User-centered versus user-centric design

The creation of industrially produced products and software were initially the domain of engineers. Until organizations learned that products are much more successful if they’re designed with the user in mind. Early products were just functional. Now they have qualities that users appreciate, like ease of use and styles that matches their personalities. Organizations learned that such products are more successful. They learned that when a product is designed people in mind, it’s more valuable to more customers. User-centered design became popular: it’s not just good for users, but also for revenue and profit margins.

User-centered design

The goal of user-centered design (sidenote: I wrote a post about what design actually is. ) is to develop something new that is beneficial for people. User research plays an important role here. It ensures that people find the new thing easy to use, enjoy using it and that it doesn’t cause negative side effects. User-centered design is not only about making one good product. It’s about making something good for many people:

Success = (∑ positive impact - ∑ negative impact) × ∑ users

That may sound like charity, but user-centered design is very profitable. That’s the free market doing what it’s supposed to do: businesses with the best products get the most customers who are willing to pay the highest prices.

Most of the time, we can’t give stuff away for free. Products are only purchased when they’re perceived as worth the money. To reach many people, we have to consider production costs and there are always tradeoffs between price and quality. By choosing the right balance, a product can be of high quality and affordable to many.

So a successful product or service doesn’t only have to be good, people must also perceive it as good. It can be very difficult to compare the actual qualities of a product or service without using it. So the designer must make it look attractive, convincing, reliable. Appearance alone can be enough for someone to decide if they want to buy something or not. And that in a matter of seconds.

We encounter so many products that we can reliably guess how good a product is just by looking at it. Because it takes time and money to design and build something well. Only businesses investing in a long term relationship with a new customer can do that.

LOL JK—Here comes user-centric design!

User-centric design

We silly apes think we see what products are good just like we see which apple is edible and which one is rotten. So here’s your chrome-covered plastic shower head! Here’s your off-brand, chemicals leaking baby toy! Oh and because we’re all competing on price, brand products aren’t necessarily better anyway!

If designers have the skills to make something look good, then they don’t have to do all the effort to actually make it good. If it looks good, it sells. That’s an example of business-centered design exploiting cognitive biases of customers. And it’s user-centric design. It doesn’t ignore the users. It uses them.

Business-centered design

User-centric and user-centered look and sound very much alike. I wouldn’t know why to do user-centric design other than for business reasons. So from here on I’ll use business-centered instead. That also avoids the argument that the difference is too small to matter.

In digital products, business-centered design is especially important. The internet MVP was launched with the assumption that payment wasn’t a core feature. So for years people thought everything was supposed to be free online. The only way to make money online was to send goods in exchange for money. Or… to show them ads. Ad-supported products aim to serve as many people for as long as possible. More use means more ads to show, more revenue, more profit.

Ad-based business models need business-centered design to grow. Lots of people say they want to spend more time on social platforms. A user-centered designer would try to improve such a platform by making it easier for people to reach what they want and show fewer notifications to draw users back when they’re offline. However, that would go straight against the business goals. So instead we have business-centered designers using all kinds of tricks to get users to spend more time on the platforms.

We apes don’t just have unrealistic expectations of our ability to judge the quality of products at a glance. There are countless biases, fallacies for business-centered designers to exploit and make us do what they want us to do. For more examples, go to darkpatterns.org or scroll beyond the hero message of Coglode.

Good vs evil

User-centered design is good and business-centered design is all tricks and scams, right? If only it were that easy. Let’s say you’re convinced that your product is really just good for the world. You want it to be successful, not just qualitatively, but also in the number of people having access to the product. Then it would be unethical to not apply some business-centered design and let people miss out on that wonderful thing!

But even pure user-centered design falls short. It often ignores non-users and the environment. Your new hifi set annoys your neighbors. With each wash, your fleece jacket pollutes the water with micro plastics. Your comfortable car blows CO₂ and particulates into the air and puts the lives of pedestrians and cyclists at risk.

But I have little good to say about business-centered design. It’s mostly dishonesty. If its processes were more transparent, it would be shunned and perhaps even be outlawed.

Altered screenshot of the Facebook login screen with the text 'We designed this place to make you spend as much time here as possible, because we sell your attention to advertisers. You pay for Facebook indirectly through the marketing budgets of the companies that, as a result, you buy the products from—about $ 50/year.'
How honest can an ad-based product be to its users?

What this all means to practicing designers

When environmental and societal sustainability are taken into account, user-centered design is a driving force behind the advance of our civilization. We try to prioritize user needs, but sometimes we have to prioritize technical constraints or business needs over them. We have to make these trade-offs all the time.

I say ‘we’, because only very few designers would say they don’t work user-centered. A conscious decision to work in business-centered design would be strange. If you’re good at that, you’d make more money in marketing, business or, well, scams. That means user-centered designers and their managers do most of business-centered design.

Finding solutions that suit the needs of users, business and technical constraints is close to the essence of design. Of course we are mindful about that! It’s exactly what makes design difficult, interesting and fun! At the same time, I think it’s easy to fool ourselves. When our livelihoods depend on being an agreeable, positive and motivated member of a product team, our brain is really good at making us believe we’re doing important, useful work.

Every shitty product was designed by a user-centered designer who probably thought they did a decent job, all things considered. And maybe they did, except that they were doing it in the wrong context.

We don’t change jobs when we switch between business-centered and user-centered decisions. We’re okay with it, because we believe the products we design will have a positive impact and not only for our employers. So be critical of the things you design. Do you really believe the products you work on are good for the world, or are you repeating the marketing department’s reasons for why they’re better than the competition? How certain are you about the positive impact the product is going to have compared to the possible downsides?

The biggest user-centered design decision is the decision for whom you work

If a company doesn’t want build a mutually beneficial, sustainable relationship with their customers, they only hire designers to do business-centered design. To make customers believe they need products that make their lives worse. You can’t do successful user-centered design there.

Other organizations just need guidance. There may be a short-term profit-oriented mindset in management. Working in such an environment, you’re there to remind everyone that that is not what they had in mind when they hired you. Good for users is good for profit, remember!

Alright, you may not be in design for the money, but you still need to make a living. Maybe you’re stuck in a place with little choice when it comes to employers. In that case: keep fighting the good fight. But if you’re a well-paid UX whatever in a tech company ‘changing the world’ with, say, ad-supported crap, please save up some money and start looking for where you can apply your skills in a more useful way. We’re working at the pinnacle of human civilization and may just as well make it civilized.

If you’re interested in ethical challenges in design, you may like my post with 6 questions all experienced designers should be able to answer.