Originally published May 12, 2008

I have always felt uneasy about ‘user-centred design’ (UCD). This may strike many of you as odd. After all, I have been researching, working, and writing about what looks like UCD since the 1960s, and have been a public advocate for what looks like UCD throughout my professional career—particularly with my involvement with public information symbols through standards organizations in the 1970s, and my role in setting up in the 1980s the organisation that became the Communication Research Institute. Over 40 years of commitment to what looks like UCD, how could I be uneasy? Surely this is moment for celebration—I’ve participated in something that was marginal and is now mainstream, and know that I made a small contribution to that happening. But this is a moment when it seems appropriate to question seriously the role of UCD in contemporary life.

If, like me, you became involved in this area because you care about people, and, like me, you wanted to help make an unneccesarily difficult and complex world a little less so, then you may find my questioning of UCD disconcerting. Well, what I have to say might make it more disconcerting.

Step back, for a moment, from your feeling of outrage or defensiveness and have a look at how we designers describe what we do, and the context in which we make those descriptions. When it comes to talking about UCD in its contexts, I’m uncomfortable about the description ‘users’.

Switch context. Where do you find users? The usual context (a distasteful one) is the drug business. This industry seeks to turn people into users if it can. But what has this to do with what designers do? I seem to be equating an obvious evil with an obvious good, an outrageous suggestion.

Switch context again. Before the UCD era, a designer would be hired by a business to help make products that would sell, since the raison d’être for a business is to make money. The advent of UCD has not changed that—and of course the civilities of trade, the trust and respect without which business cannot be conducted, have always been present—but explicit UCD makes it appear that business is becoming humanised, being nice to people, thoughtful and sympathetic; that is, that there’s been a shift in focus from products to people. This is actually not so: product-centred design seems to have become people-centred design (PCD); only it’s not PCD, it’s UCD. Whatever has happened to the people?

Switch context again. Business is governed by economics. It goes to where the money is, and in the last few years the money has moved. Consumer spending as a proportion of total expenditure has grown throughout the last 100 years, so much so that in economies like the USA, consumer spending accounts for about 70% of all spending, far more than government and business combined. So today, if you are in business, you try to get into people’s wallets; and businesses have discovered that to get the money out of people’s wallets and into their own pockets, it helps if they act nicely. This simple fact, more than any notion of business having become humanised, is at the core of UCD. But if only it stopped at niceness—because the next step is where I become profoundly uneasy.

Back to the drug business. To be successful here, you have to turn people into users. Similarly, to be successful in the consumer market, it helps if you can turn people into users. In this case, it’s not a physical, but a social dependency. Add UCD to branding and you have two of the tools used by business today to move money from wallets into pockets. ‘Brand loyalty’ is a marketer’s way of describing social dependency.

Thankfully, people do not easily turn into users. But there is no doubting the intent: ‘user’-centred design is not mere terminology. Employing the term ‘user’ denotes the relationship that businesses would like to have with people. So next time you feel the warm glow of satisfaction coming upon you, because you believe you are doing UCD for the common good, think carefully; it might be that you are actually being the pusher’s pal.