One challenge within the high-tech sector is to develop products that end users will actually need and will be able to use. One way of trying to match the design of high-tech products to the needs of end users, is to let researchers and designers interact with them via a human-centred design (HCD) approach. One HCD project, in which the author works, is studied. It is shown that the relation between interacting with end users and making design decision is not straightforward or “logical.” Gathering knowledge about end users is like making a grasping gesture and reduces their otherness. Making design decisions is not based on rationally applying rules. It is argued that doing HCD is a social process with ethical qualities. A role for management is suggested to organize HCD alternatively to stimulate researchers and designers to explicitly discuss such ethical qualities and to work more reflectively.
Many organizations, both private and public, need to or want to innovate. Not for the sake of innovation itself, but in order to create new products, services, or processes that will create added value for their customers, for the end users of their products or services or for citizens. Developing innovations that match end users’ needs or wishes is especially (but not exclusively) problematic in the high-tech industry where many innovations are driven by technology push. A risk of technology push is that researchers and designers invent some product or service that nobody needs or nobody can use. One way in which researchers and designers try to match their innovation efforts to end users’ needs and wishes is to interact with them during an innovation project. They try to learn from them, to be informed or inspired by them. This can be seen as an attempt to narrow the gap between researchers and designers in their high-tech ivory tower vs. end users “out-there.”
My current interest is in researchers and designers activities. However, it is acknowledged that their work is only one half of the innovation process: end users also play crucial roles in adoption, domestication, and appropriation processes (Oudshoorn & Pinch, 2003, p. 11-16). Users and technology are “co-constructed” (ibidem): people influence technology and technology influences people, both designers and end users shape an innovation. However, I am currently more interested in how researchers and designers think and speak about end-users “out-there” (Latour & Woolgar, 1986), rather than being interested in any “real” existence of end-users or their “real” characteristics.
There is a broad variety of methods available for researchers and designersa to involve (future, potential, or putative) end usersb in their projects, for example: participatory design (e.g., Schuler & Namioka, 1993) where people who will be using the system that is being developed are invited to cooperate during development, evaluation, and implementation of that system (such efforts are often related to workers’ emancipation); the lead-user approach (e.g., Von Hippel, 2005) where innovative users are seen as a source of innovation and are invited to help develop or improve a product (similar to participatory design, but with less emphasis on emancipation); fieldwork, inspired by ethnography or ethnomethodology, to study the social and cultural aspects of what people do, in order to design applications (often combined with participatory design, for example in the field of computer supported cooperative work) (Crabtree, 2003); contextual design (Beyer & Holzblatt, 1998), a method to observe people doing tasks in their natural context, with attention for their physical surroundings, the artefacts they use as well as their activities, communication, power and culture, and to articulate system requirements based on this; empathic design (e.g., Koskinen, Battarbee, & Mattelmäki, 2003), where researchers or developers try to get closer to end users’ lives and experiences, for example by observing their daily life or work, or role-playing some of their activities, and apply what they learn from that in the design process; codesigning (Sanders, 2000), a kind of participatory design where end users make things together with researchers and designers (the focus is on making things, and doing that jointly, rather than on saying things in interviews, or on being observed doing things); and usability engineering, a range of methods to evaluate and improve a product’s usability together with end users.