Monday, October 31, 2005


methods without facts

User research takes time and costs money. Small wonder designers are always seeking ways to cut corners, and by-pass research altogether.

The range of theory-heavy, fact-lite techniques that claim to be user-focused multiples all the time. We have scenario-based design, usage-based design, activity-based design; all are abstractions, looking at what users might or ought to be doing, more than what they actually do and want. Some might find this characterization unfair. Activity centered design is supposed to look at the users' context, and what the user does. But AT does so by looking at the user in a passive role, not as an agent controlling technology. Scenario-centered design and usage centered design similarly look at users as cogs in a system, fulfilling their role of conforming to the expectations of the system. The goal is to make sure users don't slow the system down, not to make the system respond to the pace of the user.

What these approaches do offer is an alternative to totally user-driven design. Users are vitally important, but users are not always the only -- or even the most broadminded -- definer of needs for an information ecosystem. We need research to provide credibility to the interests of users. But designers need to advocate user interests in the context of other stakeholders. Stakeholder trade-offs are political decisions involving people, not abstract equations comparing marginal efficiencies of inanimate pieces.

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