“Discover the real problems.” – Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things
Guiding principles of user research:
– You are not the user
– Keep an open mind
– University of Minnesota, User Research and Design course, Brent Hecht
Do you want to deliver the value that your audience needs to receive? It is a design thinking question, and I pose it to anyone (myself included) who wants to contribute to the world. “Delivering value” applies to many of our situations. You might want to manufacture a product, give a speech, provide a humanitarian service, or participate in a relationship. Your “audience” might be a user base, a room full of business associates, a stranger on the street or a life partner. In all cases, the basic concerns remain the same.
Originally I intended to preach about designing your deliverable to meet the goals and understanding of the people who use it. However, I am relatively new to the world of design and don’t have the experience or authority to start handing out road maps just yet. What I have is growing awareness of and excitement about the landscape of this discipline. Its insights have broadened my perspective and creative output, and so I can speak with enthusiasm about the topic given in the title, as a migrant to this land inviting others to join me.
Our starting point is not how to design, but why we should care about design. Our audience benefits – we benefit – if we embrace that our audience’s goals may be different than ours, and that delivering something of value to them takes a special attitude and special effort.
This line of thought emerged from a get-together with friends to discuss active projects and areas of study. My friends are scientist-artists, teacher-students, innovators and experimenters. I learn from them about geology, environmental data science, clay-working, glass-blowing, lego-modeling, programming, and whatever else captivates one or more of us. I am a discipline-hopper as well, and one thing I am passionate about is learning how people identify, describe, and address human needs. That day, I became involved in a conversation about the user-friendliness of a data gathering tool, and ways that users might employ or abuse the tool. I agreed to give this further thought, and to write about the question from a design perspective.
This essay is the result. The direct connection between that conversation and this prose delights me. It is a simple example of how much of life is entangled with other parts of life, and how the act of communication enriches that entanglement and influences what we are capable of offering. Information and energy moves through us. The world around us literally inspires us, shapes us and our perspectives. Communication connects us, constantly, with people and objects and ideas.
To the point, communication is fundamental to design thinking, and to the challenge of caring about your audience and whether they are getting what they need from you. Communication has provided me, in writing this, with a direct connection to that conversation with friends, whose needs this essay hopefully, eventually, serves.
I say eventually because delivering value to meet a need is not a one-and-done arrangement. It usually takes more than one try. Perhaps some of my terminology is too fancy, or else too vague. Do I need to add visuals? Remove some digressions? The best case scenario: I understand their need but I am not quite providing the tool they need to address it. The worst case scenario: I have misunderstood their need completely. If I care about meeting that need, then either case is okay.
Good design works through iteration and feedback. Anne Lamott talks in Bird by Bird talks about “shitty first drafts,” Adam Grant urges us in Originals to reject perfectionism and share our incomplete ideas, and Mr. Norman, along with many, many designers, offers the “failing fast” model, which is not really about failure at all, but rather progressing by steps with your audience/user/partner toward the goal.
A regular exchange is the least that I am prepared to offer, since I want to produce something of actual value. Communication demonstrates that I care, and it even reinforces my ability to care by granting me additional insight and connection to my audience.
Design thinking is one way to increase our awareness of, and sensitivity to, our audience’s needs. Design thinking provides us with tools to gather information and act wisely on that information to create the value that they need. As I already said, I won’t try to educate you about those tools right now. I will, however, talk about a couple of common pitfalls in the process, because they interfere with our ability to care about our audience. Remember, these principles are broadly relevant, not just to manufacturing (or programming) as we typically think of design.
First, we must be careful not to become protective of a specific idea or draft or model at the expense of our users. This bad habit damages our ability to deliver the value that our audience needs. It damages our desire to care! Feedback becomes a threat when our ego is involved.
I am sure that everyone can remember a company initiative, or school project, or friendly engagement, that devolved into a power struggle or a misguided conviction that someone “knew” what was best for everyone and that everyone would eventually be grateful for their stubbornness (or at least admit they were wrong). I have been guilty of just this sort of stubbornness. But was any need satisfied in the end, other than my need to feel right when I looked in the mirror?
Ironically, as we shrink away from audience response, we destroy the value that we meant to protect. It is the successful fulfillment of their needs that mattered in the first place. Without it, what is the thing we make worth? Even worse, insensitivity to the needs of the audience can lead to dysfunction and outright pathology.
In Things That Make Us Smart, Donald Norman quotes Grudin’s Law: “When those who benefit are not those who do the work, then the technology is likely to fail or, at least, be subverted.” (Norman 113). Those who benefit means those who decided how the product is designed – for their own gain, not the audience’s – and those who do the work stands for whomever that audience is – whomever must make use of the product. I suggest that we increasingly witness, in modern life, not just products that fail or are subverted, but populations that fail or are subverted because of the products, systems, ideas they are given to work with.
Second, we must remember that our understanding is not our audience’s understanding. Even if you properly understand their need and work to serve it, you might not really understand how they will engage your product to meet it. Again in Things That Make Us Smart, Mr. Norman refers to “technology that is imposed upon us on its terms instead of ours” (Norman 103). Don’t put your audience in your shoes – put yourself in their shoes. Bring the tool to them, instead of the other way around.
Once more, communication is key. It builds awareness as well as empathy, and helps us deliver something that our audience can comprehend and use. What works? What doesn’t? How do they interpret a particular instruction or feature? Design experts offer a wide variety of strategies to participate in and understand our audience’s experience. Seeking diversity is a very valuable one.
In Originals, Mr. Grant references research that connects creativity with multicultural exposure. The longer and more different, in fact, the better. Mr. Norman reflects on the very different meanings that similar design features may have in different cultures. A very basic observation, then, is to know your audience (and it might not hurt to know some people who are not your audience, for comparison and to inspire out-of-the-box thinking). What languages do your users speak? What age groups are they in? What economic classes? What geographies do they live in? What sorts of jobs do they have? Questions about just how you begin assembling that data are for another time. I only mean to underline our main concerns today: caring and communicating.
Part of caring and communicating is being sensitive to the usability question. If your audience only understands Dutch and you speak to them in Spanish, have you delivered any value to them? If you make a retirement planning website but its information is presented in small, faint type, how long will your aging customers be able to use it? Have you designed a new type of scissors? Will left-handed people be able to cut with them? In one respect, it is up to you to decide who your audience is, but from another point of view, your audience decides itself, and as you can see the tools themselves sometimes shape the audience, for good or ill.
Do you want to deliver the value that your audience needs to receive? If we want what we offer to matter, we must first care about the needs of the people to whom we are offering. If we wish for them to succeed in meeting their needs, we must care about how they experience the world and, specifically, how they experience what we are offering.
How do we proceed from this point? For my part, I hope to expand my awareness of human experience and needs. I want to participate in fruitful discussion on design, communication, and many other intersecting fields. The proper foundation comes first and then, I hope, inspiration regarding specific ways to engage and provide help to the world.
It excites me to think of all the ways we might nurture attentiveness to our audiences. Lately I have explored design, user experience, information architecture, theories on effecting change, coaching and leadership advice, sociology, mathematics, religion, international participation, and so on. What interests you? What would you add to this list? For each of us, some realms are more suitable than others, and that is okay, too: it is all part of the communication texture.
All realms of knowledge allow us to trace paths between people and experiences, between disciplines, and as the interconnected landscape unfolds before us, we also unfold to one another and ourselves. Design is one way of discovering, and working to enhance, a communication that constantly occurs between all areas of life.
This essay began as a conversation with a few friends. I hope it continues and grows, and perhaps even expands into a larger conversation with more people, more points of view.
Grant, Adam. Originals, Viking, 2016.
Hecht, Brent, Konstan, Joseph A, Terveen, Loren, Yarosh, Lana, Zhu, Haiyi. User Experience: Research and Prototyping. University of Minnesota, 2016. https://www.coursera.org/learn/design-research, Accessed 12 Dec, 2016.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird, 1994. Anchor Books, 1995.
Norman, Donald. The Design of Everyday Things, 1988. Basic Books, 2013.
–. Things That Make Us Smart. Addison Wesley, 1993.
If you wish to learn more about these concepts, here are a few recommendations:
The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman, a sort of bible of design and user experience fundamentals from which you may learn first-hand a lot of insights and best practices that others have built upon.
Things That Make Us Smart, also by Donald Norman. This book is perhaps less well-known than Design…, but I find it valuable for its attention to ways we misuse tools or mis-design to the detriment of our audiences.
Originals, by Adam Grant. The book is about nurturing creativity. It overlaps significantly with the design perspective but works on its own as well.
The Information, by James Gleick, which surveys the data-saturated landscape in which we live and think and speak and manufacture.
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. This book concerns how to effect worthwhile change, in your private life, a society, a business, or elsewhere, and with varying levels of formal authority at your disposal.
Why Things Bite Back, by Edward Tenner. Here is an interesting exploration of unintended consequences to technological developments. This is a sort of sideways entry point into the ethics of design.