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Rise of the “User”

Replacing the modernist ethos of “good design for all” with “from all, good design,” designers in the late 1960s and early 1970s sought to understand what people — or users — most want and need. The writing of design theorist Christopher Alexander was particularly influential for those interested in taking a human-centric approach, learning from the behaviors of users, and involving them directly in the design process.

“Design Thinking,” a popular offshoot of user-centered design, was first established by California design agency IDEO, famous for their contributions to many early Apple products, including the iMac and iPod. It’s important to acknowledge their significant contribution to the development of this approach, however for the sake of simplicity and clarity, I am going to refer to this practice as “user-centered design.”

User-Centered Design

User-centered design (UCD) de-emphasizes the traditional authority of the designer, seeking to objectively create products in response to human needs and behaviors. Unlike traditional approaches to design, which are driven by the style and opinion of the designer or the demands of the client or stakeholder, user-centered design depends on empirical evidence and qualitative insights gleaned through data analytics, field studies, user interviews, usage observations, and surveys.

Solving User Problems

UCD shifts the role of the designer from one of opinion-driven expression, to one of solving quantifiable user problems and addressing evidence-based user needs. While it is often thought of as thinking like an artist, it is actually about thinking like a scientist. Like a scientific theory, a design idea is considered a hypothesis, to be validated or invalidated through experiments that yield empirical evidence.

The practice of UCD requires a mindset that shares much in common with the tenets of eastern philosophies and practices, such as meditation and yoga, fashionably referred to as “mindfulness” or “contemplative sciences.”

For instance, the notion of “non-attachment” is crucial to formulating potential design solutions. If one is ego-driven and emotionally attached to an idea, one cannot assess it objectively based on the data inputs of users.

Interest and passion, however, are crucial to the creative process, but instead of forming a deep attachment to the solution, one can instead become attached to the problem or user need. Motivation and creative energy are then driven by the desire to solve the problem or address the need, and the potential solution is merely a means to an end.

In this context, the central role of the product designer is the discovery and articulation of the right solution, rather than the creation of the solution.

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Lessons from the front lines of product management and leadership

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