Henry Ford is famously (mis)quoted as saying, “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have just said faster horses.”
In a tidy nutshell, this quote represents the defining difference between user driven design (UDD) and user centered design (UCD).
It’s common for designers of all sorts (advertising, brand, creative, software, web, experience) to fall back on assumptions about their users. It’s also sadly common to make key decisions based on these assumptions, often masked as “best practices”. Pardon my french, but that’s lazy.
What is often referred to as “best” practice, I would like to assert, is merely common practice. And they would be right; there are many design errors repeated in the marketplace that would make these things appear to be best practice.
Asking the users what they want would produce a partnership of users driving the marketplace. Instead, we need to truly understand their pains and problems and use our expertise to solve the root cause rather than blindly trying to address the symptoms. Users are often unaware of the root cause so they may not have the wherewithal to know how to best solve it. Their preferences are a matter of psychology and so they may have no idea how design influences the choices they make every single day.
Showing things to a whole kitchen of cooks so they can state their preferences isn’t helpful.
What IS helpful is when those cooks know how to give feedback constructively with statements like “this works because” or “this doesn’t work because”. Then, we’re able to better understand the biases that may be at play in the suggestions and, even more, understand the NEED behind the feedback. If a tester can’t see the words on a design because of poor contrast, then we need to know that because they won’t be the only one.
We need to make choices based on what’s both best for the user and meeting the business goals. In my role, that will often look like me making suggestions around a design that may change the aesthetic, but these suggestions are always rooted in my understanding of what the business needs in order to influence the choices of the audience. This is why design-for-evil is so evil. Through design, we have the ability to guide the choices people make with their money, their health, their children, their voting, and so much more.
How do we know what works? We test. We show different audiences different versions and analyze the data to pivot more toward what works and away from what doesn’t. Here’s an example of how I did that to test a hypothesis about the use of block caps in direct response ads.
This practice is also good for business because we begin to build a knowledge base that can become proprietary and give us an upper hand while competitors are busy just making things look pretty and throwing different things at the wall to see what sticks.
In short, we can use laws of design, solid creative, and curiosity about the audience to better connect them with what they actually need and give the business a great advantage.