Monday, May 16, 2005


norms and change

Culture is not often a topic explicitly discussed in user centered design, but it figures prominently in our craft. Contextual research is about probing and understanding user cultures. We operate on the assumption that a user centered design must adapt to an existing culture for it to be accepted.

Lately I've been exploring a bit how anthropologists who work in marketing relate to the concept of culture. It is very different than usability and HCI. One major difference is that marketing anthropologists don't treat culture as static and unchanging. Apparently, anthropology has undergone a shift in thinking in recent decades. Anthropologists are now more inclined to view culture as fluid. It is not just that dominant cultures displace smaller ones, but smaller ones can influence dominant ones, and both morph in the process. Some have called this creolization -- fusing norms of two cultures.

What this view suggests is that user centered design does not necessarily have to conform to a pre-established norm. Norms can change. Consider how easily people can learn software programs now compared with two decades ago. The software has certainly become easier (due to user demands), but the users generally have become more versed in the way of thinking of software programs as well. Customer education, over time, has played a role in reducing user friction.

Marketing is about changing norms of behavior. Starbucks convinced Americans to drink more coffee at a time when coffee consumption had fallen for two decades. The norm now redefined, people believe they wanted to drink more coffee anyway, and no coaxing was necessary. Such change happens all the time: men now apply skin cream to lessen facial wrinkles. User centered design can learn from such change.

I want to suggest that working with user needs, and changing norms of behavior, are not incompatible. Some usability critics have suggested that user-centered design is inherently conservative, unwilling to challenge users to change what they do, and there is some truth to that. Usability is conservative when it is overly literal. User centered design is not simply a case of taking what the user says, or even what the user does, as the basis of design decisions. One needs to explore the needs behind these things.

What does a user-centered program for changing user behavior look like? Some good examples come from social marketing. Researchers try to find messages that relate to the user's frame of reference, and use such messages to provoke new attitudes or beliefs that will change behavior. Even when one is trying to accomplish the same behavioral change, perhaps encourage immunizations, the messages will need to be different for each cultural group, people who share common attitudes, beliefs and other behaviors, that one wants to reach. It is about making a message intelligible and compelling, and reframing to the user how his or her self interests are best served.

Hi Michael,

Totally agree. we do not have to forget that we work with people. And to people by definition, it is in continuous change. So we needed a dynamic vision.

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