Don’t outsource design to your users

It’s crucially important that research be part of design, but it shouldn’t lead or even replace it. User-centred design shouldn’t be confused with a user-led design process.

By Katie Wishlade, Partner, Wilson Fletcher

User-centred design has come along way in the last 10 years. Go back a decade and you needed to work hard to convince people of the value of taking a user’s perspective in design, let alone involving them in the design process itself.

Today, it sells itself. We’re even seeing — particularly in large organisations — that it has gone too much the other way, with some design processes becoming totally led by what users say. There’s a growing need to have every decision substantiated by figures of the number of users who agree or disagree, or worse still, waiting for users to make the decisions themselves.

In theory, user research makes a hell a lot of sense. You have to understand your users and their motivations to shape and design services to meet their needs. It’s a compelling story and one that means research sells these days. But the power of design research and the influence it can have has blown out of proportion.

This has led to it often being over sold, overused and over relied upon. It’s a tool, sometimes a very useful one, but it’s not the answer. As a designer you can’t expect users to do your work for you: you’re paid to have the pen in your hands and make decisions about how something works. There’s no doubt that users can inform these judgements, but they can’t be expected to draw the answer.

There’s no doubt that users can inform design, but they can’t be expected to draw the answer.

This over-reliance on research has lead to even small design agencies having dedicated — and worse still, standalone — research teams. I believe this goes against the philosophy and purpose of design research in the first place. Key to a designer’s skillset is the ability to make decisions based on judgement and empathy with the consumer.

One of the things I’ve come to realise is that to in order to make these judgements, the designer has to put him or herself in the position to develop intuition around the subject. When you are thinking of a solution, you are weighing up everything that you have learned about the organisation, their customers and the market in which they operate, coupled with with all your years of experience of working on similar types of services, so it’s vital to immerse yourself in the challenge. Reading someone else’s research or a strategy document is simply not the same: you can’t develop the same level of intuition from second-hand insights.

I believe that user research and data should help guide decisions, but they shouldn’t make them. Design decisions should be based on a whole suite of tools and skills that are part of the design process rather than relying solely on the one that is most easily sold in. Ultimately, design decisions need to feel right to the designer. You can justify most things to most people if you believe in them.