Beyond User-Centred Design

A 2012 article by John Wood

UTOPIA OR OBLIVION? - Buckminster Fuller framed this question in his 1993 book of the same name, warning that mankind's prospects would go decisively one way, or the other. Twenty years on, it is clear that nobody could have answered his question with any certainty, because we are all entangled in it. Most of us have heard of the butterfly effect, so we are slowly realising that each one of us has some responsibility for what happens. What does this mean for 'UCD' (User Centred Design)?

Putting The User at the Centre

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man

In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum created a computer program for diagnosing medical conditions. It conversed with patients directly, via screen-based questions in everyday language. But it did it so cunningly that most correspondents thought they were talking to a human being. The question and answer routine was based on the psychotherapeutic approach of Carl Rogers, best-known for developing an extremely patient-centred approach. Technologically speaking, the program was very simple. First, it addressed the respondent using her first name, asked open-ended questions about their state of health and incorporated some of their own words in its answer. The strategy worked so well that users were convinced they were talking to a sympathetic doctor, rather than a machine.

How Useful is Humanism?

square-50cm-spacer.jpg grey-world-map.png square-50cm-spacer.jpg Smile_animation.gif

What is remarkable about educated people is how pliable they become, when put at the centre of their emotional universe. The idea of user-centred design grew out of 'humanism', which can be traced to ancient Greece and the early Christians, who came to value the differences between individuals. However, while humanism has many admirable qualities, it is a dangerously incomplete basis from which to organise things. If we were to make a caricature of the humanistic world in picture-book terms, Nature would be depicted as a faint grey backdrop, with people standing out in bright colours. The growth of humanism gave us a strong belief in free will. More recently, in the era of consumption, it has tended to make us restless and unsatisfied. This is a paradox. In the 21st century, never have so many people have had so much access to so much information. Yet, by manipulating and dumbing-down our perceptions of what is happening, our species has become increasingly disconnected from the complex ecosystem that nourishes and sustains it. What should worry designers, in particular, is that they played a major part in creating this artificial, user-centred world.

Landfill In Perth Wikimedia
"Because I'm worth it..."

Why do airlines offer free 'air miles' to the most privileged? Why do shopkeepers unthinkingly hand-out plastic bags, and cafés give away disposable napkins with their food and beverages, even when their customers ask them not to? One reason is that it feels good to look after one’s honoured guests in a generous way, even if it means wasting resources. Why is Apple now the most valuable company in the world? Yes, it is because their design standards are, compared to their rivals, pretty good. OK, it is also because a user-focused approach is a hell of a lot smarter than ‘functionality-centred’, ‘engineer-centred’, or ‘producer-centred design’. This is why Samsung would love to be the world leaders in UCD. Unfortunately, user-centred logic assumes that the user is right. It assumes that what individual consumers want will benefit the whole system. All over the world, people still say that the customer is, either 'king', 'queen', 'emperor', or even 'God'. This idea came from our feudal past, when servants were always less well educated than their masters. Our collective memory is so strong that it still seems reasonable to say that ‘the customer is always right’. Today, this is a cynical process. Deep down, most customers know that owning a cool product will not make him a cooler person. On the other hand, the smiling shopkeeper knows, privately, that the customer’s vanity will bring him, or her, back for more.

Empowering the People?


It is less than a century since the American Dream took root in the global imagination, and only a few decades since governments de-regulated the markets in order to maximise economic growth. These changes encouraged people from wealthy nations to see themselves more as consumers, rather than citizens. This was partly because economists and politicians could not see a way to distribute wealth evenly. They found it easier to stimulate over-production and to pay designers and marketing experts to harness envy, greed, acquisitiveness and a feeling of loss. On the positive side, the Enlightenment vision of a knowledge-based Utopia became increasingly thinkable, thanks to pioneers like Denis Diderot, Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Xerox Park, the Apple team, Nam Jun Paik and Tim Berners Lee. This opened up the enormous potential for Open Source design and social networking. Nevertheless, gadgets like Facebook and Twitter have become as useful to the clandestine world of state surveillance and commercial manipulation as they are to a freer, more open society.

Does Consumption Dumb us Down?

In 2012, while consumers are clearer about their rights, rather than their responsibilities, Utopia and Oblivion remain equally probable. In this increasingly commercial world, the citizen’s economic duty is to shop until s/he drops. In the last five years, the mass media has used the word 'crisis' almost exclusively to describe a financial problem. It is seldom used to describe our prospects as a species. As politicians continue to argue for more, and yet more, economic growth the environment gently pushes us to the edge of oblivion. The melting rate of Arctic ice is now 50% faster than it was in 2007 the atmospheric CO2 levels have exceeded the much-feared ‘tipping point’ of 350ppm. The Rio+20 summit was a total disaster and the 2010 Nagoya Commission on Biodiversity failed to establish a workable remedy. Looks like it's going to be oblivion, rather than Utopia, then.... Are we bothered? Not really. We have designed ourselves into a bubble of self-satisfaction. ‘Solipsism’ is a good word for it. It reminds us of the old story of Narcissus, who was became obsessively absorbed by his own reflection in the lake and failed to notice that a beautiful girl was trying to get his attention.

Does Design dumb us down?


Many designers will, no doubt, object to this analysis, pointing out that UCD simply acknowledges the unique physical capabilities and needs of individual users, or types of user. While this may be a fair point, say, from a product designer's perspective, it overlooks the way that we urgently need to change unimaginative business models, worn-out economic theories and whole belief systems. In the current business climate a UCD is seen as a harmless conceit that will oil the wheels of commerce and help us all to feed our families. Ultimately, it may be the death of us all. One of the problems with this post-feudal, user-centred mindset is that it is a one-dimensional map in which only two places exist – master and servant. In the workplace, the designer is the servant and the client is the master. From a greater distance, the user is the master and the ‘client plus designer’ is the servant. Apple products may look cool on a small, consumer-centred map, but they might not look so smart on the big map, especially if we can see their true ecological footprint. This is a dumb model that is failing us all, because it ignores everything beyond economics.

How can we see the Bigger Picture?


So, what kind of map would guide us to destinations that are beyond the ‘user’? To solve this problem we will need to think beyond design, as we know it. At the end of the 19th century, design emerged as a set of specialist disciplines that have remained, at the professional level, relatively disconnected from one another. Universities have been lamentably slow at challenging these traditional boundaries of design specialism that, for most institutions, have remained surprisingly intact throughout the twentieth century. This conservative tendency in re-designing design education ensured that, even today, most designers work as specialist contributors to a profit-driven business, rather than as holistic thinkers who work for society as a whole. Our design research at Goldsmiths, University of London has led us to a more complex, less predictive approach that we call ‘metadesign’. It assumes that, in order to reach Utopia, rather than Oblivion, we need a more joined-up way to design for living. This means rethinking everything, including the way humans feed, clothe, shelter, assemble, communicate and live together. It means designing at the level of behaviours, habits, beliefs, and language. In short, it entails re-designing design itself.

Ruskin's eco-centred approach


We have developed many theories that are enabling us to understand these issues. We have also developed quite a few practical tools that enable us to innovate at a more strategic, self-reflexive level. We call it ‘metadesigning’. In trying to think find a mapping system that goes beyond the well-worn UCD pathway between producer and consumer we looked at John Ruskin’s model of craftsmanship. Although he did not describe it in these simplified terms, his description of the craftsman’s pride in his work affords benefits at four locations (i.e. natural environment, client, craftsman and society). This is not the whole map, but it takes us a long way beyond UCD. Instead of one pathway we have six, which is clearer when we visualise the system as a tetrahedron (see above).

Working with our 4-fold System


This four-fold technique has proved invaluable on a number of levels. It does not stop the designer from trying to imagine standing in the shoes of the user. But it also encourages her to empathising with the client, the environment and/or the design itself. Moreover, by visualising all of the (6) relations, it enables her to visualise the 12 perspectives within the whole, simplified system.

This article was written in September 2012, after a discussion with Niti Bhan
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