After Peters made comments about how men couldn’t really design effectively for women, I asked, “Couldn’t designers, with their powers of observation and problem-solving skills, design for Aliens?”
He replied, “No, design is personal. Somebody needs to get pissed-off about something before it gets fixed. The best design comes when someone recognizes a problem that personally affects them and sets out to fix it.”
I’ve always felt you have to use the products you design, and the best improvements comes from overcoming everyday annoyances — but what does that say about user-centered design? At one point I had a “You are not the user” sign taped to my monitor. I know very well designing for yourself leads to unusable products.
The answer is simple. I am a user, not the user. Using the product everyday reveals lots of tiny details about how the product can be better. But it will never lead to real innovation– innovation comes from seeing a larger picture of needs that are unmet. Sometimes that is personal, such as in the case of a CEO hates something– like Reed Hastings and late fees, but sometimes it’s that a bit of ethnography has shown a whole market segment is suffering.
That’s what Peters might be missing… design is essentially an empathic activity. One can truly get pissed off for others’ suffering, just as one can get pissed off at one’s own. You simply have to crank up the empathy and understanding via qualitative activities such as ethnography or usability (depending on if you wish to innovate or improve). Data is less relevant than caring, which is why five users are enough… if your designer team watches them suffer. It’s not about mapping a curve of diminishing problem-finding– it’s about creating a team that demands an end to unhappiness in their customer base.