Article: User-centered design


When you put users in the centre of the design process, you should come up with services that are both better and save money. Turkka Keinonen, Professor of Design at Aalto University and Päivi Sutinen, Service Development Director of Espoo tell us when you should listen to your users.



What is user-centred design?

TK The product or service has been made in interaction with its users throughout the project, from the very beginning. There are several methods: you can ask the users directly what they want and need. In the case that similar products and services already exist, people are good at noticing things that don’t work. Conversely, when making something completely new, you go to the environment where people will be using the services or products and observe what they actually do. This allows you to grasp the knowledge that users have but cannot verbalize. People also have needs that you can’t uncover by asking them. In such situations you can make use of role-play or get people to document their own life.

What can it be used for in cities?

TK When services are better at meeting needs, it can create savings. Underused services become fewer.

PS For businesses, more clients means more money. In cities this can mean added expenses: if services that increasingly meet the client’s needs are created, we are increasing demand, which may worsen the city’s economic stability. That’s why in public services, user-centred design is particularly well suited for including the users in targeting expenditure on the services most important to them.

Are users directly involved in the design process?

TK User-centred design arises from the conditions of technology and commercialism. If a product is hard to use, it doesn’t sell. In participatory design, users are experts. In user-centred design they are testers who create disturbances, which are then attempted to eliminate. Recently, the methods of participatory design have appeared also in user-centred design: we have learned to trust the user.

Why isn’t all design user-centred?

TK When a designer has worked with similar issues before, he has already gained a lot of knowledge and experience. Whereas when designing socially complex things, the user is always needed.

PS It is not very effective to have everyone involved in everything all the time. There have to be other ways of getting information on user experiences and satisfaction, based on which we can better understand when to include users in design.

How can public departments adopt the principles of user-centered design?

TK Public departments need the courage to take some more risks. Let’s do trials and experiments nstead of moving onto the next surefire solution. It’s also important to look for reliable design partners from the outside, be they design offices, individual designers or cooperation with educational institutions.

PS It is worthwhile listening to your own employees for a start. They are close to the customers and get a lot of information. Then it is useful to listen to the users themselves and do planning with the customers. After that, let the employees consider the viewpoint of the customers: can this suggestion be implemented and how? You can then repeat the cycle. A service square with multiple operators is more like an airport than a shopping mall: you have to think about the whole journey of its users and their different needs. It feels like one airport, even though really it’s a cluster of several different types of services: you have a company running the airport, then you have tens of separate businesses, as well as the airlines and aeroplanes that take people around the world. The same thinking should apply to the city’s services.

What can go wrong?

TK Designers are good at tooting their own horn. However, public service development is often more difficult than it seems from the outside. You have to find those aspects of the service system that the designer can really influence.

PS Public organisations do a lot of the kind of user-centred development that creates expectations which can’t be fulfilled. Or the voice of the user is heard in things that appear in the city’s structure only after several years – something the users don’t always understand. The most difficult thing is including users in thinking about something that may not even be implemented at all. This leads to disappointment. It is important to be clear with the users involved: you have to tell them what you’re trying to solve, in what time span, and will the user experiences be utilized as they are or as a basis for planning.

Read on


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