I get edgy when I hear people talk about being user-centric. I once fell for it, thinking that they saw users’ wants as their starting point. Well, user-centric is an improvement on the system-centric approach where the top-down design forces users into a slot of whatever is built, no matter whether it works well or not. (Hence the phrase user-friendly applies mostly to things not designed for the user. I don’t talk about del.icio.us as being user-friendly, because its simplicity and functionality allows the user to drive the use, not the designer.)
User-centric says – ‘we are going to build a system, put the user in the centre instead of the system’. So far, so good, but this sits uncomfortably with me as a user especially as one that is used to the online tools that have changed many an old way. The tools – blogs, wikis, feeds and feed readers, BitTorrent, Flickr, Dopplr, Twitter etc – are revolutionary not just because of their functionality, bits of code or their interface, but their design for usefulness, their modularity and constant evolution. There is an element of open-endedness in their design, either accidental or deliberate, recognising that the designers cannot foresee all the uses to which people will put the tools to. The simplicity is the key, the complexity coming from usage rather than the design. In other words, they are user-driven.
Last year at the IIW in Mountain View, I got talking to Bob Frankston about the difference I started to see between the user-centric and user-driven. Bob, in his inimitable fashion, used the tuna salad we were having for lunch during the conversation to coin an analogy. A ready-made tuna salad is user-centric – it has been decided what goes into it, in what proportions and what order. It has been designed around me and for me but I cannot add anything to it.
Giving me ingredients, utensils and a recipe suggestion and letting me get on with it, leads to user-driven design- it can still be meant to become a tuna salad but I get to put it together, determine the proportions, skip or add ingredients. The process is driven by me and the experience makes me (hopefully) better at making the dish.
Of course, there are times for user-centric and there are times for user-driven. Not everyone wants to make everything themselves and neither is it the best or most effective way to design all systems or tools. But there are cases when only user-driven will do. And VRM is one of them.