A Critique of User Centered Design: Have UCD Practices Hindered an Ecologically Sustainable Future?

Eilish McVey
Feb 9, 2017 · 7 min read

User centered design is without doubt one of the dominant ideologies in design today. Held as a standard of successful design, it is often never questioned or critiqued. Released in 1955, Henry Dreyfuss’ book Designing for People paved the way for design based on human factors and ergonomics. Dreyfuss reminded us that everything designed is used and interacted with, by people, therefore their needs, should be primary and central to the design process. This book gave rise to what we now know to be user or human centered design (Boradkar). “A multistage problem-solving process that optimizes solutions based on users’ needs, behaviors, constraints, and operating contexts. Solutions are repeatedly tested and refined throughout the design and development process before implementation.” (Lee). Ideo, the design firm perhaps best known for their human centered design process, hold above all else that “the people who face problems {that they are trying to solve} every day are the ones who hold the key to their answer” (Design Kit). Though UCD can result in easy to use and innovative products, we must examine at what cost have we arrived at this innovation? This anthropocentric way of design may have done more harm than good, and impeded our ability to create truly environmentally sustainable design solutions.

In the 21st century our current consumption patterns are depleting our natural resources at unprecedented rates, creating irreversible damage to the biosphere and its residing ecosystems. Over the last 50 years, our resource consumption has increased by 1000 percent evidently due to the untenable way we design, manufacture and consume. Because of our consumption habits, we are witnessing the collapse of every natural system on earth (Chapman). We are living on a planet with a finite amount of resources at our disposal — but have been using and disposing infinitely. Now in the eleventh hour, this pattern urgently needs to change.

During the past 40 years there have been countless attempts at design that does not impact the planet as severely. Some of which include, alternate energies, cradle-to-cradle design, energy efficiency, and low impact materials. Unfortunately, many of our current sustainable design methodologies lack depth and adopt a symptom based approach. These ideologies and design practices still exist in the paradigm where the human is the centre of everything.

Is it possible that User Centered and Human Centered Design are actually culprits in our endless pattern of consumer waste? Has the effort to create great design that works perfectly for the user really failed to recognize the other key users in the design process? The user in almost every current design scenario is the person who will initially interact with the product or interface, while excluding the multitude of other users who will connect with the product during it’s lifetime. Has the user come to mean customer? And does the customer always know best? Can you still call it innovation if production has just lead to the extinction of yet another species, or natural resource destruction and depletion? Lastly, UCD leads to products that are intuitive, and easy to use. Products used unconsciously. Is this dumbing down of design leading us to products that go under the radar, therefore easier to discard, only perpetuating the vicious cycle of consumption and waste?

“One basic philosophy of UCD is to listen to its users, to take their complaints and critiques seriously” (Norman). When executed correctly, this method can lead to design solutions that really work for the user. However they may only work for the user. Successful user centered design may meet a multitude of specific user needs, but fall short of a number of other considerations. “It must be identified that, inside the earthling ecosphere, every system, alive or not, coexists in a complex dynamic” (Acosta). What could design look like if we considered all the other users at the center of the design process? Most designed products, including design with UCD at its core, fail to fits the needs of most of their actual “users”. Such as; the atmosphere, the biosphere, the manufacturer, the factory worker, the repairman, the water supply, the landfill, and the animals who may interact with a discarded item, just to name few. Even the longtime user of a product, or the secondhand user, often gets forgotten. User centered design has come to be a design that works best for the initial purchaser while forgetting everyone else. “Even in today’s increasingly cross-disciplinary corporations, most designers are paid to deliver specialist solutions to narrow, profit-seeking problems, rather than as holistic thinkers who work for society as a whole” (Wood). What could design look like if we put the needs of the landfill first? or of the factory worker? In no way should we throw out human considerations, but recognize our full involvement and interdependence within the ecosphere. By broadening our definitions of the user we could end up with a design that is just a little bit better for everyone.

This anthropocentric outlook has lead to the average, uncreative person designing, which is a nice sentiment, but overlooks the fact the average person cannot see further than their own immediate needs. User-centered logic implies that the user is right. “It tacitly assumes that what individual consumers want will benefit the whole system.” (Wood) It’s up to the designer to think critically about these requests, and consider what kind of solution benefits everyone involved.

Such value on user requests are the result our commodity driven society where the customer is king. The needs of the user have changed from specific cognitive and ergonomic requirements that enable the user to operate the design with ease, to the need of the user in the store. UCD in a retail setting only appeals to the vanity of the customer (Wood). Consumers will be more inclined to buy, if they think the product was designed for them. It connotes a special kind of privilege. Design is valuable, but it has turned into advertising that cajoles customers into excessive buying habits, only perpetuating our ecological crisis.

Since the genesis of UCD, the hallmark for good design has really become intuitive use. And for good reason. How many times have you heard that someone felt inadequate, frustrated, annoyed, with a product and blamed it on themselves? Or experienced that feeling for yourself? In many of these cases, it’s not the user’s fault, but a symptom of bad design. As design has evolved to recognize the special needs of humans, designers take into consideration the user’s specific needs, leading to fluid, intuitive and easy to use products and systems if applied correctly. While this method has many benefits, what are the repercussions of dumbed down, idiot proof design? We begin to use products without consciousness, without thought, without full understanding. Unconsciously simple design is exactly that. Unconscious. Unconscious use, Unconscious disposal. Easy to use products are becoming easy to forget products.

In a time where mindful use and consumption is paramount in conservation of our planet and resources, maybe little bit of visibility is what’s needed. Could just a little bit of extra thought when using a product really be beneficial rather than a hindrance? In Jonathan Chapman’s book, Emotionally Durable Design he defines the term fuzzy interactions or interfaces. “Fuzzy interfaces, present users with complex, artful scenarios that must be learned and mastered. The method can be applied to products, systems, and interfaces. An advantage of fuzzy interactions is that they slow us down creating what Ezio Manzini refers to as islands of slowness that allow us to think, experience and re-evaluate our assumptions about the way things are in this ever-changing world.” (Chapman) It helps us recognize the significance of the products in our lives, and helps us create a kind of bond with the product. Intuitive use should not mean forgettable use. “Waste is often just a symptom of expired empathy, a kind of failed relationship that leads to the dumping of one by the other.” (Chapman) Many products are sitting in landfills only because they have failed to sustain empathy with their users, not because they no longer function. It is easy to design something to last, what is hard, is to design something people want to keep. We can create deeper connections with products, when we take time to learn how they work, rather than spoon fed the formula designed to perfectly meet our every ergonomic and psychological need. Alternative modes of interaction that don’t coddle the user give us something to consider for the future of design. An alternative to humans immediate needs completely dictating the design, stripping all experience, mystery and charm out of an interaction. Conscious interaction and consumption are paramount in affecting change.

Designers should never stop trying to fully understand the needs of those who interact with their products, but should remember to empathise with all the other involved. In order for a more environmentally sustainable future we need to imagine new paradigms by which to create more sustainable solutions not only for people but for all life. Our other users need to be spoken for if they cannot for themselves; listened to and considered along with their human counterparts. Remember that speed and efficiency are not the only answers and a little bit of design visibility can go a long way. We must have faith in our user to provide insightful and useful feedback, but have faith in ourselves to be critical about their needs and provide a solution that can work for everyone.

Bibliography

Acosta, G.G., and C.R. Romeva. “From Anthropocentric Design To Ecospheric Design: Questioning Design Epicentre.” N.p., 17 May 2010. Web. 14 Nov. 2015

Boradkar, Prasad. “Design for All Life.” Core77. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

Chapman, Jonathan. Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences, and Empathy. London: Earthscan, 2005. Print.

Ellis, Erle. “Anthropocene.” Anthropocene. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

Ideo.” Design Kit. Ideo, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

Lee, Panthea. “Before the Backlash, Let’s Redefine User-Centered Design (SSIR).” Before the Backlash, Let’s Redefine User-Centered Design. N.p., 26 Aug. 2015. Web. 02 Oct. 2015

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