Tired of all this UCD chatter

OK so I’ve been quietly lurking and observing and shaking my head (and fist sometimes!) as I read through the recent fierce & incessant debates raging on the IxDA list over “UCD” vs “ACD” vs “genius” or “beauty vs usability”…Sigh. Folks, let’s give it a fracking rest. Geez!!

Maybe because I was trained in a highly pluralistic environment at Michigan and CMU (where the focus wasn’t about defining your own unique style for a slick portfolio, but learning how to interpret multiple viewpoints and models) but I for the life of me just don’t understand why designers in 2009 (with having over 200 years of design history to learn from) don’t get the fact that a good design involves a balanced set of qualities. It’s not a “versus” per se, like a zero-sum game with one ultimate winner, but rather a kind of dialectical synthesis.

Every praised example of “good design” (whether it’s Apple’s iPhone, Google Maps, OXO Good Grips, IKEA’s stores/wares or Adobe Lightroom or Mint.com) embodies multiple simultaneous qualities of genius AND talent AND analysis AND data AND activity-centrism AND goal-task centrism AND engineering focus and oh yes, business savvy–in all kinds of different ratios. The problem here isn’t about which “model” wins out–whatever the heck that means. The challenge, as I’ve repeated a few times before–as inspired by Dick Buchanan’s Rhetorical Approach–is a “negotiated balance” of values & attitudes tuned to the particular context and circumstances and…the designer involved!

It really just comes down to purpose. What’s the purpose to be fulfilled by the proposed solution, by this endeavor, by this designer? Quite simply, what are we striving for? A sophisticated lifestyle image a la Apple, or an earthy yet futuristic humanitarian quality a la Prius, or a nuts-and-bolts can-do product like Google Docs?

A quick point about “the hired designer”: I believe an experienced designer brings a diverse set of ideas or “postures” to the table, informed by years of judgment and evolved skills and reflective insights. This is just natural. Yet for some reason, rabidly pro-UCD defenders seem to dismiss this as just “designing for yourself”, which reveals how little about designing –the actual activity itself– these supposed design experts really know!

Indeed, the fact is there are multiple design “postures” that can be assumed in the course of a designer’s involvement with a project, and indeed various designers may develop a solid posture as their philosophical outlook, over the course of their career and life. Just look at architects! It takes them decades to achieve their position, like Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid or Renzo Piano, etc–each evolving and establishing their signature style, yes, but also their process, philosophy, principles, values, and goals that defines who they are and their problem-solving approach or “posture”.

So what do I mean by “posture”?

One posture (let’s call it “existential” or “ego”) might be where the designer projects his own interpretation of the problem and solution, through the force of personality and vision. Typically this is often referred as “designing for yourself” or “genius design” or being Philippe Starcke (ha!) but it is one approach, sometimes legitimate in many cases where there’s so much organizational chaos or marketplace desperation that a bold defiant striking vision must be commanded.

Another posture (let’s call it “contextual”) could be where the designer focuses on the perceived implicit relations of elements (components, widgets, tasks, content, features, etc.) and how they should be framed, organized, choreographed per some deliberately detailed analysis of a specific context of its own meaning.

Yet another posture (let’s say “participatory” or “cultural”) may be where a designer stages a conversation for direct, multi-layered engagement with users, cultures, and values towards understanding the problem and solution spaces, where meaning/purpose is constantly shifting, arising from an ongoing dialogue shaped strategically.

And I could go on and on…but the fact remains that in any design effort there’s always a mix of many of these postures and qualities in varying proportions, maybe even just a sliver of one posture, but it’s there. Any design situation features a blend, mixing and jumping about different viewpoints and approaches, not strict rigid adherence to just one way. I think this echoes what Dan Saffer mentioned in his IxDA’09 keynote about “moving among frames” as a valuable skill in these here modern digital times :-)

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