“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This quotation, attributed to John T. Ford, encapsulates the tension that exists between user-centred and designer-led product design approaches when managing the development of a product.   Hawley (2009) summarises the debate surrounding website development by discussing design from both the users’ and the organisational perspectives.

User-Driven Design

Hawley argues that users’ criteria for judging the success of a product includes learnability, efficiency of use and satisfaction.  From the organisation’s perspective, the value of these criteria is debatable; user research-based design process is expensive, does not lead to innovation or creativity and design goals frequently include other aims, aside from usability.  For example, the desirability of a product.  The author uses the spoof video created by Microsoft employees to draw attention to the restrictive design objectives set by the organisation:

Genius Design

A designer-led approach (which Hawley terms “genius design”) focusses instead on the creativity and skills of designers to innovate products without an interative user research-based process.  According to the author, this approach initially requires fewer resources and is unconstrained by existing products.  However, it is evident that entrepreneurial designers frequently refine design ideas after launching a product unsuccessfully.  For example, the NeXT Step operating system was designed by Steve Jobs after leaving Apple.  The product failed but was later refined and incorporated into Apple’s OS X operating system when Jobs returned to the company.  Moreover, Horton (2009) argues that users have many different goals and are not clear about how to meet them.  As a consequence, a user-driven approach to a design project can result in too many unfocussed objectives which do not fulfil the organisation’s business needs.  Kuniavsky (2003) argues that a product ultimately must meet the business aim of generating revenue.  This is consistent with the Garrett (2003) model which defines user needs and site objectives as the key aspects of the strategy which underpins a web development project.

Our Approach To The Project

Our group has decided to incorporate the forthcoming results from our user research into our objectives and requirements.  I hope that this will reveal overlapping objectives which we will take forward into our final design and I have sketched this simple model to focus my thinking during the research process:

To date, we have encountered some of the problems outlined by Hawley in the research phase of the project:

  • Research is time-consuming: the target users need to be identified, located and booked in to undertake research whilst adhering to tight project deadlines
  • Research can be inaccurate: the pressure of deadlines can result in the selection of unrepresentative users, thus skewing research results
  • Research can be expensive: a suitable venue has to be booked and participants need to be recompensed for their time

As a result, our initial research was comprised of a survey that was sent to group members’ friends, family and colleagues.  The results of this survey are being used as the basis for the interview/task observation and as a contributory element for further research activities including personae development and journey mapping.  Given that the majority of respondents were largely representative of the secondary users of the website, it could be argued that the resulting product may not appeal to the target user group.  Fortunately, we have identified two primary users for the interview/task research.  In a real-world scenario I would expect the commissioning organisation to make available the contact details of mailing list subscribers and Facebook users, thus generating a more representative sample of primary users.

So what is the best approach for designing a website?

Hawley and Horton agree that a merger of the user-centred and design-led approaches is a pragmatic solution.  By obtaining a broad understanding of the motivations underlying users’ behaviours, designers can become better informed about needs and aspirations of the target group and design a website accordingly. To achieve this, the use of techniques such as personae and scenario creation, user –journey mapping and sketching are widely advised (Bowles and Box 2011; Hawley 2009; Garrett 2003).

User Experience Design

It is becoming increasingly evident to me that a user-centred approach does not necessarily meet either the user and/or organisational objectives and that there may be an underlying truth in the John T. Ford’s words.  I had been using the term “user-centred design interchangeably with the term “User Experience Design”.  However, I think that the latter is a more accurate description of a bilateral approach to the design process.  This creative approach to using research-derived qualitative and quantitative data is something that I will explore in my next blog post.


Bowles, C. and Box, J. 2011. Undercover user experience : learn how to do great UX work with tiny budgets, no time, and limited support. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Garrett, J. J. 2003. The elements of user experience : user-centered design for the web. 2nd ed.Berkeley, CA: New Riders

Hawley, M. 2009. Design research methods for experience design [online]. Available at: http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2009/01/design-research-methods-for-experience-design.php [Accessed 28 October 2012].

Horton, S. 2009. Why research-directed website design will make your website better [online]. San Francisco: Peachpit. Available at: http://www.peachpit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=1403982 [Accessed 28 October 2012].

Kuniavsky, M. 2003. Observing the user experience: a practitioner’s guide to user research. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann

Steele, C. 2011. 7 Steve Jobs products that failed [online]. New York: PCMAG.COM. Available at: http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow/story/286886/7-steve-jobs-products-that-failed/2 [Accessed: 28 October 2012].

Walsh, B. 2006. Microsoft re-designs the Ipod packaging [online]. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUXnJraKM3k [Accessed 28 October 2012].


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