. I find
in this discussion that the value of UCD has been confirmed, along with the
acknowledgement that there are indeed other ways to make great products.

I hear the concerns about the cost; I can hypothetically understand the
value of higher design education, and we all see cases where products have
been very successful without UCD. However, I don't really see those feeding
into a conclusion that UCD is broken or should be abandoned; instead, I see
that you just have to make an informed decision on whether and how to apply
it to your particular product/project.

--Ambrose

26 Jun 2008 - 3:15pm
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

>
> How about a little empathy for these middle managers? You're asking for a
> ton of trust to just say give me a budget and you'll get something great at
> the end--don't worry about what happens in between.

No one in their right mind would do this, but it doesn't mean your point is
accurate. I've never used a typical UCD process (well, not since realizing
it was a bad idea), but I've always had a plan at the beginning of a project
for how to reach a successful end, and it's always been based on things I
could prove have worked before.

You seem to be saying that the only options are to either follow a UCD
process or fly by the seat of your pants and expect managers to just trust
you. I doubt that's what Andrei means.

I'll let Andrei speak for himself, but the point he seems to be making is
that managers don't care which process you use, just that you have one that
can be reproduced and will strengthen your chances for success. This is
certainly what I meant when I said no company I've worked with cared how
things got done. Sorry if that was unclear.

-r-

26 Jun 2008 - 3:55pm
ambroselittle
2008

On Thu, Jun 26, 2008 at 4:15 PM, Robert Hoekman Jr <robert at rhjr.net> wrote:

> No one in their right mind would do this, but it doesn't mean your point
> is accurate. I've never used a typical UCD process (well, not since
> realizing it was a bad idea), but I've always had a plan at the beginning of
> a project for how to reach a successful end, and it's always been based on
> things I could prove have worked before.
>

Awesome. :)

>
> You seem to be saying that the only options are to either follow a UCD
> process or fly by the seat of your pants and expect managers to just trust
> you. I doubt that's what Andrei means.
>

Yikes. What I *seem* to be saying seems to be contradicting what I actually
said. :) Let me try to be clearer.

We will all follow some process, i.e., work flow. That is inescapable. The
questions are:
1) Are we aware of our process or are we just doing what seems best at any
particular moment?
2) If we are aware of our process, is it a proven process or one we are just
experimenting with?
3) Whatever other questions am I omitting? :) (Just wanted to be complete.)

My experience and research suggests that these managers as a rule want to
follow some conscious, proven process or at least one that is adapted to
their environment. They want the security of knowing that others have been
successful following it and, often, like particular features of it that seem
to just make sense and facilitate their job, part of which is reporting on
progress. And I think their perfectly reasonable in wanting that, even if
some go overboard in their faith in process or fail to recognize that having
the right people is far more important.

UCD is *one* such process, one that has a set of techniques and common
deliverables and that has been practiced by many others, at least enough to
where it is pretty widespread and has many reports of success. Plus, it has
the benefit of just making sense to people.

So no, it is not UCD or nothing. Please, please, nobody put those words in
my mouth again.

>
> I'll let Andrei speak for himself, but the point he seems to be making is
> that managers don't care which process you use, just that you have one that
> can be reproduced and will strengthen your chances for success. This is
> certainly what I meant when I said no company I've worked with cared how
> things got done. Sorry if that was unclear.
>

Thanks for the clarification. If Andrei cares, he can elaborate. He
certainly doesn't have to as far as I'm concerned; I feel like we're off the
beaten path or, rather, beating an entirely new one with a dead horse.

--Ambrose

26 Jun 2008 - 5:12pm
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

>
> I feel like we're off the beaten path or, rather, beating an entirely new
> one with a dead horse.
>

This sentence cracks me up.

Glad we got all that figured out.

-r-

25 Jun 2008 - 8:20pm
Terry Fitzgerald
2008

I'm tired of this EGOfest - go ahead design what you want - you may
occaisionally accidentaly meet the needs of your customers

On 6/25/08, Chris Hunter <chunter at wondertwinpowers.net> wrote:
>
> On Wed, Jun 25, 2008 at 3:17 PM, Andrei Herasimchuk <
> andrei at involutionstudios.com> wrote:
>
> >
> > On Jun 25, 2008, at 12:35 PM, Terry Fitzgerald wrote:
> >
> > If I asked any of these folks or you to go out and buy me a car - could
> >> you decide without asking me (the U in UCD) what kind of car meets my
> needs?
> >>
> >
> > You're missing the point.
> >
> > Have you taken an industrial design class?
> >
>
> Andrei is spot on here. Any reputable design program (Industrial or
> Graphic)
> will have significant emphasis on considering the user during the design
> process. I know that mine (at the University of Washington) certainly did.
> For example, one of our design projects involved designing a digital
> thermometer. Every single student went out, observed and talked to
> prospective users -- for some parents or home users, for me, doctors and
> nurses -- and then used our findings in the design process.
>
> If you go and examine the history of any of the existing design
> disciplines:
> graphic design, industrial design or architecture, you will find a
> consistent consideration for the people affected by design decisions. Not
> as
> the only consideration certainly but as a significant and consistent one.
>
> UCD just isn't necessary in addition to this already established design
> behavior.
>
> Chris Hunter
> chunter at wondertwinpowers.net
> ________________________________________________________________
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26 Jun 2008 - 4:09am
Lee McIvor
2006

Andrei, what makes you think that 21 year old is likely to be capable of developing a better solution if they a.) don't know the business, and b.) don't know it's customers?

This isn't about UCD per se, this is about the common sense view that understanding business and user requirements are essential to the development of a good solution - this takes research.

You're also missing the fact that what is the "better" product depends on your definition of "better". If a stack of research dictates that solution a.) meets business and customer needs better than solution b.) then solution a.) is "better" surely? The 21 year old would be very lucky to discover that solution....

The simple fact is that whether you practice UCD or whatever else, the arrogant attitude that any good designer can simply deliver their solutions from on high to illiterate customers is way past it's sell by date. I think some of the designers criticising UCD agree that research is beneficial, but just don't agree with UCD in particular. That's fine with me. It's the "research is for cr*p designers" attitude that I object to.

----- Original Message ----
From: Andrei Herasimchuk <andrei at involutionstudios.com>
To: IXDA list <discuss at ixda.org>
Sent: Thursday, 26 June, 2008 5:00:38 AM
Subject: Re: [IxDA Discuss] Is UCD Really Broken?

On Jun 25, 2008, at 6:54 PM, J. Ambrose Little wrote:

> On Wed, Jun 25, 2008 at 11:07 AM, Andrei Herasimchuk <andrei at involutionstudios.com
> > wrote:
> "As for the people who pay the checks? All they care about is
> getting a great product. If you design great stuff they don't care
> how you did it. Guaranteed."
>
> Andrei, I caution you against making broad generalizations like this.

If I sat down with a few business executives and showed them two
versions of their product, as well as showed them substantial proof
that one of the products, which had been tested over a three to six
month period, returned significantly higher customer satisfaction,
fewer rates of return, higher sales throughput, but that the product
was designed by a 21 year old in college who did it in his dorm room
and knew nothing about UCD, and the other product was designed by
their in-house design team following company approved UCD methodology,
those executives wouldn't say, "We'll use the product designed by our
in-house folks since they obviously followed the correct procedure."

Those business executives would take the better product designed by
the 21 year old who did it solo without using any methodology at
all... then they'd promptly fire their entire design team.

If that's a broad generalization, then consider me guilty as charged.

--
Andrei Herasimchuk

Principal, Involution Studios
innovating the digital world

e. andrei at involutionstudios.com
c. +1 408 306 6422

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1 Jul 2008 - 2:04pm
David Gilmore
2008

Phew! What a long debate, that despite a few great contributions
(Scott, Charles) seems to go around in circles.

Of course great products can be created without UCD (start ups do it
all the time) and, of course, UCD cannot guarantee you a great
success. So, is it broken?

Well, I guess that depends on two things - what you think UCD is? and
what you think its purpose is?

It seems clear to me that people are not agreed on what they think
UCD really is - and this cones down, I think, to not knowing which
word to emphasise. If you emphasise 'user' then 'user research'
and 'usability testing' become those horrendous time and budget
sinks and it is tempting to think you must do what the user says. But
if you emphasise 'design' then different conclusions follow,
suggesting a more philosophical frame of mind. And if you emphasise
'Centred' then it suggests that you can ignore all other
constraints (the business, the technological risks, etc).

Although I still do use the term UCD occasionally, I do so very very
cautiously - it is so overloaded with ambiguity and pontification,
that it is rarely helpful. But just because the term is broken (as
proven by this thread I think) does not mean the underlying concept
is.

Which leads to the question about why we need the underlying concept
- what is UCD for?

It may help to think of user-centerd design as a noun describing an
outcome - the iPhone is a user-centered design (actually, I think it
is one the most user-centered designs of recent years). Very little
of the technology in the iPhone is innovative and neither (really) is
the business case. But the convergence of industrial design,
interaction design and the meeting of deep user needs is truly
innovative and user-centered.

For most businesses deploying UCD methods, there is little or no
interest in these processes - the outcome is what is sought, it is
all that matters!

Thus, UCD (as characterized by most in this thread) is a fantastic
collection of tools to help us achieve these outcomes, but whether we
use those tools or not doesn't matter, if we can deliver the iPhone,
Google or Facebook outcomes.

[for the personal anecdotes, I should briefly say that I have worked
on a good number of user-adored products that have been complete and
utter business failures, as well as on a good number of commercial
successes where time, budget or access prevented any user research or
usability testing and yet users clearly saw and appreciated the
benefits of a development team focused on meeting user needs.]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=30642

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