Is it Possible for Design to be Too User-Centered?

Is it possible for design to be too user-centered?

Though never explicitly asked, this question carried through a number of talks at the Service Experience Conference two weeks ago in San Francisco.

I joined a line-up of speakers from organizations whose work is very different from ours. They ranged from GroupOn to the Mayo Clinic to Booz Allen. There was talk of car insurance and hotels, retail stores, and libraries.

But across this diverse range of topics, the importance of understanding organizations persistently emerged in a variety of situations.

I talked about Reboot’s work in Nigeria, with a particular focus on governments as service delivering organizations. Much of Reboot’s work aims to understand those organizations as an important step in helping them work more effectively. We’ll often conduct institutional ethnography to map out the actors, identify their relationships, and surface norms and unspoken practices that can have as much impact within an organization as formal organizational charts or processes.

My main point was that we can’t forego understanding those service delivering organizations or the people within them. We can’t make assumptions about key links in the service delivery process and then expect delivery. Too often, the development sector does just that.

To be honest, I thought my talk would be a bit of an outlier. The other presenters had a largely domestic and private sector focus. I worried that Reboot’s work wouldn’t resonate with the audience.

So I was a bit surprised to hear various designers and consultants describe challenges that arise from understanding service delivering organizations.

Dave Gray’s opening keynote made a brilliant point about how designing a better user experience often requires cutting across organizational silos, thus threatening existing power centers and making design an inherently political act within an organization. In closing out the first day, Jamin Hegeman sounded a similar note in discussing service design as both outside-in (from the user to the company) and inside-out (from the company to the user).

This two-way street of service design resonates with Reboot’s experience working with governments; in understanding the inner workings of our methods of delivery (government agencies) we can make sure services get delivered (to citizens).

Which brings me to my cheeky question: Is it possible for design to be too user-centered?

I think the answer is yes in cases where we limit our definition of the ‘user’ to only beneficiaries, customers, or other end-users. Their perspectives are critical of course, but designing for end-users along risks producing service models that are misaligned with the capabilities and incentives of service providers. The needs and abilities of end-users must always meet in the middle with those attempting to serve them.

Many thanks to Adaptive Path for organizing the conference. We will share links here once the videos from the event have been posted.

Futher reading.