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Lost in Translation: User-Centered Design

It’s very easy when you’re constantly engaged in design work to use terms and phrases that you know mean something, but consistently they are taken to mean something else. One of the worst offenders in the design world is the phrase: “user-centered design.” It has led to more misunderstandings and mistakes then I’d care to admit. I’d like to spend some time talking about pitfalls in using this language and how to make sure that when you speak with a client you avoid this costly mistake.

The Mythical End User (Who Really Is You)

We all know (at least I hope we all know) that designing by committee is a shortcut to failed design (this video nails the comedy behind it). One of the first mistakes made in design meetings and teams is that our own personal preferences and desires get projected onto a mythical end-user. How often have you heard something like this.

  • “Our users don’t like drop downs.”
  • “I don’t think our users will want to see green there.”
  • “You know, I’m not sure end users will like that.”

When we probe more we find out that these end-user projections are just personal preferences. The problem of going into a client and suggestion you’re focused on “the end-user” will almost instantly and unconsciously turn our design discussions into projections of this mythical end-user. The well versed usability expert Steve Krug puts it in perspective.

“And the worst thing about the myth of the Average User is that it reinforces the idea that good Web design is largely a matter of figuring out what people like. […] The problem is that there are no simple ‘right’ answers for most Web design questions (at least not for the important ones). What works is good, integrated design that fills a need—carefully thought out, well executed, and tested.”
Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (pg. 128)

The Misuse of End User Research

It’s not without debate that understanding what types of users that will use your application is of value. If your application has a very specific focus and niche group it makes a lot of design decisions a lot easier. However, often times a mistake made is when we start placing all types of value on suggestions and feedback we receive from users.

Don’t jump ahead on me. I’m not stating that users don’t have valuable input at many stages of the design and maintenance process. If I believed that I would also tell you that usability testing is the largest waste of time in a project which I clearly do not. But I believe that decisions made by an informed UX researcher are often negated, because end users make proclamations about how they feel an application should behave. This ultimately makes your application less worthwhile to larger groups of people. Don Norman states the following.

“Sometimes what is needed is a design dictator who says, ‘Ignore what users say: I know what’s best for them. […] The ‘listen to your users’ produces incoherent designs. The ‘ignore your users’ can produce horror stories, unless the person in charge has a clear vision for the product, what I have called the ‘Conceptual Model.’ The person in charge must follow that vision and not be afraid to ignore findings. Yes, listen to customers, but don’t always do what they say.”

When designing an application a user’s opinion should be stated and noted but not used as the barometer for our design activities. Let’s face it, if we’ve done any work designing application the one thing that that will show up time and time again is that end users don’t know what they want. It’s not their fault either they are simply caught in the middle. Successful applications help users through accomplishing what they need to do without an unfair focus on what they think they want to do.

The Better Emphasis: Designing for Activities

In the article mentioned above by Don Norman he goes on to explain more of why designing for activities is better than user-centered (he uses “human-centered” terminology). All applications exist for a reason, and that reason is to help someone accomplish a task or achieve a goal. It doesn’t matter whether the activity is buying clothes, researching movie times or playing games online. If designers were more honest with themselves and spent less time laboring in Photoshop they’d realize that better time is spent thinking about design in terms of what goals and activities need to be accomplished by your users.

It is this focus that really helped me see a new light in designing user experiences. When I was liberated to think more about designing applications that accomplished goals and less about whether they application used Verdana or Arial I became much more effective. All of the sudden the applications I worked on delivered more utility and saw users returning more often. It is the reason I implore designers everywhere to not use “user-centered design” but instead turn your clients attention to “activity/goal-centered design.”


The astute reader will notice nothing I’ve said here goes against the classically defined tenants of user-centered design, but I wanted to illustrate why using that language with less educated clients doesn’t ultimately help you in your design activities. Be intentional and careful with the words you use, and I guarantee you will find more success in your projects.

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