26 February 2008

Is Genius the point? A call for more design research.

Participating in a recent online discussion, a group of interaction practitioners were discussing the need to clarify or define three approaches to design. The approaches being discusses were User Centered Design (UCD), Activity Centered Design, and Genius design, a relatively new term coined by Dan Saffer in his book “Designing for Interaction”.

While I understand the urge to define and relate these as three different approaches, the discussion was ill fated from the beginning because the premise behind this effort was wrong.

The UCD movement is a reaction to a long history of products and services development from a technology or business perspective. Designing a product to be profitable, or designing a product to implement available technologies is an ill-fated pursuit. Neither considers the need for the product. Obviously, if there is not a need, and the technology has little utility, there will be no users. Likewise, if the customer is not engaged, there will be no profit. Focusing on the user is simply due diligence. Customers (or users) have grown sophisticated. They will seek the product that has the most value. That value is determined by a number of factors, but at the top of that list are: ease of use, ability to accomplish goals, and availability in context. Users will find the product that best matches their needs.

Stemming from research in Eastern Europe, Activity Theory has been utilized in forming the ACD approach to product development. The theory is that if you understand the activities (or tasks) can be subdivided into actions and operations. I for one subscribe to activity theory as a valuable analysis tool. It can also serve as a guide for synthesis. This makes it a promising design tool. The disconnect in many conversations surrounding ACD is that you cannot fully understand activity of the user in context, without the study of the user. It is for that reason that ACD should be considered a sub group of UCD. Use of activity theory without some research or insight into the user is the same as Genius design with the addition of an explicit process.

This brings us to Genius design. While I share many a practitioner’s discomfort with the name, it has gained some traction within the interaction design community. In my experience, egocentric or designer centric, would seem more apt names.

Here is how Dan Saffer describes Genius Design, “Genius design relies almost solely on the wisdom and experience of the designer to make the right decisions. Designers use their best judgment as to what users want and then design based on that judgment.”

Genius Design implies that the designer has all the knowledge (of the user) required to move forward and design the appropriate solution. In reality, this is rarely the case. More often, the designer has little regard, time, or budget for actually conducting research into the needs, goals and context of use. I understand that in many situations there is not the budget to do research. That there is not the time for research is simply a case of poor planning. Executives, project managers and product managers are simply putting a gun to the designer’s head in an effort to push forward. Long term goals and planning, the vision to anticipate market reaction and opportunities, are the domain and responsibility of those leading product development. There is no excuse for putting the design and development team in this situation. First to market is rarely a formula for success. Best to market has a significantly better chance.

James Leftwich, CXO for SeeqPod, is a seasoned designer and a passionate contributor to the interactive design community. James takes great exceptions to my ego-centric term as being “charged and offensive”. From a recent post by James, “I take exception only with unhelpful and inadequately descriptive labels such as ‘genius design’ and ‘ego-centric.’ And I favor the term Rapid Expert Design (ERD)”. He is not wrong about those terms being charged. And while my intent is not to offend, I find it as poor management direction to advise designers to skip research and follow only their own sense of what is needed. This level of self-direction and over confidence is pure arrogance. Designers absolutely need to bring leadership and vision to product design. But they must consider the user in doing so.

There are certainly cases when the designer’s process may not require research and those typically fall into one of two categories. In some cases the designer is the primary and targeted user. While this is rare, it certainly happens. In other cases the designer may have deep domain experience. Hopefully, this expertise was gained with some level of market immersion and exposure to the user in context.

During the hundred years history of the design profession, only in the last decade or so has there been a real understanding of the benefits of user centered design research. I get the path of least resistance, and the urge of designers to ‘get to work’, but we know that research can greatly assure the success of the solution. We have a professional obligation to direct the design process in a way that promises to optimize the opportunity. Designers need to educate clients and team members of the benefits of not only User Centered design, but of research to assure accuracy of that design. We need to push back with scheduling and budgets that allow us to do our best work. And, we need to stop letting poor planning and short budgets compromise our work.