Redström, J. (2006) Towards user design? On the shift from object to user as the subject of design

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The basic idea of the paper is that the current approach HCI-design leads to too limited solutions to design-problems and that the solutions should be more open-ended. The author begins by presenting a review of the historical development of design, starting from designing things to specific functions. In principle this era meant designing objects to fit their use, rather than designing objects that were pleasurable to look at. The next step according to the author was designing from function to communication, meaning that the objects are often used as a way of communicating some message (e.g., traffic sign) and must therefore support the message. The last step is said to be the shift of design from communication to experience, meaning that the design would focus on the results of the communication, i.e., user experience. This stage addresses user needs, their desires and experiences in interaction design with the objective being to enhance and extend the way that people communicate, work, and interact.

The author continues by presenting the current approach in HCI-design, namely ‘fit-design’ that aims to maximize usability, utility, interpretation, understanding and experience. Fit-design suggests that including users in the design process can lead to better designs and that knowledge on users must be gathered in order to produce good designs. The author continues by criticizing this approach. He says that fit-design always means optimizing the design to a set of specific tasks that are based on the knowledge of the user. This might result in too limited designs that do not support any alternate tasks, i.e., the risk of designs not being open-ended.

The author claims that user-design is extremely risky, as this limits the intended target group. “A User is something that designers create”, meaning that the users do not actually exist until the object of use is accepted and used. The author continues that by limiting the possible users of the design we limit the resulting experiences.

The author criticizes the idea of designing for a specific use as well, as the ‘use’ does not exist until the object of use is presented. Basically the author says that we cannot address a specific use with design, rather we can predict its future uses. He addresses this issue further in respect of the object of use, with his main point being that objects have a tendency of being open-ended and can be used in various situations, especially when different functionalities can be incorporated into the objects (e.g., cell-phones or hand-rails).

The author shows his concern that designing for efficiency (i.e., for a specific use) limits the possible uses of the design. Especially when the knowledge of the users is not sufficient or is simply incorrect, the problems are evident. The author continues that most importantly the current design approaches should focus more on what can be known of users and the use of an object. The author claims that therefore it is not sensible to define design in terms of users, intended use or UX.

The author suggest new approaches, such as backtracking to design of things from a different point of view, designing objects with users in mind. The approach seems to be simply that designers should not design to a specific use, rather leave the intended use as open as possible.

Posted by Niklas

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One Response to Redström, J. (2006) Towards user design? On the shift from object to user as the subject of design

  1. ide group says:

    The idea that user centered design limits the possible uses of a product seemed to be almost obvious in our project of redesigning a user interface in a user-centered fashion. The ways the system and its pieces would be used in had to be first found out and then be broken down into pieces and analyzed. Most of the analysis was based on the interpretations and assumptions of user behaviour, of which relatively little was actually known.

    The open-endedness of a design, which the author seems to consider important, is usually not emphasized in most user-centered design methods. The general idea is usually to just understand what the user wants and how it should be done. In our case, the task was somewhat more complex. The users that we observed, and generally all users of the system, only used and use a small part of the system. Other users use different parts, and the parts used by different user groups sometimes overlap. The overlap may not mean that the way a part is used is the same with all user groups, but that they use the same UI elements and see the same data. This might cause one group to use the functions made for another and adapt them into their own workflow. Redesigning the interface based on the group that was observed may well ruin it for the other groups.

    The article also points out that it seems as though the process of user-centered design has overtaken the goal of making a product in importance. The definition of a user is also questioned based on the fact that a system that is yet to be finished can’t be used for anything real. There can only be a user when there is something for someone to use, and something to be done with it. In the case of our project, this criterion was met, since an existing version of the system we were supposed to improve was already being used in the real world. Most of the problems couldn’t have been found using hypothetical users and hypothetical data, which was actually demonstrated in our heuristic evaluations, which were done on a demonstration system. What might also have been interesting to know is whether the way the users use the system resembles the way it was planned. Some comments and other clues seen during the project suggest it doesn’t.

    In any case, open-endedness, which might have been the main point of the article, is hard to plan. The point that the process shouldn’t be considered more important than the product seems to be the one to remember, since as it is said, real artists ship.

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