Self-centered design

Only the user speaks for the user

Getting back to writing again, thanks for your patience. Welcome to another episode of Developing Design. I’m Vikram, a product designer working on feature flags. And this is a place for like-minded designers to share applied ideas about technology products and practice.

Don’t forget to check out our December post, Mockups are the lorem ipsum of software.

Dept of Speculative Fiction

I was surprised to learn that through the oughts, the term genius design was widely known. It's the idea that the locus of great design is internal to a special someone.

I often hear the following argument against usability: Just hire a great designer, and you don't have to worry about that pesky user testing. After all, a great designer will create a great design, and that's all you need.The most common example given is Steve Jobs. Granted, Jobs has been in charge of some great products. He's also produced many duds as well.

Jakob Nielsen

Hiring a good designer is preferable to a bad one of course. But there are real downsides to championing genius design. Key among them are relying on a single decision-maker rather than an amalgam of inputs. A successful product solves the right problems. Successful products are just defined by how eloquent the solutions are or by how many features they produce.

It's been more than a decade since the term genius design was introduced. Software workflows as much as production have only gotten more complex. Talking about the user is everywhere. Enter the self-centered designer. They center the user without ever actually speaking to them. Without research or testing they claim authority over the user's experience. By now design has appropriated that term to no real gain for a user.

Let me emphasize, only the user speaks for the user. There might be ways to model a user's frame or context but these are simply substitutes. They are assumptions that need validating. A user's experience is similar to information. We cannot define information because content is processed subjectively. We might predict that the content we present informs our user in a particular way, but we cannot know that.

As an example, I find quirky in-app messaging disingenuous. To say that the information shown is positive is to further a false finding. At best, we can claim that some percentage of users find the information positive while some crumudgeons find it annoying. The same goes for a user's experience. The self-centered designer claims an authority for the user’s universe that is not earned.

To avoid that, set measurable goals for capturing actual user's experience.

  • Poll a broad set for the pain a problem produces before solving it. This has the affect of aligning stakeholders to a shared problem but also surfacing nuances in how the problem manifests.

  • Have peers review design briefs before any design production. Reviewing project aims early avoids efforts in unproductive areas.

  • Setup a cadence to share prototype solutions with your users and share the findings publicly. This moves the locus of design from the smartest person in the room to the best experience for the user.

If you haven't spoken to a user or referred to research in the last few weeks, but cited the user's experience, you may be a practitioner of self-centered design.

Dept of Thoughts

Work Is Work by Coda Hale/@coda
Our definitions of organizational success and failure are complete fabrications. Work today is complex and interdepdant. Not reducible to an NPS score. If you read one thing about teams this week, this is it.

Programming the Post-Human by Ellen Ullman
Reflections on the history of computers superceeding humans and how popular thought has shifted. I was surprised to learn that the human-computer equivalency first appeared more than a half century ago.

Dept of Delight

If you don’t follow Grant, you should. It’s fascinating to watch his work unfold. Next week I’ll share an interview with him. Having something to share and want to be interviewed, just respond to this email.

grant @GrantCuster
Work ↓… from Working out a report cover illustration.
Frédéric Renken @fredericrenken
One of the most interesting tools for thought I've seen recently: Nototo lets you build a virtual memory palace of your notes I love seeing new approaches like this. It's so clear we're only just scratching the surface of digital tools for thought

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—Vikram B Rojo/@atav1k