Session 11

Involving Users in the Design of Things


Environment, Technology, and Society

Exercise: Why Not Involve Users Early?


You have read four chapters of The Design of Everyday Things, which discuss how people have a hard time using seemingly simple devices and why that is, in particular how people understand the world and the devices they use. You have even seen a student presentation on how one element of design (righthandedness versus lefthandedness) can affect the usability of even the simplest devices.

You may have begun to ask yourself, "Why don't we fix this problem by...."


  1. To consider the points at which designers ought to pay attention to users during the design process.
  2. To consider the benefits and costs of involving users in the design of the devices they use.


Work in teams of three or four people based on the number in the upper right hand corner of this page.

Maybe users could help designers do a better job? If so, how and when?

A common approach to involving users is to do usability testing after a product has been designed and protoyped. A newer approach is to have users participate in the process of defining and designing the product in the first place. This is called participatory design.

  1. Draw up a list of three to five kinds of information that a user can provide to the designers to help them avoid usability problems. (Think about all the facets of users and usability that we've read about thus far in Norman's book and discussed in class.)

  2. How would you go about selecting a pool of 'users' for usability testing or participatory design? In particular, what kinds of users should be in the pool?

  3. Would you pick different kinds of people for one approach or the other? Why or why not?

  4. What benefits do designers gain by involving users in the design process?

  5. What risks do designers run by involving users in the design process?

Keep in mind that you can apply these questions to areas that you know about from your studies or from work experience.

At the End

  1. Your group submits its answers to these tasks.
  2. We will discuss some of your group's conclusions among the class.

Summary from Exercise

Consider two kinds of user: users for a general product, and users within the same company you work for.

Issues to consider for Task 1:

When you select a pool of testers or "participant designers", you don't want arbitrary diversity, but rather diversity that is representative of your target audience of users.

Involving people with skills in survey or research design can make selecting a user population much more effective. Often, product designers don't have experience or knowledge for doing that.

When selecting a set of users from within a narrow audience, such as a business unit, competitive selection often increases the participants' sense of importance, sense of ownership in the product, and their ability to serve as communicators to the audience at large.

You may want different kinds of people for participatory design than you want for usability testing. For usability testing, any representative member of the target population will do. For participatory design, you probably need a smaller set of people, maybe just one, and so the chosen have to be more well-rounded. In particular, participant-designers have to be able to introspect, communicate their thoughts, generalize outside their own experience, ...

Involving users early allows the designer to correct costly mistakes before mass-producing and marketing a product. When working with narrower audiences, participatory design can help to maximize user buy-in by letting users affect the design of the product.

Why not do it then?? Participatory design is slower and more expensive up-front. If you work with a small pool, then you risk over-designing for those users involved. When you don't take a user's suggestion, s/he can become irritated, hurting buy-in later. The corporate environment often isn't amenable to this sort of design, or even to empirical observation of users. Oftentimes, organizational politics dominate technical issues in these cases.

All this means that implementing participatory design requires astute managers with strong technical skills...

(By the way, participatory design is a "newer approach" only in the context of the last century or so, when society began to codify the knowledge required of designers and architects, creating a gulf between the users and the makers of products...)

Students Summaries

Eugene Wallingford ==== ==== October 13, 2003