Observe, Test, Iterate, and Learn

I practice human centered design, but what does that mean? It actually could mean a variety of things. We teach a method. We say, first of all, let’s go out and watch people observe, do fieldwork. They see what they really do in their lives, whether it’s education or entertainment or their jobs. Find out what happens because don’t ask them. People often don’t realize what they need because people are used to what they’re doing. And if you ask them what their problems are, well, I’ll tell you something about what they’re trying to accomplish today and what’s in the way. Whereas if we watch and observe, we might think of an entirely different solution to their problems. So we start off by observing and then we actually try to figure out what is the real problem they’re facing and what are the possible solutions, and we think of a variety of solutions and then we try to see which one might be most appropriate. And we test we do a quick, rapid prototypes. We believe in our prototype. I can build something in a half hour that I can test with you. You know, a lot of engineers say, oh, gee, it’s going to take me six months to build this. How can we test it? We haven’t built now you fake it. We use methods from theater to make it make believe. You know, we take something out of our pocket. We take a piece of paper and say, make believe this is your new display. How would you use it?

We make things out of chalk. We make things out of cardboard. We make things out of foam core. We can cut things and make them do the right shapes. We can see how people would use them and experiment with them. You can even mock up an automobile with just a bunch of chairs in the right in the right order. And then as we learn what people need and what we’re going to build, we make better and better and better models and pretty soon a pretty final product. But we’re always testing, always iterating, changing what we’re doing because we’re learning. And even though I’ve had pretty near 50 years of experience watching, observing and understanding people and a Ph.D. in psychology, I’m always wrong. I’m always surprised because people are so variable, do things that are so unexpected. You’ve always got to go out and watch and test. Now, that’s the essence of human centered design. But you know something? It usually doesn’t work in a company. The reason it doesn’t work is because, well, Norman’s law, the day the product team is put together, it’s over budget and behind schedule. So that means that all of these wonderful early explorations and tests and iterations of the person in charge of the product is apt to say, yeah, what you want to do is the correct way of doing it, but we don’t have time. So we’ll have to skip it or maybe short circuited. Instead of spending a week, we’ll give you a few hours, but next time we’ll do it better. There is never a next time because the same story happens next time. So we have to change our ways. We have to adapt what we’re doing. This means we should always be studying people even when there’s no product in mind on the side, so that when the product team is assembled, we’re ready. We can say, oh yeah, we’ve been studying that. That also means that we sometimes short circuit, we say, OK, let’s quickly do something, do a few cycles in a day so we can learn something, because it’s really important that we keep up with the product cycle because the normal methods, while I don’t really fit what we’re trying to do and the new agile programing methods are very good for some things, they’re not so good for us because the programmers want to start programing on day one even before we know we want to build. So but we can’t say, oh, no, you must do it our way.

We have to figure out how to work with them as partners. That’s human centered design.

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