It’s Not Just About Users

Designers have long known that good work comes from a thorough understanding of the people who use our systems and products. We interview users or observe them “in the mist” to grok their desires, needs, and motivations. We analyze their behavior and generate insights. We produce prototypes to validate and test those insights with them. In short, much design today is a collaboration between designers and the users of the systems we create.

Many designers within organizations have adopted this laudable perspective. “I’m an advocate for the user,” they’ll tell you. The geekier ones cite Tron: “I fight for the users!” Who are these designers pleading or fighting with? Often it’s people from other parts of their organization. You’ll hear designers talk about resisting pressures from marketing, or working around constraints placed by compliance. It’s as though the requirements established by these groups are obstacles arbitrarily placed in the way of a “great user experience.”

Many do get in the way. But why is the experience being designed in the first place? Ultimately, it’s to meet business objectives. In establishing requirements and constraints, those other “corporate silos” are serving their organizational functions, just as design is serving its​ own. Thinking of colleagues from these groups as an “other” to be resisted shows a lack of systemic understanding and leads to sub-par work. The objective of user-centered design is not merely to provide the best experience to users; it’s to provide the best experience to users that serves their needs while also serving the organization’s needs.

Designers should strive to have as much openness and empathy towards our counterparts in the organization as we do towards users. Yes, a deep understanding of our product and its users is essential. But it must be framed by a systemic understanding of the organization’s goals, our role within it, the roles of people in other parts of the organization, and how those parts work together to help it achieve its purposes.