Can the User Be Wrong?

To clarify my thoughts in yesterday’s post I’d like to look at a simple question: can the user ever be wrong?

I think the question can be answered with both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. First, the ‘no’ – no, the user cannot be wrong because if a design doesn’t work for them, then the design has failed for them in that specific case. If the user doesn’t like the design, or the design doesn’t meet the user’s needs, then for that particular user that design doesn’t work. In that respect the user can’t be wrong.

Such an answer, however, can only be given in a specific context that assumes that the user is the intended audience, has fixed experience, and has a fixed set of needs that will not change with time or with varying circumstances. For example, if the user doesn’t like a design because they haven’t yet learned how to use it properly, then does it mean that the design has failed? Not necessarily. It does mean that there is a failure in the learning process. Should the user learn the correct method of using the product, their view of it would change drastically, and a product which up to that point was valueless to them will establish its worth.

Our assessment of value fluctuates with time. How much we value a particular object is dependent on a myriad variables surrounding it. For example, our taste in art – in all of its various forms – is dependent on our sensitivity to the details present in the work. An insensitive observer who doesn’t know what to look for will not find anything interesting in works others consider masterpieces. Whether or not we are able to enjoy a work depends on the presence of things we seek in it and whether or not we have the capacity to find them.

In the same way, our assessment of the worth of a particular design is dependent on our understanding of it, dependent on us being able to make full use it of, whether that be in function or aesthetics. Exposure to certain types of design, or education about design, can influence our perception of products, can make us value a product higher or lower based on what we learn. In this sense, an uneducated user can be “wrong” on the worth of a particular design decision, though “wrong” only if one considers the expert to hold a more qualified view.

The point of all this is as follows. Basing design decisions primarily on data will give you a sort of design that adapts to the current state of a chosen audience, that is, their current tastes, wants, desires and experience. Basing design decisions on individual judgement supposes an audience that will enjoy your product given the chance to learn the value of those decisions. The former caters to an existing audience, the latter hopes to create one, but while the former is always a safe choice for achieving acceptance and popularity, it does not necessarily result in something that is functionally or aesthetically better than its predecessors – or at least “better” as deemed by an expert. The latter sort of design takes an active role in shaping the audience for its product by assuming that certain elements of the design need to be learned about before they can be adequately appreciated, while the former sort of design is merely passive, assuming the audience knows best what it needs in its current state.

Without a market, an ingenious solution will remain unused, and will thus fail at solving its intended problem. On the other hand, a product that satisfies market demand but lacks vision becomes merely a reflection of the market, and while such a reflection may be serviceable, it will do no more than maintain the status quo. Between the two extremes lies the golden mean of design that is able to both meet demand and break new ground. Good design is neither isolated self expression nor a perfect reflection of the market. Good design is a synthesis of individual vision and market demand, design that both listens and leads, design that challenges the user to explore new and better ways of doing things while satisfying their fundamental needs.