Thursday, June 16, 2005


user centered design: strategy or movement?

I suppose it is a testimony to the commercial success of user centered design (UCD) that more and more people are referring to it as "strategic." Strategy, of course, is one of those expensive sounding words favored by consultants. We are a long way from the days when UCD was the interest of commercially disinterested academics who had vaguely populist ideas about improving the lot of the common man.

I believe it is a good thing that people are making money out of UCD, since business is the major engine of change in much of society. So when I question whether UCD is "strategic," I am not questioning that it holds important, commercial value. Rather, I am questioning how UCD is introduced in business.

Strategy is based on a hierarchical view of business. Some grand thinker at the top develops a strategy, which the underlings duly implement. As UCD practitioners become interested in UCD as strategy, they excitedly imagine getting close to the source of power, where real things get done. The fantasy is that UCD gets a "seat" at the boardroom conference table. Maybe the corporation hires someone called a Chief experience Officer (CXO), though precisely what a CXO would do is not clear. Alternatively, UCD consultants would be invited in to meet with the CEO with the reverence granted to McKinsey partners. In either case, the strategy fantasy imagines the CEO will take a passionate interest in UCD, and it will be on the tops of people's minds throughout the organization.

I hate to prick a hole in this fantasy, because it would seem by so doing I felt UCD was not vital, or even important. UCD is vital, and I'd like very much to see all corporations embrace it rigorously. But expecting a corporate savior from on high may not be the most viable path. CEOs are extraordinarily busy people, who, if they are receptive to hearing other people's views, probably are made to feel guilty by nearly everyone, who say they don't give enough attention. (For example, Human Resources feels slighted when the CEO says people are the most important asset, but he spends all his time on investor relations). The "UCD as strategy" option expects the busiest person in the company to take a special interest in UCD. He will push it down the ranks, even though as corporations have flattened and federated, his power to directly tell people what to do is diminished.

The alternative vision of a User-centric corporation is to embed it at the grassroots. Defenders of the strategy approach will argue that a grassroots movement won't work. We have all heard tales of corporations that do not reward innovation that can't be measured by the beancounters or project managers. And we have heard tales of lone employees struggling to get anyone to take their UCD interest seriously. So we become cynical to the idea that big organizations can change themselves from the bottom up.

I don't want to discount the challenges that rank and file employees of large organizations face. But we also need to recognize that some big organizations do manage to adopt and embrace change from the bottom. That may happen less often than we would like, but it does happen, often without fanfare. How it happens is an object lesson in design itself.

If UCD is to really transform an organization, it needs to be embraced throughout it. One of the biggest blocks to change is the resistance that comes from being forced to accept someone else's ideas. That resistance can be even stiffer when employees, struggling to cope with numerous demands, are asked to get instantly interested in some alien concept, just because the CEO is pushing it this week.

I wish to commend a book by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising called Fearless Change: patterns for introducing new ideas. Manns is an organizational psychologist and Rising a software patterns writer. They have looked at how new concepts have been introduced and nurtured in different high tech organizations, and identified patterns where the behaviors have been successful taking hold. Patterns are a design concept, adopted by software developers, who extended the concept from Chris Alexander's ideas on physical architecture. Now Manns and Rising are applying patterns to people. Brilliant.

Many of the patterns are mundane, but important, such has hosting "brown bag" lunches on new topics of interests. They involve telling stories about small successes, that other people can relate to and learn from. They introduce change on a human scale, where you know other people who have benefited, and you can model your efforts after what they did.

I won't pretend this approach is fast or easy, but it does have more impact on the culture of an organization than the strategic approach. And it has the potential to outlast the CEO, who might be gone in six months.

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