Abu Dhabi Airport — Ralf Roletschek

Stop Designing for “Users”

Design for Activities, Not Individuals

Most products support activities underpinned by collaboration and sharing. Designing for individuals may actually be harmful because these activities reflect ongoing transformations of artifacts, individuals, and social interactions. Focusing on individuals might improve things for one person at the cost of others. As Donald Norman says in Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful:

Limitations of Personas

Persona documents have become the de facto design artifact for human-centered design. Personas are a proxy for a real customer when teams lack customer participation. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the value of personas as a way to build empathy for customers. A designer will typically create a persona document to bring a human perspective to the conversation. Sometimes, this is a callow reaction to a team overly focused on technical implementation. Most of the time, the persona document contains inert data. Through the process of modeling the ultimate customer, the persona becomes too general to represent any real-life customer.

Personas Increase Risk of Feature Bloat

Many companies boast about their human-centered approach to design and their use of personas, yet they still manage to design complicated products characterized by bloat, infrequent improvements, and a set of features that no single customer fully utilizes. A product team that bootstraps their design process by identifying several individual personas doom themselves to create a bloated product. Obliged to partition the solution across a set of features for each persona, this approach results in an incoherent product difficult for people to adopt and use in their daily lives.

  • A preference for analyzing personas through the myopia of roles, job titles, and demographics
  • Unreasonable paranoia about engineers making decisions without empathy for customers

Activity Systems: Participants and Activities

An activity system is a community of people interacting with each other through tools and artifacts in the social world. As Béla Bánáthy says in Characteristics of a Human Activity System:

Anatomy of Activity

Based on Engström’s Human Activity System
  • Rules and Rituals: Conventions and guidelines regulating the activity
  • Community: Social context shared by all participants engaging in the activity
  • Activity: Any purposeful human endeavor
  • Tools and Artifacts: The means for the accumulation and transmission of social knowledge in the activity
  • Division of Labor: Social strata and hierarchical structure of the activity
  • Objective: A shared goal obtained through the interaction between participants, tools, and artifacts within the context of the activity
  • Outcomes: The participant’s motivations for obtaining the objective

Example of a Human Activity

Casual Carpool Activity Diagram

What are we making?

I work with teams who create products used in software development environments. I often help these teams develop narratives that frame product decisions from a customer perspective. In order to develop these narratives, a shared understanding about the human activity context must be deep, and the customer’s language common to the team.

  • Who are the participants in the activity?
  • What objectives do participants achieve through this activity?
  • What are the tools and artifacts these participants already use in their daily lives that are relevant to this activity?
  • What are the outcomes of this activity?

Another Example of a Human Activity

Software Process Improvement Activity Diagram