User Centered Design?

When we first launched Nomad in 2006 the phrase user-centred (or as we usually use it, people centred design) was virtually unheard of.  We would always have to explain the concept to prospective clients and our peers and we are fairly certain that some people thought the idea mildly eccentric.   About two-three years ago we began to see a change in our clients in the public sector.  They would nod knowingly when we outlined our people centered approach and there was a significant increase in people actively seeking out our skills to build briefs or undertake projects using people centric methods.  More recently we have begun to see a significant change in our peers in the design/architectural realm who seem to have embraced the language of people centered design.  This has partially been influenced by an upsurge of interest in Service Design which shares many identical processes and values as our own approach (Only we actually produce a product :-)) but possibly the biggest influence is the interest of public sector clients themselves and more recently the Government.

We know of a number of fantastic firms practicing service design or using people centered approaches (you know who you are) but we are becoming slightly concerned about the use of the term in some of the larger, national firms who have begun to employ distinctly people/user centric language on their websites and marketing materials.  User centred or people centric approaches require a great deal of time and detailed activity  – this is time spent not designing but simply working with people towards a design.  You have to love the process and be a passionate believer in the outcome as, in truth, it is not the most profitable of activities.  It is difficult to understand how these giant firms, with their overheads could spend the time or go into the type of detail that smaller more flexible firms frequently do.  We are willing to admit that we may be being a little cynical but cynisism is the problem.  We would hate to see the philosophy of people centered design suffer the same fate as ‘research’ or ‘public consultation’-(everyone says they do it but quality and style differs massively)

Having said this we are genuinely delighted that there is so much interest in people centered approaches to design and services.  It is certainly a step in the right direction and it is really great to be able to work with like minded people.  The interest of both clients in the  public sector and the Scottish Government is bound to result in a vast improvement of places, spaces and services for ordinary people and to quote Berthold Lubetkin, “nothing is too good for ordinary people”


(image from Blackpool & The Fylde College ‘Classroom of the Future’  creative workshop-2009/10)

  1. Hi nomad:

    I think the problem is of terms (or buzz words) being used in the place of qualitative descriptions of what the process involves*. Essentially anything could be user-centred, or described as a service, and what is more interesting is a description of what that process might be, and what qualities and values it might have. potentially a wholly user-centred design process might arrive at the solution of not designing anything, or designing something completely different to the original brief. The big society (conservatives ©**) would describe itself as user-centred, empowering the individual, but that is something i wouldn’t want to be part of, because of its connection to an altogether more pernicious agenda – despite it using many of the collaborative user-centred design tools of service design.

    I personally think that there has been user-centred design and service design for about as long as people have been consciously designing things, and throughout that history there are episodes of its uses and abuses, and i’m sort of more interested in qualitative measures (and that gets into the messy realm of design politics etc) than what term something uses. i think this is interesting; service design, circa 1933 – from the book which came out of

    * this is essentially a catch-22 as the way these ideas often gain traction (and expand the receptiveness and market for the services of ‘smaller’ companies) is exactly through them becoming buzz-words and a critical-mass of people using them (and this is the double edged sword, abusing them) – one response to this has been for people to keep trying to carve out new space by pushing into new linguistic territory, such as ‘transformational design’ etc etc but i wonder where this escalation takes us…


    p.s. and i don’t think this is cynicism, its skepticism, which is good. but the skepticism needs more detail i think. interesting debate though, would be a good one for something cross-dept at art school.

      • nomad rdc
      • April 1st, 2012

      Articulate and accurate as ever – it is the recent popularization and use of the ‘buzz words’ and once more you are correct, our skepticism about the approach and qualitative measures employed which lies at the heart of our concern. Incidentally Interior Designers have been dealing with the linguistic issue for what seems like forever and we would caution that this is a fairly redundant exercise (interior architects, interior engineers etc), (although you will note our new title as ‘design and innovation consultants’ :-D) Always up for a bit of cross-departmental debate at GSA-we have been pushing people centered concepts with our fourth year and Masters students. Let’s get together and discuss.

  2. indeed, be good to catch up anyway. speak soon.

    – the other N.

  3. also, just to be clear, i’m not at all interested in discussions of naming – agree it to be futile and circular and more often than not seems to be instigated by people who want to use it as a device to exclude, rather than include – am interested in discussions of processes and what those processes and people involved in them do, how they do it, things not being mutually exclusive etc etc.

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