You’ve definitely heard the term “user-friendly” before. In working to provide “user friendliness,” an engineer tries to make the product work exactly as an end user thinks it should. Being user-friendly means a product should require minimal or no training (i.e., not needing to refer to how-to manuals). Take today’s cell phones, for example. Most users simply pick up the device and start using it.
“User-friendly” often relates to software. Easy installation, updates, and removal of software are just the first steps. Beyond that, a product must operate efficiently and work seamlessly with relevant structures and subsystems. Users (assuming they are human) are strong visual learners. This has led to the development of graphical user interfaces, called GUIs, and human machine interfaces, called HMIs. Images are a large component of guiding the users to what they should do without using a guidebook.
Obtaining quantitative data on how users think a product should work is possible with research. It can be more difficult to move beyond user friendliness to satisfy an emerging demand called human-centric-design (HCD). In addition to designing toward how an end-user will use devices, engineers must now think about how that device will engage the user. Designing to engage or evoke a response from a user sounds difficult. How do you obtain quantitative data from a human interaction or reaction?
Companies have been heralding human-centric design for marketing purposes to make users feel that new devices can help them be better versions of themselves in various ways. “At the core, the consumer is always the hero, while the product is merely a prop in the background helping to bring the customer closer to his or her dreams, desires and demands,” says Srini Pallia, president, consumer business, Wipro. “To execute this effectively, it requires a deep understanding of human psychology, aspirations, motivations, and the ability to predict even the most irrational decision-making patterns and leverage them.”
If engineering is about problem-solving with tools and machines, HCD is trying to solve problems through customer-centered, empathetic, engineered products. Either way, designing for HCD or user-friendliness, products are judged on results. If the product isn’t customized to them or easy for users to pick up and start using right away, the product might fail. This makes designing today more about social engagement than I ever imagined while I was in engineering school.
Pallia adds, “Practitioners of human-centric design must put themselves in the customer’s shoes first. This means eliminating biases, getting rid of pre-conceived notions, ignoring past successes and failures, and starting afresh each time not on a journey from Point A to Point B, but on an exploration of what lies ahead. Have you experienced a product that was so compelling you had to buy? How have you applied human-centric design in your work and life? Has it been a journey with an end-point, an exploratory endeavor, or a process of continuous iteration?”
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