Thursday, October 29, 2015

In Admiration of User Centered Design

In today's increasingly connected world, it's very easy for companies to learn everything about us, from our demographics to our location data to our shopping habits. But when it comes time to actually design a custom product for us, how much does that information serve them? For all that they know about us, how well do they actually know us?

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Even companies doing market research aren't able to capture a person's essence. More and more, scientists are realizing that they can't get authentic results by asking participants to describe what they need. Under observation, people are likely to try to give the answer they think the interviewer wants, even when they actually want to hear the straightforward, unadulterated truth! When asked if they approve of a new concept X, customers are liable to give a 'soft yes' which means: "Sure, I see the value there," but which conceals "but I wouldn't pay a cent more to have i,t" or, "but I'd rather see more of concept Y." Subjects are also far more liberal with theoretical money/energy/time than actual quantities of the same - their initial enthusiasm often doesn't transfer to sales.

This leaves us with a glut of products, services, and programs in the world that just don't quite hit the mark. Companies with the best of intentions, learning as much as they know how to learn, produce solutions that they expect to be beloved by their users, but which fall flat. This is where user centered design comes in.

Essentially, during this process, designers spend a lot of time engaging with the people they are designing for, developing an empathetic understanding of who they are and how they think. They create physical displays of their observed information called representations and frameworks, iterating as they discover new perspectives. Eventually, they learn to be able to answer questions for their users, like, "What would Jodie do if her class projector malfunctioned?" or, "How would she feel if all of her students were buried in their personal screens?" Designers use their deep understanding of their users as leaping-off points for ideation (e.g. brainstorming), and engage their users in idea co-design to learn about the step-by-step decisions they would make. Finally, they spec out, build, and distribute a product!

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User centered design is a key part of our mission to elevate the quality of technology in the education space. Our build teams focus on developing software that the members of their partner school communities can love. They dive deep in order to keenly understand the needs and values of their users and stakeholders. They let that knowledge inform their work, and come up with solutions that not only meet an established area of opportunity, but do so in a way that users will actually want to employ.

Realistically, the results of this process are customized to one specific community, so subsequent design work is required to scale the product up. This could certainly be profitable and worthwhile. But furthermore, for our build teams, the experience of designing alongside and creating something for their community is an inspirational blend of beneficial, educational, and transformational. We at School Shaped hope that many future edtech leaders will have this experience.

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