Arguing for LESS user-friendly futures: using design-led research to guide desirable design outcomes

Michael Gibson
09 Sep 2020
2:00 pm - 2:45 pm CDT

Arguing for LESS user-friendly futures: using design-led research to guide desirable design outcomes

We’re now living in a time when the ease-of-use, or “user-friendliness,” of the feature sets that operationalize most of the interactions that transpire across our favorite apps and websites are so well-designed that most of those who use them don’t have to think too deeply about how they work, or how they do what they do so efficiently and effectively. Because these users—who are also commonly referred to by people outside design classrooms and consultancies as folks, families, populations, societies, and communities—don’t have to think too much or too deeply about how the smart technologies they use help them engage in various aspects of their daily lives, they also aren’t being challenged to think too much or too deeply about why they’re engaging in specific behaviors in the ways that they are. The relative ease with which we can click, scroll and swipe to purchase manufactured goods and procure services masks many of the complex, interdependent and economically and environmentally unsustainable workings of our consumerist cultures (please note the plural…). Even in the midst of a global pandemic, and the deep class-based, racial, and ethnic-divisions it has helped lay bare across the world, our ability to purchase and consume items other than hand sanitizer, bleach, and personal protective equipment was and still is largely uninhibited.

The purpose of this presentation is to provide a kind of stop-and-think-and-act-differently moment for those who attend it. This is especially true in terms of how the often one-size-fits-all research processes taught in many academic UX and IX design programs and practiced in many professional UX and IX design settings fuels so many “how-rather-than-why” approaches to designing. So-called “well-designed, interactive experiences,” whether they’re manifest as apps, products, or online services, aren’t supposed to challenge their users’ assumptions. Rather, in most cases, well-designed interactive experiences are supposed to reinforce them, to create the feeling among those who use them that their essential functionalities shouldn’t and couldn’t function any other way, that their operations were and are inevitable.

The more that the research approaches and methods that guide UX and IX design decision-making fail to identify, much less account for, potential conflicts among the values and belief systems of project stakeholders (i.e. clients AND users AND those that their decision-making affects), the greater the negative social, economic, environmental and political affects across our world will be. User-friendly functions and features, and the often narrowly framed definitions that guide both what counts as the research and evidence that guide and perpetuate them, tend to prevent high-level desires in and around these areas to be contemplated, much less actuated. This presentation will critically examine this state of affairs and the breadth of its reach, and offer some ways to think differently about how we might teach and engage in evidence-based design research.