Friday, 25 May 2012

Designing for "me"

The best designers seem to design for themselves. I just love my latest Rab jacket. I know Rab's not a woman, but he's a climber and he understands what climbers need. Most climbing equipment has been designed by climbers; in fact, I can't imagine how you would design good climbing gear without really understanding what climbers do and what they need. Designers need a dual skill set: to be great designers, and to really understand the context for which they are designing.

Shift your attention to interaction design. Bill Moggridge is recognised as a great designer, and he argues powerfully for the importance of intuition and design skill in designing good products. BUT he draws on examples where people could be designing for themselves. Designers who are also game-players can invoke intuition to design good games, for example. But judging by the design of most washing machine controls, few designers of these systems actually do the laundry! There seems to be a huge gulf between contexts where the designer is also a user, or has an intimate knowledge of the context of use, and contexts where the designer is an outsider.

It's often easy to make assumptions about other people's work, and about the nuances of their activities. You get over-simplifications that result in inappropriate design decisions. Techniques such as Contextual Inquiry are intended to help the design team understand the context of use in depth. But it's not always possible for the entire design team to immerse themselves in the context of use. Then you need some surrogates, such as rich descriptions that help the design team to imagine being there. Dourish presents a compelling argument against ethnographers having to present implications for design: he argues that it should be enough to provide a rich description of the context of use. His argument is much more sophisticated than the one I'm presenting here. Which is simply that it's impossible to reliably design for a situation you don't understand deeply. And for that, you need ways for people to become "dual experts" – in design, and in the situations for which they are designing.

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