Human Centered Design: Stop Listening to That Thing Henry Ford Never Said

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“If Henry Ford had asked customers what they want, we’d have faster horses!” The above saying, often attributed to Henry Ford (though probably not uttered by him), supposedly illustrates customers’ inability to articulate their wishes for new products or services. The adage is often used by opponents of design research

“If Henry Ford had asked customers what they want, we’d have faster horses!”

The above saying, often attributed to Henry Ford (though probably not uttered by him), supposedly illustrates customers’ inability to articulate their wishes for new products or services. The adage is often used by opponents of design research as proof that consulting with users won’t lead to successful innovations. Proponents of human centered research, however, point to this axiom as a red herring for superficial judgments on a very necessary stage of design. It serves as a great example of the rift that exists between design and research.

 

Human centered design research is part of a reflexive cyclical design process, which relies on detailed ethnographic information about the user from initial inspiration to final validation. Design, however, is still an artisanal practice at its core that requires technical skill and is often at the mercy of tooling restrictions, budgets and production timelines. Research consultancies are often used by organisations to inform design decisions, yet the social scientists involved often find it difficult to relate their findings to the designer; whilst designers often see research as adding an unnecessary constraint to the process. This ineffectiveness in communication impacts on the chances for innovation to occur, and creates distrust in human centered research. As a result, research ends up being used simply as a crutch and a box-ticking exercise.

 

For research consultancies, this can be overcome by involving their clients’ design teams in fieldwork directly, as well as ensuring that any deliverables are visually rich and engaging to get across contextual detail and unspoken needs. This often requires a designer’s touch, which many classical research or UX consultancies lack.

 

Designers, for their part, often eschew methodological research and rely on their own intuition and anecdotal evidence or misinterpreted research. Their superiors, meanwhile, find it hard to get their head around qualitative or ethnographic studies as their impact is harder to quantify than statistical research, and so are reluctant to commission it.

 

It seems necessary that the industry develop interdisciplinary training for both professions, creating hybrid roles of design-minded social scientists and anthropologically savvy designers who can be fluent in both disciplines and function as an effective link where direct involvement is not possible.

 

Small consultancies would also benefit from quantifying their impact using ‘Return On Investment’ or similar models, as well as finding ever easier ways to involve designers in immersion and workshop exercises.
Image above: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.