datapanik - elegant tools that do useful things for real people
Vancouver, Canada
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A few design ideas that are up for grabs

User centred design is the design of tools (in my case this includes application software, Web pages, devices, etc) using the needs, expectations, and capabilities of the intended user as the central focus. So isn't all design done this way? Well, frankly, no.

Some of the obstacles are obvious, others are subtle, and some of them are downright sneaky. The following are just a few of the issues that are part of the UCD puzzle. My hope is that they will get you thinking about how technology fits into the lives of the people you know, and how we might make those lives better.

First of all we live in an age which, for the time being, is fascinated by technology. Our media, our culture (in North America especially), and, for some of us, our friends and co-workers are immersed in and enthralled by all the new things we are able to do, especially with computers. So it's hardly surprising that we sometimes get distracted from the task at hand by the cleverness and novelty of our technologies. We focus on what the technology can do, not what needs to be done. It seems that as long as the work gets done in the end, the effort is successful, regardless of what we needed to learn and do to get there.

Increasingly our lives are filled with more demands on our time, more things to learn, more responsibilities. It's my belief that we're heading towards a watershed when people start to resist having to take on more complexity and technical knowledge, and start demanding less and not more technology. This is not to say that they will shed themselves of technological devices, but instead they will look for devices and options which require less of their time and effort. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that they will be asking for less obtrusive technologies.

Another reason why user centred design is often not the path followed is that it's often not the sexiest option. We've seen this most dramatically with the Web, where technologies like Flash have allowed for highly stimulating interfaces that can't help but grab your attention, as though grabbing people's attention is the most important thing. However not everything can grab your attention at the same time, and not everything deserves the same amount of your attention.

Sometimes the best, most user-friendly and appropriate solution is a more subtle approach - perhaps one that is almost invisible. In a world that is clamouring for more and more our attention, the options that just go and do what we ask of them without a lot of bother may end up being the most attractive ones.

User centred design is not easy. It requires that you attempt to understand your end users and their context. This is not nearly as simple as it sounds, and requires an unusual combination of observational skills, empathy, and insight. (See the article "Why is usability so hard?" for more on this issue from a usability perspective.)

Some people just aren't good at understanding their end users, and that's okay. A programmer, for instance, is first and foremost responsible for instructing the technology to follow abstract rules and procedures. Some programmers are quite enlightened when it comes to designing user interfaces, but many are not so skilled, nor should we expect them to be. I don't want to pick on programmers alone - all the members of a team that is responsible for conceiving, designing, building, and marketing a product have their areas of specialty, and they must be given their due. Somewhere in that team there needs to be a user advocate. Someone whose responsibility is making sure that the product does useful things and operates in an appropriate way for the intended consumer.

A true user centred attitude is hard to teach. It comes from somewhere outside the realm of technology, marketing, business, and art, and yet it's inextricably linked to all of those processes and disciplines. It starts with a desire to make people's lives easier and happier, followed by an ability to recognise what the most appropriate solution is for them. The end result is technology, in the form of Web pages, applications, tools, software, and devices, that fits into their lives in ways that seem natural, comfortable, and effortless.

Donald Norman has been fighting to humanise technology for many years. His books The Design of Everyday Things and The Invisible Computer are empassioned, clear examinations of how design can go wrong and how to make it right. Jef Raskin (the man who started the Macintosh project at Apple) also covers a lot interesting and important territory in The Humane Interface. I encourage you to read their work.

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