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Are We Really Putting Users in Focus?

By Jasper, 05. December 2014

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Everyone Claims to be User Centred

Having visited my fair share of exhibitions, fairs and conventions, I always hope that if nothing else I will leave with an insight about that specific sector that I didn’t have before. Well this time, I have returned from the Xiamen International Design Business Week – Red Dot in China and I have made a peculiar observation that hadn’t been clear to me before. While I spent most of my time with my colleagues, manning a small booth set up for WILDDESIGN, I had the pleasure of joining the Xiamen International Design Business Week – Red Dot in China – Forum, (a real mouth full I know) the topic of which was “The role of branding in design”. As a brand enthusiast by nature and brand director by trade I went to the forum with high hopes of watching my product design counterparts make a compelling case for branding in the world of product design. It disappoints me to report that there is a lot of work to do in this area and that the link between, what are two so closely related fields, is tenuous at best and in most case poorly understood or appreciated. However I must confess that somehow deep down I had already expected this and so it came as no big surprise. No, not this was what got my mind wandering during the hours spent watching one company presentation after another. A far more interesting insight was gathered. Why do product design companies insist on showing products on clinical white backgrounds?

You might ask yourself two questions at this point. First being why this is a big deal? And what the hell is this guy writing about? Well to fully understand where I am coming from I should perhaps give a little context. As I mentioned before I am a brand enthusiast. This enthusiasm or perhaps even love stretches well beyond branding itself and occupies the related areas of advertising, packaging and all things marketing. If I was to radically simplify my (or our) job it is to say that we try to make things more compelling. This relates to a consumable product or for example the design services our company provides to its clients. The second bit of context that I would like to point out is perhaps a more important one and relates to the fact that, out of the company presentations viewed, nearly all claimed to be either; user centred, human centred or homo-sapien centred. Ok so I added the last one but you never know what will be the next marketable claim agencies attempt to add to their résumé. I must also admit that WILDDESIGN too makes this claim, we see ourselves as a user centred design company and stand proudly behind this statement. In reality this is neither a surprise nor an insight, it is merely a reflection of the current state of design theory.

 

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A WILDDESIGN product design on white background.

We Have Forgotten the User

So back to the question, why do we operate around a model of user centred design if we insist on showing off our product designs without a user in sight? Well there is some arguments that come to mind immediately why this is the norm. For one some might argue that the product needs to be presented in isolation to highlight the product itself. This avoids unnecessary distractions and helps potential new comers to see only what has been designed by the company and nothing else. The second argument might be that this helps the company present its portfolio in a consistent and formal fashion. This in turn creates a more professional feel and allows the company to take ownership of the designs. While I understand the rationale for both of these points, the honest truth is I think it’s just not true. I take a more cynical view of the situation and would go as far as saying that this practice is just wrong. I’ll explain why.

The fundamental reason I object to the showing of product designs on a white background is that I believe it loses sight of what is really the most important thing in the entire design process, the user. With so many agencies creating their business strategy around the theory of user centred design it seems illogical that they would forget the user at such a critical phase of the product life cycle. Can any company that does this truly claim to be user centred? Perhaps it is important to mention that not every design agency makes this mistake and a quick Google search will return a fair share of agencies that have moved away from this practice. However that said of the agencies I have worked for or come across in my time nearly all have done this in one way or another. Sure not all have claimed to be user centred but in reality this shouldn’t matter. All design, whether it is product, packaging or communication design is created with a consumer or user in mind.

 

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The same product in context of its intended user.

Putting the User Back in the Centre

So why is this important you ask? Well the reality is that a distinct opportunity is being missed. The opportunity to show the product design in the context of a real environment, in its natural habitat, in the hands of a ‘real’ user, is an opportunity that should not be missed. Someone clever once said that “Context is everything”, and I strongly believe this to be true. Can we ever really judge the strength of a design if we do not display it in the context of a real life situation? Are we really putting the user in the centre of our focus or are we in fact putting the design and the designer in focus instead? Well currently I think we, as an industry, are guilty of self-indulging a little too much and I won’t speak for anyone else but I can say that we as a company have been making this mistake for too long now. It’s time to change, to realign and stand true to our user centred design philosophy.

Having returned to the office I have begun discussing this topic with my colleagues and so far the reaction has been positive. Perhaps it’s a mistake that has simply not been clear and an opportunity that we have overlooked. I have challenged my product design colleagues to rethink the way they present their product designs and have challenged them to put the user back in the centre. Sure it is more time consuming and difficult to photograph our designs in this way but my hope is that this will have a positive effect moving forward making it worth the effort. I hope that on the one hand it allows us to be more critical of the design we create and on the other hand I hope it allows us to market ourselves more honestly to clients. Allowing us to stand proudly behind our philosophy, demonstrating that we truly understand what we are talking about.

So what do you think? Is the simplicity and beauty of a product more important than showing it in the context of real product usage? Why not post a reply below and let me know your thoughts?

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Jasper

Jasper

Born in Germany, but raised all over the world, Jasper feels at home wherever he is at the time. Wildlife, photography and brands are his 3 great passions in life.

4 responses to “Are We Really Putting Users in Focus?”

  1. Miriam Miriam says:

    Dear Hrushikesh thank you for your comment!
    Yes, we’re also working to not forget about what it really mean to be user-oriented!

  2. hrushikesh says:

    a nice article… new way to look at user centered approach, rather than saying old things again like user need and research etc. What i think is that, “a product comes to real life only when its strings are well connected through its user, the inspiration and market.” So its always an effective communication when we put user in center while showcasing our products.
    thank you

  3. Jasper Jasper says:

    Hi Steven,

    Thanks for the comment and for taking the time to read the article. Great to hear that there are others out there who agree with this thinking. Like you say I think there is a time and a place for products displayed on white backgrounds, particularly when the product’s shape and design are under creative review. However once the product is signed off it must be given over to the realm of reality, it must be shown in it’s natural habitat, being used by the actual users in the way it was intended for by the designer.

    Thanks again and keep reading, keep commenting!

    Best regards!

  4. Hey Jasper,

    I agree with the issue you addressed in this blog. As a product designer and amateur photographer, I used to encounter similar questions during my study and work. A user-centered design is not all about demonstrating a product in a real world context. However, a picture of tangible products in user’s hands can really make a difference in branding and communicating with potential customers and market. It directly give user a sense of the product, a reference rule plus a series of questions that could help users to better understand the product. How it could be used? Where should I place it in my room? What it looks like in my hand? Do I need it? etc.

    There is no denying that a picture of product in a white clean background is useful for communication between designers during the design process. It also could be a good material for showing clients the early ideas. But for customers and general public I just feel like it’s not enough.

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