Dissecting User-Centric Design
Vivek Sarda - Head, Design Projects
What will this article cover? - Introduction to user-centric design, as we dissect this buzzword and see if it makes logical sense to follow this approach in product design.
Who is this article for? - Early-stage start-ups, First-time product developers, Physical or tangible product developers (Although applicable to software, the objective is to focus on non-software or physical products), engineers developing products, and the likes.
So, let's start by addressing the 3 aspects of the User-Centric Design like any other topic - Why, What, and How.
Why use this? - Because we want the users to love the product, like really love. Once users experience the device, we want to be in a situation where users chase us to buy the device rather than us chasing them to sell it. I believe there is great value when users love the product. This can become the driving (or guiding) force for sales, marketing (Tesla ?) and users inform other users via word of mouth, which is the best form of product promotion. So, is it really necessary that users love the product? Well, one could sell the product even when users do not love it, however, this approach provides an extra edge that most companies are looking for. Look at any great brand in the world, their customers really love their products E.g. Apple, Disney, Decathlon, Coke, and many more. Basically, this approach provides a thought process to design a product which users would love.
What is this? - Keeping user's interests as the first priority in the decision-making of the product development. It is about designing a product which users would love. Philosophically, it is about keeping the end objective in mind and then using it as a map to guide us along the journey (Second habit of the seven habits by Stephen Covey). In this case, our end objective is that users love the product. Hence, we want to use this to be the guiding force for the decision making.
How to put this to action? - Tool is 'Empathy'. In a way, Empathy is the ability to put yourself into the shoes of the customer, think and feel like them, understand their value system. Personally, I connect with the articulation by Satya Nadella - " one of the things that I’ve come to realize is, if I look at what is Microsoft’s core business, it is about being able to meet the unmet and unarticulated needs of customers and there is just no way we are going to be able to succeed in doing that if we don’t have that deep sense of empathy".
How to develop empathy? – It’s a creative process with no defined formula. Although, there are various things one can do to improve empathy like interview the customer, just observe the customer passively, become their shadow, map the day of the customer, engage with extreme users, test the concept designs with the customer, discuss beyond the device, go out for a coffee with them and so on. Basic idea is to understand the belief system so that you can decide in the user’s best interest. So far it seems logical to follow this approach to develop the product, Right? Then why very few adopt this. What are the challenges?
Here are some reasons -
Designer's own biases - how do we empty our cup (Zen-like approach). This is the first thing. You need to delete your biases and download the biases of the users. You need to practice the art of being empty here. Let me share some of my experiences - 1. I was surprised to know that people with visual impairment are particular about the color and look of the device. I expected them to not care much about the color as they would have not experienced it. But it is more important to them (like anyone else) how they are perceived with the device by others. 2. I was surprised to know many full-time wheelchair users would never use a motorized wheelchair even though it is more convenient to control mobility by the push of a button, but prefer pushing the wheelchair for their mobility. Rather than developing a motorized wheelchair, it might make more sense to develop an easy-to-propel manual wheelchair for this case. Generally speaking, beyond the product, biases (or preferences) are there on a day-to-day basis in all our decision-making. The objective here is to not let this interfere in the decision-making of the product.
Art of trade-off’s - Product development requires you to take thousands of decisions every day which need to satisfy multiple objectives. Often, these objectives are governed by parameters that are contrary to each other, for example, if you want to reduce the weight of the product, you might have to remove the extra feature; if you want to reduce tooling cost, you might not be able to have the aesthetic cover; if you want to use fancy material, that might not fit into the total product costing, etc. You cannot build an ultrafast, fuel-efficient, 6-seater, low-cost, highly stable, high ground clearance, ultra-cool-looking sports car (Exaggerating the point). Parameters like user requirement, productionability, cost, reliability, technical specification, quality, safety, visual appeal are often competing against each other. It's the responsibility of a designer to firstly understand the priorities of the user and then put them to action - this is the challenging and exciting part. There is no single pre-defined answer when it comes to where to compromise, finding a right balance is the beauty of the challenge. Steve Jobs nicely put this as - “This is a very complicated world. It’s a very noisy world and we are not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company does. So, we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us”.
Fear of change - Fear of bumping into something new or knowing that the present design might not work after having invested a lot in it. It is a scary experience to keep the device in front of the user first few times. I have personally faced this challenge and see so many people make mistakes along similar lines. You need to fail fast, learn and improve. Fear of failure in the short term would eventually lead to bigger failures in the longer run.
Complexity of the Human Nature - Most of the time users themselves do not know about their priorities clearly (like life). They know some part of it, but can rarely stitch the complete story. It is a real challenge to understand this with the limited data you can gather. Cracking this requires a real interest in the user which helps develop a high level of empathy. Like in any creative field, there is no defined formula to solve this. Or maybe there is a formula, which very few have understood as they are able to consistently deliver great products like Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive etc. But maybe it is so complicated that it is rarely understood and even rarely explained. This is one of the big challenges or opportunities.
Why make all this effort then? - It significantly improves the chances of product success. One might still fail, like in any creative field, there is no guaranteed success, it only betters one's chances. I can say with a great degree of confidence that not following this approach would make the odds similar to that of winning a lottery with a single ticket. You might win, but the chances are really low.
Here are some of my experiences and learnings -
I had completed the design of a wheelchair for my final year project without meeting any user. It was designed for children with Cerebral palsy with a higher level of disability. The technology worked fine but because I was only assuming for the user, without meeting them, many children could not use the wheelchair as they did not have appropriate support. Children with higher levels of disability require additional support to position comfortably in the wheelchair which was not designed in it. Portability was another key requirement that was learned after keeping the prototype in front of the user. The device had to go through another iteration to incorporate these features. Having an understanding of these right from the start would have made it possible to have a much better initial prototype
I did a similar mistake in my next project regarding the design of another wheelchair for adults. The technology was okay, but it was far away from the desired product. It was a big complex bulky structure, which in a way did not instill confidence in the user. The learning from the interaction was that many users do not want their wheelchairs to catch attention. They want the person to be seen before the wheelchair, hence it should be theoretically invisible or practically minimal in design. This learning paved the way for other improvements and a different product line-up.
Let us consider some other real-life examples to better see the impact of this approach -
Doug Dietz, a veteran from GE with 24 years of experience had designed a new MRI machine (Reference Creative Confidence book). This technology was submitted for the International design excellence award - considered to be the Oscar of design. On getting a chance to see the device on the field, Doug jumped at the opportunity. He was very sure that people would be thrilled with the device. Even his question to the clinician was - "how you liked the new features in the device"? (bad form of interviewing as it is biasing the answer from the interviewee to be a positive one about the device; the question should have been: what do you think about the features of the device). What he found on the field surprised him. Most children were very afraid to take the MRI test using the device and around 80% had to be sedated during the test. This resulted in a traumatic experience for the family, making him change his perspective about the device - rather than seeing an elegant sleek piece of technology worthy of accolades and admiration, he saw through the eyes of the child that the machine was a big scary device. He went back and worked on the device and converted the device into an adventure game. The big scary machine was converted into a spaceship which was like a gaming experience for the child. The scary noise from the machine was perceived as added thrill rather than a horrifying experience. With this, the sedation rate reduced drastically and patient satisfaction went up to 90%. This improvement not only improves the financial reward of the product but also in a way makes the world a better place?
Embrace, an infant warmer is a device to keep the babies warm. Initially, the device used to show the temperature on it. During the field visit, the team found that many people in rural parts of India were not fully warming the device. One mother told in an interview that - " If western medicine says 1 teaspoon tablet, then we give half. If it tells 36.5 degrees, we keep this at 30 degrees. Now, who can sit in a lab and guess a requirement like this? The team went back and redesigned the system such that it only glows an LED when the temperature reaches 36.5 degrees, rather than showing the temperature value. This way the chance of making a mistake is further reduced improving the functioning and safety of the device. I feel this example beautifully points out the impact of user-centric design.
When is this approach relevant? – Anytime you have users who would be using the product, this approach provides a way to develop a product which users would love. Eg – Any device like a Mobile phone, automobile, washing machine and so many more. Maybe in some rare devices like the Mars rover where the device does not interact with humans, you can throw this approach out. The philosophy is to keep the end objective as the guide, in the rover case it would be to develop a device in accordance with the laws of the universe while most of the other cases it would be about developing a product that users love.