Saturday, November 18, 2006

Against 'human-centered design'

Don Norman wrote a piece arguing against many user-centered design approaches, or at least how they are thought of/about. I just wrote five pages in my notebook prompted by this, on the somewhat related theme of how what I seem to be pretty good at -- seeing and coming up with ways to help people deal with 'breaches in the canonicity of life' (Bruner) -- seems often to be hardly of much value in the world I mostly work in, where knowledge of and a feel for how things actually work (the engineering and operations aspects) is the main value. In other words, living within the canonicity and knowing how it works -- neither of which I'm much or uniquely good at -- is needed and valued.

How is this related to Norman's piece? Well, to me it says that having a feel for what will work (as Jobs clearly does at Apple) is much more important and valuable than following principled approaches that are meant to discover or critique what's wrong or missing from the dominant worldview, such as 'human-centered design'. There is a debate about this that I've been following in the interaction design world (this thread from the IxDA list is an example, where many are railing against the academic/research preference for 'user-centered design' as an approach, saying that intelligent/creative designers following their own instincts for what will work is actually more effective than all the techniques that have been developed for 'understanding users', regardless of how much more enlightened the latter is supposed to be).


MXS said...

Just a posting, triggered by your e-mail back to me. God only knows why I am doing this, cause I hate blogs. To me blogs are for people who feel their "shit doesn't stink" and others have an interest in their "bullshit." Unlike me, my "shit stinks" and noone is interested :-)
Anyway, I have no idea what you mean with this piece. Seems like you're talking about practice versus theory. Of course people admire good practice more than good theory, accept for theory that is being hailed by other academics, such as the Nobel prize.

ptah said...

I would disagree with the previous comment. This is less about practice versus theory and more an issue of bouergois colonialism in the Roland Barthes mold.

If a designer follows an instinct alone when committing to a design solution, they draw upon many many learnt experiences, they assume that their learning - if its good enough for me is good enough for anyone - works. So they no longer listen to the problem or matter at issue. However by not listening they are in fact denying their senses, and it becomes a massive gamble for the client as to if a coherent piece of work will emerge from the 'autisitic' spasm of industry.

Jobs does not have a feel, he hires Jonathan Ives for starters, and Ives works hard. Apple also wrote the book on human interaction, well, copied it anyway. Jobs, like Gates and Elison have been around for a long time and he, like the others have a unique relationship with this industry.

As for the source document, none of the examples referred to in the text are credible as comparison for the challenge faced by a interface designer. They do not exhibit the same level of dynamism, flexibility or pyschogeography.

Once the author begins to describe the 'subtle' diff. between task and activity he shows his true colours. You see, it cannot be placed upon the universe of understanding that this is correct, it is semantic and therefore a matter of learned experience. A task could be ones job. A job can involve diff. activities and vice versa. The author wishes to colonise the readers mind with a set of rules which will make the reader (user) more simple to control, exploit for commercial gain. Neo liberals would like to form one type of cloned human who is easy to manage, predict and control. Human centered design is fustrating, error prone and constantly up for re-appraisal, but whislt designers are prepared to listen and learn, they are on the correct track.

As for the case for Activity centered design, well, maybe, but only when a commodity - which has embedded technology - can be used for only one activity alone can you begin to think in terms of activity centerd design. Like the platonists who wish to see the universe revolve around themselves this would appear to stifle, not stimulate human experince. My phone is my calender and my text editor, which activity do you wish to centre on? How about the human side, whereby you consider fingers, light v dark environments to edit, etc etc.

Al said...

A clarification re Steve Jobs. I had just read the Wired magazine article about the creation of the iPod (this isn't it, but close enough), when I posted the above. The article discusses the kind of on-the-fly design decisions Jobs himself makes -- of course, along with all the work that his team does. I didn't mean to imply he acts alone, but he clearly does have a feel for design, and he himself doesn't base his decisions on user research and the like. I myself think that user research, UCD, etc. can be valuable -- but it isn 't the only path to good design. In any case I was actually trying to talk about something else, maybe I will try again in another post.

ptah said...

Steve Jobs/Bill Gates, these are people in the Henry Ford league. Stephenson, Baird etc. They are cornerstones to the indusry and provide very unique examples as they have been at the forefront for so long - the industry is almost an extension of their (and a few but not many others) instinctive jerk.

The majority of us must study hard or make expensive mistakes.

Sorry if I co-opted your thread with my rant, I look forward to future posts and wil try to keep things more in key.

Al said...

Not at all ptah, I'm glad to get your thoughts.