Not User Centric Design, Not Activity Centered Design, but Situational Centered Design

by heru on February 28, 2011

Reading the new edition of “Designing the Obvious” by Robert Hoekman, Jr has certainly led to many new insights about creating user interfaces.

Many of us have come to know the terms of “user centric design” (UCD). In UCD, designs are based on research on users. While these designs might create great designs, this approach presents a few fallbacks:

  1. It takes a lot of time to perform a deep research on user’s behavior.
    Unfortunately, nowadays, it is not possible to perform a deep research because a project’s timespan is becoming shorter and shorter.
  2. UCD uses a few personas to judge on how the design is going to look like.
    Persona descriptions are too broad. Several aspects of them might throw you off track rather than putting you on track.
  3. Focusing on individual people (persona) might improve the things for them BUT at the cost of making worse for others.

So, what can we do? Activity centered design (ACD) – focused on the activities instead on the users. After all, what we are looking for in developing a design is what the people are doing and not who they are.

ACD in itself is also not particularly right because it is too self-focused on the activity without taking regards of the user.

While UCD is too general, ACD is too narrow. UCD looks too much at a person while ACD looks too little.

The other approach is Situation Centered Design (SCD). The applications we design are solutions to problems. Problems are situational. People are not. APplication design should start where situations can be aided by software. It’s situation-centered. And, if situations are the 5Ws, then the applicaiton is the H.

So, how can we do a SCD?

  1. Self-design by immersing yourself in the situation.
    Immerse yourself in the situation. Put yourself in the situation.
    Ask yourself what kind of information you need for you to solve your current problems, where can you get them, why do you need them, who are affected, and when you need them.
    Adjust your app so that your app will be the “how” of the above answers.
    For instance, if you are on a weekend night and you are starving, what will you do? You will grab your phone and..
    - What you are looking for? Food, restaurants, cafe, etc.
    - What are the price? Cheap, expensive?
    - Where can I find them? Where are the locations of the restaurants.
    - Why should I choose this particular restaurant? Rating and reviews from other people!
    - When do I need them? Do these restaurants open at these hours?
    Then, the how?
    How can your app integrate them so that users can easily find the answers what they are looking for.
  2. Other way is by observing other people.
    The observation has to be  done to people who HAVE BEEN in the situation. Remember, it is situation-centric and not user-centric.

#2 might take awhile to complete but it might give you a more complete understanding on how the situation is. However, doing #1 might be good enough.





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  • Adrià Garcia i Mateu

    Hi Heru! 

    Great post! I am product designer researching about Product Service System early design stages and following Checkland approach on Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) I came out with the same conclusion that you sketch in this post, Situational Centered Design.

    From my perspective, focusing on the ‘problematical situation’ as proposed by SSM it allows to search for more perspectives to the understanding and the future prespection of a solution for the problematical situation. 

    Is the approach that you shown outlined in the book of ‘Designing the Obvious’?

    You can check out my blog:

    Best regards!

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