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- Lisa Douglas, PhD
- Marisa Bigelow
- John Flach, PhD
Mile Two is committed to going beyond a user-centered perspective to consider the wider scope reflected in a use-centered framework. Use-centered design focuses on the user, the domain, and the interface and surveys the work domain to identify the field of possibilities or conversely, the constraints that bound the field.
Twenty-five years ago, Flach and Dominguez (1995) introduced the term “USE-Centered Design.” The goal of that article was to advocate for an expansion of the then prevailing focus on user-centered design to give more consideration to the larger context of work. The point was not to de-emphasize the role of human users or to deny the role of internal cognitive constraints, e.g., working memory capacity, mental models or expectations, but rather to consider these internal constraints relative to the functional demands and constraints associated with work domains. For example, when we are designing interfaces for a specific work domain like aviation, it was not sufficient to only understand how the minds of pilots and air traffic controllers worked—it was also important to understand how aircraft worked and the implications for managing airspaces, e.g., understanding the constraints that determined potential safe fields of travel.
For a user experience (UX) expert, the concept of use-centered design poses a challenge to broaden our perspective to consider the larger context of use. The entire world of UX tends to be user-centered: every book, every article, every blog, and even the title. We have grown to be very good at being user advocates. Through best practices, interviews, and research, we think we know what a user needs. We learn their mental models and design an interface to support those needs. But what if their mental model does not take into account new technologies and potentially better ways to complete their tasks? If we design only to what the user knows, we could miss opportunities to use new technologies in innovative ways.
This is where use-centered design comes in. Use-centered design shifts focus from current activities and standard procedures to explore the field of possibilities within a work domain. Rather than focusing on specific activity paths or routes through the workspace, e.g., one best way, a use-centered focus surveys the work domain to identify the field of possibilities or conversely, the constraints that bound this field. Thus, use-centered design takes a formative perspective—how could things be done—rather than a descriptive perspective—how things are currently done.
Note that the current procedures and mental models are included as one possibility with the broader use-centered perspective. However, by considering a range of alternative uses, new possibilities may emerge. When considering adding new technologies to solve a user’s existing problems, and not just what the user is currently familiar with, we open up a whole new world of possibilities, and risks. What if we introduce a new technology into the user’s work domain? How might that change the way the work is done? Are we introducing new complexities that require training? Are we improving how they currently work?
A use-centered approach demands consideration of the possibility that work domains may offer possibilities and risks that are not fully recognized by users. In considering this broader field of possibilities, we not only need to consider what the user does but also the environment in which they do it. By studying their environment, asking intelligent questions to subject matter experts, and considering the work domain itself, we can discover alternative interfaces that shape the user’s mental models in beneficial ways and help them discover ways to leverage new technologies to be more productive and skillful in their work.
Studying the work domain requires a comprehensive understanding of the full range of possibilities and risks associated with a work domain, not just how the user thinks work can be done. We (UX designers) were trained to study the user’s mental model and create interfaces that support that model, but what if their model is wrong? What if new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning can allow people to see and think in ways that were not possible before? This examination of the work domain will improve the overall user experience.
This shift from user to user + domain will require some work as we expand our research and learn new techniques for work domain analysis and how to ask different types of questions, which will no longer focus only on how the user currently thinks and works but also considers what other opportunities the domain has to offer. If we make this shift as user experience professionals, we will be able to better support our users by making more comprehensive interfaces that strengthen and enhance the bond users have with their work domain.
At Mile Two we frame design questions to respect both users and uses. We combine methods from UX design and cognitive systems engineering to design products that expand and shape mental models to take advantage of the full capacity offered by advanced technologies.
Reach out to see how we can apply our user-centered design approach to your next project.