User Driven vs. User Centered

Wikipedia’s new design effort was destroyed by ignorant brute force.


The power of Wikipedia is that the content is controlled by the users. It’s the Wiki staff’s responsibility to make sure that the experience of that vehicle supports the user’s content. How the company conducts their business, manages servers, programs the site, and yes how they do the visual and interaction design are not things that the community should drive. This is the classic catastrophic example of User Driven vs. User Centered Design.

It is critical for the design team at Wikipedia to conduct a proper user centered design process in order to learn the: abilities, desires, needs, cognitive processes, goals and (yes) opinions around how people use the site. That information cannot be overlooked. It is the foundation of the research for the redesign project. That information is also to be triangulated with other research, expertise, and experience. Those user opinions are not what drive final decisions but they are an important part of the team’s decision process.

I have the upmost respect for this team, but this situation is the result of a flawed process. I think their initial efforts were spot on and I commend them for identifying the needs and attempting to design for them. I also understand that they were bullied into backing down. The people on that team are design experts, they are people who have studied the history of typography, the evolution and patterns of interaction design, and have probably put more care and empathy towards the users of that site than the users themselves are aware of. The people who vetoed the initial design initiative were mostly amateurs in terms of the skill set that the design team brings to the table. The people on the team have most likely studied the grid systems of Joseph Muller Brockmann, the typographic theories of Robert Bringhurst and Jan Tschichold and countless others who paved design history. They own stacks of books and read blogs on typography, user experience, interaction design and when they go to lunch they debate over the nuances of these topics. All of this coupled with the years of sleepless nights in design school and then years of experience doing this for a living are all part of an effort to become the experts that they are.

Design is a process, and yes, part intuition, but a process. I would shun the designers for making solely emotional based design decisions and it’s apparent that they did not do this with the new designs. Unfortunately though, knee-jerk reaction is only thing that the common person brings to this situation. When designing you should never stop asking what your users think, never stop caring about what they tell you, and most importantly never stop triangulating those understandings with everything you know. The Wiki team knows that the final result that launched today is not the right design and they know this not because they emotionally want it different or had a hunch that things should be trendier. They know this because this is what they do and planned for and they know more about that decision than most. Not managing this situation is the only omission by the team. The team could have made strong presentation of the new designs and explained their choices. This type of education could help users make better-informed decisions. Forcing the new design with no explanation of the changes could have been another way to do it. Allowing users to toggle between the new design and the old is another way that is often done, but allowing the inmates to run the asylum—as they say—was an injustice to the members of the Wikipedia community. I hope the team has not given up.

The result now is brute force. It’s a pissing contest and the good people at Wikipedia are respectful enough of the outspoken members to allow it to happen. Many users on Wikipedia don’t contribute money to the amazing efforts of the company. I hope the people who have destroyed the Wiki team’s effort to improve the experience at least have the decency to pay their dues and donate after they exercised the generously granted authority.



Thanks for reading.

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