Douglas Pyle

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Douglas Pyle is "user experienced". Over the last 12 years he has led UX for web and hardware products, both in the US and Asia, at companies such as Google and Microsoft. He is also an Affiliate Faculty and board member in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington

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Pyle, Douglas, Giff, Stephen (2003): Nonresponse Bias of Non-Native Speakers in Web-Based Research. In: Stephanidis, Constantine (eds.) International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction HCII June 22-27, 2003, Crete, Greece.

Pyle, Douglas

8.8 Commentary by Douglas Pyle

Contextual Design is about as close to the customer as you can get.

And for many companies customers are a smelly and scary lot: They talk too much (or not enough), say crazy stuff, and definitely slow things down. The all-too-human side of human factors can be messy, hard, and delay gratification. And by the time we ship the product it’s hard to remember how we got here.

With Contextual Design for Agile and stronger UX mindshare across industries, we've gotten over most of these fears now, but they come in new flavors. Today it's scary because if we don’t retain control of the innovation process, customers might tell us to build the wrong thing, or worse, build something prosaic/pedestrian.

And we know better than the customer. At least that's what Steve Jobs would say: "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."1 Let’s assume that rather than simply the “masses are asses”, he means that customers are not good at articulating what they need, which is also a core tenet of Contextual Design. But Jobs implies that first we need something to show users, which would make it mostly conceived and built before customers are involved.

This recent push toward design-led innovation is accompanied by the notion that anything that slows down or pollutes our game-changing design vision is at least extraneous, and at worst severely detrimental to our success in the market.
At the core of this debate2 seems to be the question of locus of innovation: Where will we find this elusive breakthrough? In the customer realm or from the visionary minds within our company? But there is no doubt that the design vision has to come from the company, and any UCD practitioner would tell you that you can’t ask customers what the vNext should be. That takes strategy and vision.

IDEO’s Tim Brown paints a picture of Design Thinking as a path to product success, and this thinking should gather inspiration from everywhere--including the customer3. But Jane Fulton Suri takes it a step further, saying: “Radical innovation requires both evidence and intuition: evidence to become informed, and intuition to inspire us in imagining and creating new and better possibilities.”4

This is refreshing to hear because although technology has always been transformative, there was a slight naivety to it in the past: products were built to meet a customer need that could usually be articulated, and research methods were very much an exercise in simple requirements and feedback gathering: “What do you want?” and “how are we doing?” Then technology strategy grew to focus on unmet or latent needs, and methods emerged to go a little deeper: site visits to gather requirements and usability studies to see how we were doing.

Now the fish are bigger, and the stakes are higher. The expectation at the outset of new concept development is that the resultant products will actively transform the way people live, and will become their new habit. To be the “architects of the new reality”, we need to be thinking much further ahead than where our customers typically focus--in minutiae of their daily lives. As Johan Redstrom would say, we are now trying to design our users5. But here is the rub: the minutiae of daily human behaviors and life is the only place we will find the seeds of innovation--in those daily experience gaps and latent desires.

Great designers can accomplish much in a design centric company and might even have some big wins. But if the design thinking is not based in deep knowledge of people’s lives and context, it will be hard to make products succeed in a repeatable way. Would Amazon attribute the success of the Kindle to their great innovation process, or a great idea with surreptitious market factors?6

Newer methods like the design probes used by Philips7 and Frog, and Richard Zaltman’s deep metaphor analysis8, are attempts to get at these critically competitive morsels: intents, desires, drivers, habits, and practices. Unfortunately many of these methods are not conducted in situ, like Contextual Design.

And when I talk to design researchers at companies like Frog, IDEO, Artefact, or other big thinking consultancies, they are hanging out with the customer. They are living with the customer. They are there not just there to get inspired, or to validate, but to learn something about humans.

People have been studying humans for years, and it takes structure to make sense of the complex interactions and environments in which we live. This is where Contextual Design excels, imbuing the insights with a structure that grounds them, lets them communicate quickly, and helps them live on to inform Big Thing v2.

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