User-Business Balanced Design

User-Centered Design is so 2003.

I have been mulling this for a while and it finally clicked while I was writing at Borders last night. Part of the reason designers and usabilityers don’t get much respect, especially those that tout UCD, is because the people we work for often don’t care about the user (in their eyes the customer, but that’s a story for another post).

Perhaps that is too much of a blanket statement. They care about the customer’s money and they want as much of it as possible. So yes, businesses want to keep their customers happy, but some businesses only want to keep their customers happy up to a certain point.

Back to Borders as a case in point. When you walk in the front door, you may not realize it (well, most of the people that read this will realize it) but Borders has done an outstanding job at welcoming you into their home. The magazines, and newspapers (as well as the bargain books sometimes depending on the store) are all near the cafe, making it easier for you to purchase a relatively inexpensive publication whilst you sup your CaraMocha® (which probably cost more than the magazine).

You can also see the entire store when you walk in. A mental map gets painted right away. (Barnes & Noble are not like this; their shelves are too tall and everything is too dark.) There are comfy chairs scattered about, but not very many. Most customers walk/stand during their visit. Except in the cafe.

With the exception of waiting in line while the one employee tries to crank out the drinks (and doesn’t aerate the milk) the whole physical interaction is to sit and sup, talk, read. And this is where the problem comes in. Borders doesn’t want you to stay forever in the part of the store where they get the least amount of profit. They need to sell a certain amount of product every day (and every half-hour) to make any sort of profit. So how do they keep you from staying?

Certain customers who don’t mind being uncomfortable for hours (students, I’m looking at you) are the exception. But, for the most part, everyone else won’t sit for more than a half-hour. A good part of the reason for this is that you are sitting in a half-hour chair.

It was specifically designed to become uncomfortable after a half-hour of sitting. Now, I am talking averages here, and yes I know there are exceptions, but it got me thinking, what other products are made specifically to be effective, efficient and satisfactory to users but only to a point?

Part of what is driving this mini-rant is my hatred of the UCD Police. Designers and Usabilityers that do their work solely in support of the user. Oh, and they are out there. It is usually the newbies. They get a hold of this new methodology/process/tool, whatever you want to call it, and think it will solve every problem ever. And it does, but essentially only from the perspective of the user. There’s that whole business-aspect missing.

More experienced professionals understand that there is a balance to be struck, but the first balance they see is the one between the “system” and the user. I use system in quotes because my world is computer-based so I have a tendency to forget about other interactions (sorry fire hydrant designers!), but I mean as a general rule the product or service the user has to interact with.

Then the experienced professional gets even more experience and they begin to understand that the balance must be struck between the system, user and business need. And this is where I think only the most experienced designers and usabilityers will excel (and innovate) and leave the rest of us behind.

The sooner we, as a profession, as well as academia understand and walk the Middle Path, the better off the people we work for, with, and on behalf of will be. Poke holes all you want. I am well aware I have made some sweeping generalizations (two in this paragraph alone), but it’s our job to consider the entire system (no quote marks).

Think not just who the users are now, but who they will become over time. Think about how a product or service will be used, both intended and unintended, and how it will be used when the “user” is done with it. Think about the risks and opportunities available to those who pay you.

And give me some ideas on that whole chair thing.