Are you designing Homer Cars?

User Centric Design: YES! – User Dictated Design: NO!

Long long ago in the bad old days of design before User-Centric Design was a thing, we completely ignored the people that would actually end up using our software. Along came people like Don Norman and companies like Apple who told us that this was ridiculous. Now we know that in order to design something that people want to use, those same people need to be involved in the design process itself.

So all power to the users! They can tell us exactly what they want, we can give them a pencil and paper and our application will be a great success…

…Apart from it won’t. It will be a Homer car.

When Homer Simpson’s brother gave him the opportunity to design the ultimate user-friendly car of the future, he packed every possible feature into his design: donut holder, optional muzzles for kids and a horn that plays La Cucaracha.

The exact same thing (perhaps minus the donut holder) will happen to our application: Crammed with data and unnecessary features, it will be a confusing, overwhelming mush.

This is user dictated design. And it is bad. And it happens a lot.

It’s easy to understand how user dictated design happens in large organisations: As User Experience Designers we desperately need the input of the user community, so we are grateful when they are keen to get involved and we don’t want to kerb their enthusiasm when they start suggesting design ideas and even sketching screens. It’s awkward to take the pencil away from them, go back to the start and ask questions about their daily routine, goals and frustrations.

But we have to avoid user-dictated design. Right from the get-go (in kick off sessions and each user interview) we have to politely but clearly establish a productive relationship for user research: We have to explain to our users that we want to start from the beginning: we want to hear about what they need to achieve and the questions they need answered rather than the colour they want the buttons to be.

‘I need to digest our key risks across the 3 regions’: Great!

‘I want a 3D pie chart of key risks split by regions’: No thanks!

Observation sessions are vitally important in helping us understand the true needs of our users: Watching someone struggle through a complicated series of reports and spreadsheets sometimes gives us more insight than what people say they need.

Most people know that user interviews and observational research are vital ingredients for a successful product. But people and organisations are held back because too often they fail to set up the productive designer:user relationships required to do it properly.

There are a lot of Homer Cars out there.