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What use are people anyway?
by Human Beans

Users: as the saying goes, "Can't live with them, can't shoot them." It's common knowledge--if not always common practice--that the user should be at the heart of any good design process. Its not difficult to find a design consultancy who will tell you that, but exactly what that means, and what the client will pay for, is another matter. For some a market survey and focus groups passing comment on initial concepts are enough to tick the 'user consulted' box. However, there is a growing trend towards developing methods to engage users earlier in the design process, and in deeper and more meaningful ways. Practitioners of 'Participatory Design' describe a methodology that that unites end user needs and desires with business opportunities.

Observing users in context, interviewing them and making a real effort to understand their needs often provides designers with rich insights resulting in breakthroughs and innovations. Ideally, user research provides rapid understanding of the problem in hand, and grounded inspiration that can be justified in the face of the client. Designs that resonate with users are more likely to be commercial successes.

However, the user-designer-client triangle is a tricky one. Insightful research doesn't come free, and you'll need someone trained in human factors to get it right. Convincing a client, who already thinks they know their market, to pay for more research is still the most difficult bit of the process. Yet in a risk adverse era, when brands are seeking to become more personal and get closer to their customers, building the business case for research in advance of resource commitment might be easier. "Business," said Maurice Biriotti, at the 'Using Users' debate in London, "is about knowing how to take very big risks without taking any risk at all. Involving users in your product development process can help minimize that risk." His company SHM has been doing this over the last seven years for clients such as Orange (mobile phones), Yell.com and Volkswagen.

But despite these apparent benefits, clients and designers are often resistant to meet the people they are actually designing for and to use them to inform development from the outset. Yes, the people you want to use your product might have different ideas to you, and might send development in a new direction. They'll certainly surprise you and they'll probably call the brief into question too. But these are good things if you want to stay ahead of the game

Participatory Design takes using users a step further. The users are no longer seen as passive subjects but active participants and contributors throughout the process. In a participatory approach the users, along with the designers and the client, are engaged in exercises designers would typically do alone: observation of the problem, brainstorming, concept development and prototyping. Users become co-researchers, co-creators and even co-designers. Such an approach helps to build a rich and shared understanding of the design problem among user, designer and client, and a shared commitment to tackling it. It falls on the design team to manage these different groups, facilitating the production of ideas and nurturing solutions.

One example of this process is interLiving, a research project involving families in Stockholm and Paris to help develop technologies that enhance intergenerational communication. The project began with each family drawing a map of their perceived relationships. The team used this input as the basis for creating prototype devices that the families lived with and modified over six months.

Another example is the Schools Renaissance project, run by The Design Council, which used a participatory approach in schools to re-design a variety of learning resources. Teachers, pupils and educational experts took part in a series of research exercises, including auditing of good and bad spaces in a school with Polaroid cameras. After analyzing the findings, a collaborative brainstorming process generated hundreds of ideas for projects to address the identified issues. The solutions will be prototyped in the schools over several months before implementation.

What are the advantages of a participatory approach? Users, consciously or not, are what is referred to as "subject matter experts." Using experts to help identify issues that need addressing makes a lot of sense. Bringing all stakeholders along on the journey with a shared vision can make for a smoother running project where appropriate design proposals are less likely to be rejected on the basis of misunderstanding. A participatory process is particularly powerful when users are also the clients, such as in the Schools Renaissance project. Involving those who will ultimately deliver a service in the creation of that service turns passive participants into stakeholders. This sense of ownership leads to a greater commitment to effective implementation of the newly created service.

This does not mean that designers are designing themselves out of the design process (!). Rather they need to find ways to make the process transparent and understandable to the non-designer participants. Sharing techniques for user research, idea generation, prototyping and the like, will involve all team members in a meaningful fashion, and will allow designers to re-conceive the client/contractor relationship into a collaborative, and mutually beneficial partnership.


More information:
Using Users was one of a series of D-Futures debates organized by the Design Council.

Interliving Project Website

Schools Renaissance Webpage

Human Beans wish you a happy new year from their home base of London.

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