Human-Centered Design has become such a dominant theme in design that it is now accepted by interface and application designers automatically, without thought, let alone criticism. That’s a dangerous state — when things are treated as accepted wisdom. The purpose of this essay is to provoke thought, discussion, and reconsideration of some of the fundamental principles of Human-Centered Design. These principles, I suggest, can be helpful, misleading, or wrong. At times, they might even be harmful. Activity-Centered Design is superior.
One basic philosophy of HCD is to listen to users, to take their complaints and critiques seriously. Yes, listening to customers is always wise, but acceding to their requests can lead to overly complex designs. Several major software companies, proud of their human-centered philosophy, suffer from this problem. Their software gets more complex and less understandable with each revision. Activity-Centered philosophy tends to guard against this error because the focus is upon the Activity, not the Human. As a result, there is a cohesive, well-articulated design model. If a user suggestion fails to fit within this design model, it should be discarded. Alas, all too many companies, proud of listening to their users, would put it in.
Here, what is needed is a strong, authoritative designer who can examine the suggestions and evaluate them in terms of the requirements of the activity. When necessary, it is essential to be able to ignore the requests. This is the goal to cohesion and understandability. Paradoxically, the best way to satisfy users is sometimes to ignore them.
Note that this philosophy applies in the service domain as well. Thus, Southwest Airlines has been successful despite the fact that it ignores the two most popular complaints of its passengers: provide reserved seating and inter-airline baggage transfer. Southwest decided that its major strategic advantage was inexpensive, reliable transportation, and this required a speedy turn-around time at each destination. Passengers complain, but they still prefer the airline.
Sometimes what is needed is a design dictator who says, “Ignore what users say: I know what’s best for them.” The case of Apple Computer is illustrative. Apple’s products have long been admired for ease of use. Nonetheless, Apple replaced its well known, well-respected human interface design team with a single, authoritative (dictatorial) leader. Did usability suffer? On the contrary: its new products are considered prototypes of great design.
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.
Human-Centered Design does guarantee good products. It can lead to clear improvements of bad ones. Moreover, good Human-Centered Design will avoid failures. It will ensure that products do work, that people can use them. But is good design the goal? Many of us wish for great design. Great design, I contend, comes from breaking the rules, by ignoring the generally accepted practices, by pushing forward with a clear concept of the end result, no matter what. This ego-centric, vision-directed design results in both great successes and great failures. If you want great rather than good, this is what you must do.