Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dick Chenney is not a (design) user

design lab 08 - electroluxOnce again it's time to participate at Electrolux's Design Lab 08. Last year's brief was about the future, this year is about the so called "internet generation" or "NetGen" and how they expect to interact with household appliances.

One of the main problems with designers, is that we usually tend to see ourselves as users. Just like the example of the MacBook air that I discussed previously. I have no idea if there's an existing theory, but you may quote my "Theory of brainwashing in advertisement": "If a company advertises a feature using words like "you don't need..." it's because you will definitely need that missing feature!" Don Norman says otherwise :

Sometimes what is needed is a design dictator who says, “Ignore what users say: I know what’s best for them.” The case of Apple Computer is illustrative. Apple’s products have long been admired for ease of use. Nonetheless, Apple replaced its well known, well-respected human interface design team with a single, authoritative (dictatorial) leader. Did usability suffer? On the contrary: its new products are considered prototypes of great design.

On the other hand, his partner Jakob Nielsen makes very good points on his book "usability engineering". Specially that designers and engineers are tempted to regard themselves as "users" when they are not: they are more experienced and know how the item works. Designers are like the mobster who knew too much: they are biased and have to stay away.
But Norman also says that is wrong for designers to judge their own creations in terms of usability :
... (designers) are designing things for people, and since they are people themselves, they know just how people work and just what people need. The argument doesn't work. First of all, designers ... are not ordinary people. ... A designer of a kitchen appliance probably spends all day at work designing, not using the kitchen. The person who designs an adding machine or a carpentry tool may not be an accountant or a carpenter. And even if they were, skills at these tasks vary widely, and no single person can be expected to be aware of the wide range of needs of the prospective audience. Finally, once a person has worked hard on a design ... , they then know too much about the material to be able to step back and look at it with a neutral eye. Awkward or dangerous design features can be passed by if the designer is too familiar with the work. In order to evaluate something, you have to come at it fresh, with no expectations and biases.
It is typical that we "use" ourselves as anthropometric templates... as if we were a perfect fit. Don't tell me you don't know this scenario: It's 2:00 am, you are building a foam model for some kind of handle or any other prototype something thingy. Instead of getting up to get the anthropometric tables, you just sit or put your hand, arm, foot or any other body part on top of a piece of paper and draw the template you needed. That's just terrible!!! I just loved how is that explained in a powerpoint presentation I found by Dr. Beth Kolko : "Remember when your parents told you that you were special? They were right! DO NOT assume you are a typical user". (Lecture: Designing the World Thursday October 6, 2005) Designer sensei says: “Zen's mind, designer's mind. Let go of your ego. Don't design for yourself. Design for your primary persona.”

Which takes me back to Norman. I think he is absolutely right to say that we should talk about People: Not Customers, Not Consumers, Not Users.
Words matter. Psychologists depersonalize the people they study by calling them “subjects.” We depersonalize the people we study by calling them “users.” Both terms are derogatory. ... If we are designing for people, why not call them that: people, a person, or perhaps humans. But no, we distance ourselves from the people for whom we design by giving them descriptive and somewhat degrading names, such as customer, consumer, or user. Customer – you know, someone who pays the bills. Consumer – one who consumes. User, or even worse, end user – the person who pushes the buttons, clicks the mouse, and keeps getting confused. ... we are in the age of “gizmos,” often electronic, often networked. Gizmos have “users.”
Finally... about the design competition : This is an unique opportunity to be designer and people, creator and user. It's an unique chance to let your ideas flow from technology, gizmos, gadgets to home appliances. Don't think about the future, think how you would like to interact and use your home appliances... better yet, how do you imagine your home appliances becoming "eGadgets"? Watch the brief at Design Lab '08, be inspired and get creative!


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