Not to long ago I had a dVP of engineering tell me, “you can’t tell me I don’t understand the customer or the customer experience”. I didn’t laugh, but chuckled a bit inside. He then told me that user experience design is part of engineering. I kept a straight face (I think).
Alan Cooper described this phenomena years ago in, “the inmates are running the asylum”. Alan, a developer by trade took a lot of flak for the book, but in the end, adhering to some basic principles implied within the text has proven advantageous time and time again to those armed with the insights.
Engineers are typically much smarter and more technically adept than the mainstream audience targeted by consumer products. It’s nearly impossible to unlearn that expertise. It’s also really difficult to empathize in an abstract fashion. Even seasoned user researchers are reticent to prescribe general user guidelines across platforms and products. They continue to uncover important cultural and behavioral hurdles for design consideration.
One of the first rules of user experience or interaction design is to NOT design for ones self. Yes, I know there are a handful of successful products who’s inventor claims they designed for themselves and it ‘just took off’. These are the exceptions. There is also a movement within interaction design described as ‘genius design’ driven. This is, in theory, where the designer has so much domain knowledge that they know what customers need before the customer does. I’d contend that the customer is feeling the pain or wishing for the ability well before the designer is.... they just don’t articulate it in our forums. Genius design is effective in highly specialized and technical fields, but is not the norm.
The upshot here is the empathy towards users and customers is not a afterthought or of minimal effort. Real expertise is needed in gaining insights and in the synthesizing of those insights into actions and design direction. There is a growing knowledge base of process and practice that should be implemented... at least if you want to improve actual results in usage.