Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Use of "Customer", "User", and "Human" in Design & Development

Proof that I am not a professional cartoonist.

Customer. User. Human. These words get swapped around in product design and development in ways that can be confusing and seem equivocal.

Let's start easy.  Human. We know what that is. You, me, and that guy at the karaoke bar singing "I Will Survive". Human is an inclusive term. Your users and customers both fit under that umbrella.

So, if it is such an inclusive term, why do we have Human-Centered Design (HCD) and User-Centered Design (UCD)? Couldn't you just use HCD and be done? That depends.

When we apply design or development to address the needs of people, we are creating something. Whether it is a gadget, application, or a plan to reduce dysentery in a population; there is something being created. For simplicity, let's call what we are providing  "the product".

Right of the bat, we are going to drop "customer" from the mix. Being a "human" or "user" should be decoupled from being a "customer", because that is more role-specific.

"Customer" is best relegated to discussions of personas and it would be counterproductive to mix these two topics. For a discussion of customer, buyer, and user personas, please see my article on that topic.

So, for the rest of this article, we will focus on "human" vs. "user" and HCD vs, UCD.

And while we are at it, ultimately, as long as you and your audience understand what you mean, that's the most important thing. With that, let's tackle this "user" vs. "human" thing.

Is It About the Sector?

One perspective is that it comes down to the sector. If you are working in technology, especially software or hardware, then it's UCD. If you are working more in the social sector, then HCD makes more sense.

So, a software developer would design for users and a charity would design for humans.

It's a clean, simple, and reasonable suggestion, but I don't find it to be as meaningful/useful as I would like. Context matters, but this explanation does not resonate with me. It feels too much like, "Well, that is the word we have been using, so...why not?"

And it can be problematic at best to forget that your users are human beings. All too often, an unrealistic assumption is made that the user will pay perfect and complete attention while using a product. The real world can be quite distracting and inconsiderate of your product.

Is It About How People Interact with Your Product?

One idea is that it comes down to the degree of interaction or immersion with the product. So, for example, someone diving deep into the analytical capabilities of a software program would be a user, but someone flipping on their computer would not.

Another interesting idea is whether the use of your product is more of an active or passive interaction. For example, consider a billboard, sign, or a printed map at a shopping mall. That sign was created for people to see, to inform them, and often to elicit a response; e.g., stop, go, come see the show, etc.

Some would argue that a more passive product, like a sign or billboard falls under HCD, because the context and environment are more significant. On the other hand, they would label more focused and intensive interaction, like using an interactive map, as falling under UCD.

Is It About Your Design Focus?

This article puts forth a different approach. They suggest that:
"...these methods are targeted at the closure of technology-centered problems, rather than the investigation of suitable changes to a system of human-activity supported by technology."
In this case, they stress the designer/developer focus, i.e., it's what the designer is focused on, not what the user, customer, or human is doing with the product. That said, there is a similarity to the other points of view in that the concept boils down to context - being narrowly focused on the product or considering that product within the broader context of the human-product system as a whole.

Is It Your Degree of Focus on the Customer Population?

One interesting take is that it comes down to how tightly focused you are on a specific customer population. Basically, when you are broadly making a product for a wide variety of potential customers, you are more in the realm of HCD. When you start to hone in on a specific group and design something around their specialized needs, then you cross into UCD.

And this certainly compelling. At the high level, all of your users are humans and there are common considerations that you will need to take into account. Then as you drill down to a very specific application for a smaller group of people, your focus may shift dramatically to a host of individual, specialized needs that are not common to all humans, but really only to this small subset.

Or another way to put it, is that when you move into UCD, you are less interested in the broader, shared needs of all humans and focusing instead on a specific user group. In many ways, this feels like a variation on the previous concepts of focus and context.

My concern is that it contains a potentially dangerous implication - when you create a more specialized functionality, the human considerations become less relevant or perhaps even irrelevant.

What Does ISO Think?

You may not know, but there is an ISO standard for HCD - ISO 9241-210 Human-centred design for interactive systems. It details a number of key points about human centered design. The key points of focus are:

  • Understanding your users' "context of use" - not just your users, but their environment and what they are trying to achieve with your product
  • User involvement from start to finish
  • User evaluation/testing throughout the design and development process
  • Iteration
  • Expanding your consideration to the whole user experience, including "perceptual and emotional aspects"
  • Use a multi-disciplinary team

It is hard not to see stark similarities to Design Thinking (see my elevator pitch here), which is often conflated with Human Centered Design.

But we don't all see the same thing. I have seen articles by smart, informed people that refer to this standard as ensuring your design is "user-centered" even when this standard has "human-centered" right in the title. They are not wrong, per se, as a human-centered design should still result in a good user-centered design, but I reserve the right to chuckle at their statement just the same.

Interestingly, there was a prior ISO standard, ISO 13407, which did not include the consideration of the whole user experience. The expanded awareness of context is a key differentiator.

One Thought to Rule Them All?

Okay, this is going to be tricky, and I am certain many folks might take issue, bit I think we can distill all of this down to one relatively simple statement. What do all of these examples discuss?

  • Which sector? That's context.
  • How people interact with your product? More context.
  • Design focus? What context the designers consider.
  • Degree of focus on the customer population? Scales of context from broad to narrow.
  • ISO? Context is a key change in the new standard.

Context. time and again, it comes down to the choice of context and the relevance of context in your design.  So, my suggestion is that the boundary between UCD and HCD is the relevance and breadth of context in your design and development process.

For example, you might decide to create an application to find a babysitter. UCD will produce a clean, responsive design and tick off the functionality requirements. But if you bear in mind the day-to-day experiences and context of the parent that would be using that application, how they might use it, where they might use it, their time/attention constraints, etc., then you are in the realm of HCD.

But I will fire off one last, and potentially controversial, thought. The old ISO standard was less concerned with context and whole user experience, but the new one embraces it. In a similar vein, perhaps it is enough to say that HCD is the new and improved UCD, and one neglects the humanity of their users at the peril of their product.

Until next time, humans.

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