Simplify your job search
Get 5+ job offers from top companies with 1 application
Get job offers

The User-Centered Design Conundrum

When I mention design research to clients unfamiliar with user–centered design, I am often confronted with a blank stare. At first, I thought that I simply might be doing it wrong: selecting the wrong kinds of clients to work with, or associating myself with the wrong kind of companies—but after attending events and meet-ups frequented by UX professionals, I’ve learned that I’m not alone. The problem—willful ignorance to the benefits of design research—is a pervasive one.

Interestingly, the conundrum always starts the same way: those who budget a project’s time, materials, etc. believe that incorporating user research into the design process could potentially add to the project’s overall scope. These stakeholders, project managers, whathaveyou are concerned with making things work for themselves or their superiors within a specific time frame.

For those uninitiated to anthropology, ethnography, sociology, or any kind of research-driven science that focuses on people, adding users’ opinions, processes, and practices to the mix before creating an initial design seems like a step in the wrong direction. Aren’t we, as the interaction designers, supposed to be providing the “magic” behind the interface?

Of course, the answer can go both ways. In either case, though, it feels like we’re ignoring the proverbial forest for its trees.

Designers win

Let’s assume the answer is yes. That is to say, we as designers and developers have all the answers.

Illustration provided by Rachel Nabors

The idea is based in truth: as those trained in the field of design, it is most certainly our responsibility to bring knowledge and expertise to the table. When a problem presents itself that doesn’t have a unique solution, we rely on our prior experience in order to get to the heart of things. That’s why books such as Jennifer Tidwell’s Designing Interfaces and Bill Scott & Theresa Neil’s Designing Web Interfaces exist in the first place. They’re collections of patterns to which we as interaction designers might refer. Their creation shows a level of craftsmanship in the process of interface design.

But the fact remains that not all design problems are the same. Moreover, the context in which we present those patterns is always unique. Which leads us to the converse side of things.

Designers lose

As a disclaimer, my vote in the matter is most assuredly in this corner. Design, like many things in life, is a collaborative process. In Whitney Hess’s answer to my UX London questionnaire earlier this month (in which I asked: “how much of design is intuition? how much is learned?”) she responded:

A true designer is only satisfied with their work once the intended audience’s needs are met.

Just as you wouldn’t want an architect designing your house without your input (or someone arranging your kitchen without understanding how you go about cooking), users don’t want some “genius” designer designing our users’ web applications. For the majority of interesting design challenges, we have to listen to our users in order to give them what they want. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work.

It’s how you play the game

The point of the matter is this: user-centered design isn’t simply a luck of the draw; its an iterative process that involves a complex interplay between designers and the users for which they design.

Give an experience designer a blog to theme and you simply give them an exercise in visual design. Not to discredit those who do that sort of thing, but interaction and experience designers are more than just hired guns, they’re team players. They recognize that the kinds of problems they solve are not simply exercises in pattern recognition or aesthetics; they’re user-driven.

Progressing the conversation

The reason this kind of conundrum infuriates me is that many start-ups depend on their flagship product, yet they typically say that they don’t have the budget to conduct research. Without a budget to conduct research, what they’re actually saying is they can’t responsibly account for the design of their product.

In order to make a wholesome, competitive experience in the digital space we need to set aside what looks “cool,” or designs “by survey” (5-second test anyone?), and come to terms with the fact that we simply can’t have the answers to all design problems from the get go; that the best designs come about by an iterative, research-based approach. This isn’t to say that good design solutions aren’t rooted in intuition on experience—they are. But to give all of the responsibility (and credit) to the designer or to the users themselves is a travesty indeed.

So on to the next question: how can we end this misconception? Many of those who approach design/development teams with a fledgling product have this notion that design is simply a sticker, a pretty face you put on top of a product. Yet it’s easy to see responsible experience design practiced at companies that are successful.

I don’t have an answer to the problem, but I certainly have an opinion. For now, I’m content that it’s a deciding factor that helps me choose which clients I take and which clients I send elsewhere.

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew Maier is a lifelong student of the design community who believes that creation and learning are synonymous. His current interests include security, law, cities, and autonomy. He lives in Washington, D.C., in Dupont Circle.


  • Luke Jones Reply

    It’s a difficult one, and a pity that the majority of clients don’t think that UX/UI testing is just as important as the build itself.

  • Liz Hunt Reply

    Thanks for your words, Andrew!

    I feel your grievance. Your argument makes loads of sense, and I wonder if the real fear (as portrayed by the telling comic strip in your article) comes from the word ‘research’ itself. It is, after all, a damn scary word, and it’s one I admittedly don’t know enough about.

    But on the surface and without context, I envision research to mean something sterile and dormant, detached from any results-producing processes (that is to say, research by itself doesn’t always produce).

    But the way you’ve described research here, and the way some of us understand it, is something more. It’s a scenario, an action — entirely proactive and visceral.

    Truthfully, user-centered design is not something I’ve practiced in any concrete or even definable way. As a part of a small agency with an even smaller web team, I’ve learned to embrace all the organic ways in which our talents merge.

    So in the context of where I work, research is never it’s pure form, but rather, a cloaked motivation that reveals itself in terms and phrases like “Let’s think through your content”, or “Let’s talk about what can happen when you click this”.

    In short, what if the solution is not to call it research after all, but something more digestable? After all, our clients are an entirely different set of users by themselves, and we need them on the same page.

    • Andrew Maier Reply

      Hey Liz, thanks for your reply. I think a large part of being a good interaction designer is learning to be a good consultant––listening and then reacting, in all aspects of the job.

      One of the biggest fallacies with an article like this is that, similar to the presentations at Interaction 10, is that it “preaches to the choir.” Of *course* we should practice responsible design, but how do we move that conversation into the public domain?

  • Glenn Gruber Reply


    I agree with your sentiment, but think you’re asking the wrong question. You can’t (and maybe you haven’t) start by asking for budget. Talk to them about what drives their compensation or objectives.

    You need to ask the business/product owners what the impact of having faster sales, higher retention rates, lower support costs would be. In all liklihood the cost of the research to help make this happen is a fraction of the benefit. On this basis, it becomes hard to argue with the logic to spend the money up front. But it’s valuable to show industry statistics on how much of an uplift is reasonably expected by having a stronger holistic design.

    It might also help (although you’ve probably already tried this) to change the conversation from a “design/style” conversation by focusing on why it’s important to understand the different users roles and how they interact with the software and therefore why tweaking the design (in some cases different roles have different views; sorry if I keep saying things you already know, but perhaps others who read comments don’t) can have big impacts in productivity, satisfaction, training costs, etc.

    Anyway, my 2 cents.

    Glenn (@ggruber66)

  • Shlomi Reply

    Hey, great piece of article you wrote, and I must say you described it beautifully.
    Still the question remains intact, I think that if one with expirience of course,
    could compromise and make the research itself last in the limits given by the clients,
    and since clients like results so much, you give them a working draft, and as the project evolves, the design can change, according to the research too.
    I think this will create a bit of a load on the designers themselves, but will product a much more wanted result.

    Btw, I could be absolutely wrong in my words, since I am not familiar enough with this world yet.

  • Ryan Moore Reply

    Getting a client on the same page in terms of the need to conduct this research can be simple: you need to do the research yourself and present them with some examples, some case studies, that demonstrate the difference in results between a design that has had the research invested in it and one that has not. The fact is, most business leaders are interested only in results. They’ve come to you with a product to sell. They most likely believe strongly that their product is already very marketable, and that it addresses the needs of their customers. As you said, they see design as the pretty sticker on top. When you can show them that, for example, Company A invested in the research and showed a 150% return on investment as opposed to Company B who didn’t and only saw a 60% return on investment, then you’ve armed your client with a figure to easily weigh against the cost of your services. The smart ones (the clients you really want) will spend the money if they can be assured it’s an intelligent business decision. I’ve been on both sides of the fence in matters like this and this was our concern when I was the client: the agency we approached could not give us any kind of factual data to assess, and we ended up with a lot of marketing fluff and buzzwords that did little to assure the board that the investment was a sound one. Hence our answer was: “We don’t have the budget for that” (sound familiar?). We had the money for it, but didn’t see the value in what the agency presented to us.
    My two cents.

  • Scotty Reply

    Just to speak up for the true graphic and web designers that add their skills to the mix. That great definition of design fits us too. The design has to do a job.

    Any designer who just puts a ‘pretty face on top of a product’ without making the product do or deliver what it should then it is a fail.

    However we have the same problem. Clients all too often fall for good looks and miss entirely that it’s not working. It looks great though – it must be good.

  • Scotty Reply

    Had to add this. Good designers are on a hiding to nothing. If you do a really good job then the user enjoys the product, understands the product, gets what is supposed to be delivered by the product, leaves satisfied. Only rarely ever does a user think. “Wow whoever put that together and made it so satisfying without even the smallest stumbling block deserves a medal.” No such luck. Only when it is bad or so shiny and bright that it hurts does anybody but other designers notice the work.

    As it should be. But it makes it hard to promote good design to non designers.

  • Matt Clark Reply

    Good article. The key issues have been caught in the comments already – clients shrink from a word like “research” in the same way as they intrinsically distrust the word “consultancy”. Which, as Ryan outlines, makes value a cornerstone of these kinds of discussions. I’m not sure I share Ryan’s optimism about the ease with which case studies and third-party perspectives can be gathered and used provide speak-for-themselves £$€ arguments. Projects A and B will need to share many variables in order for the comparison to really convince the ultra-rational negotiator on the other side of the table, whose budget contingency you’re eyeing up for additional UCD workstreams. But it’s clearly something that forward-thinking agencies work to develop over time (the rather enjoyable irony being that every client who doesn’t buy gets turned into a “don’t become this guy” example for the next attempt to sell the same thing).

    Beyond the bang-for-buck argument, I also think an equally valuable (although undeniably less tangible) capability is to be able to articulate the praxis as clearly as possible. I’ve seen loads of “UCD – what we do” decks that amount to little more than a loosely associated set of general principles that pretty much any other similar proposal would also contain. Clients need to be given something to buy – tasks, deliverables, standard outcomes, known incrementals of knowledge or insight that accrue from any of the typical UCD practices and processes. Tangible starts with “what will you do?”, rather than “how much will it cost?”.

  • Kerstin Reply

    I agree most just want the pretty sticker and have very little desire to invest in any research. Worse yet is when a client comes with a firm design they came up with, as 9 times out of 10 they haven’t considered the usability of the site or done any research as to what visitors are looking for in a site related to thier industry.

  • Avangelist Reply

    To not work based on budget is to not work at all.

    In a utopian society yes, we could ask clients for what their goal is and convince them that investing everything will achieve it, but the reality is that people with money don’t care. They simply don’t care. Unless it is a business objective they will never look at anything other than the number of zero’s on the page.

  • Ronald Northrip Reply

    Listen, I love the article, but I think that a key part of this commonly encountered problem is an engagement issue.

    It starts with this:
    making things work for themselves or their superiors within a specific time frame

    And this is where you need to engage your client more fully. What are the goals to be achieved by this endeavor. You need to go up the management chain until you get a real answer – with a real metric. Keep going until someone says something like “We want to increase sales through the web channel by X%” or “We need to double our advertising click-through rate”. Unless and until you hear that you will not be successful. No amount of attention to the user can compensate for a missing goal.

    Now once you have a person talking to you about goals you can then address the issue in this article. Point out how connecting with users early can lead to unexpected (and less expensive, and many times much faster) ways to get to that goal. Anyone in management who has a real fiscal goal will surely brighten when you tell them that there might be a shortcut to get to their goal, and wouldn’t they leap at the opportunity to spend an hour to save 10, 20, or even hundreds.

    If you can’t get to that kind of goal, a real fiscal measurable goal, and you can’t go any further up the management chain then I’d suggest you do one of two things: 1. Don’t take the gig (because you’ll never be able to make them truly happy); or 2. Take the gig and charge hourly (as large a fee as you can – document carefully and completely) and accommodate them with the full understand that this project will be driven by whim and whimsy

  • Lis Hubert Reply

    Great article! So glad I got to read it. I’ve found that asking for a budget is very helpful because your research can always be flexible. Also, I’ve found once I start research and show management what we get out of it (esp in the startup world) they get hooked and just want to know more.

Leave a Comment on This Article