Users are not the centre of design. It might make you feel like going back to 90s when there’s no such a thing called user experience. You didn’t get it wrong. Users are crucial for design, but they are not THE most important, at least not THE only important part.
Let me begin with the role of a firm. Why does a firm exist? In 1937, Ronald Coase wrote an essay “The Nature of the Firm”, which was awarded him the Nobel prize for economics. In that essay, Coase explained that firms exist because they reduce the transaction costs that emerge during production and exchange, capturing efficiencies that individuals cannot. For example, why does Google exist? Because Google reduces the costs of people obtaining information. Compared with asking someone or looking up in newspaper or books, there are only need a few clicks required to reach the information.
If a firm exists to reduce the transaction costs of society, here comes another question, why do many firms exist? Is it possible that only one firm exists? That’s what happened to China in the planned economy era when we found out that the transaction costs of society significantly increased rather than decreased. Why? Because the transaction costs are not only external but also internal. Coase concluded that the internal transaction costs increase when a firm expands. As long as internal transaction costs exceed external ones for the same kind of exchange, a firm stops expanding.
Therefore, as long as a firm exists, it has to face a challenge - minimise both external and internal transaction costs. It also means that the role of each function in a firm can be summarised as either minimising external transaction costs or minimising internal transaction costs.
As for design, to reduce external transaction costs, we research to understand users and design solutions to meet their needs. In this case, users are indeed the centre. However, to minimise internal transaction costs, the organisation is the centre. To make sure design is excusable, aligns with the expectations of the organisation, we facilitate the stakeholders’ decision-making process, influence and motivate the teams. (To some extent, it can also explain why Product Designer role emerges and becomes more and more popular, as it reduces the collaboration costs between roles.)
However, based on my experience, regardless of experience, many designers don’t realise the importance of their roles in reducing internal transaction costs. It shouldn’t be something owned by a manager or team lead, nor something you can avoid by going to an early-stage startup. The more complex and challenging problems you try to solve, the more collaboration required, the more important to balance or shit the centre from users to business and organisation. It’s an essential part of design.
Hence, for designers, we also need to develop the business and organisation mindset. Some tips I would like to share:
- Identify the stakeholders you need to engage as early as possible.
- Try to collect information about the organisation’s priorities, constraints, risks and concerns. Also, adjust the design approach accordingly.
- Get a sense the stakeholders’ interests in the project and their benefits or sufferings from the success or failure of your work
- Collaborate, facilitate and nudge the design with the stakeholders. Better ideas are usually generated in a collaborative environment.
- Evaluate the costs required for changes. We are living in a world full of bad designs, and they exist not because no one has better ideas or no one cares. Instead, they probably are the most rational and affordable solutions for now.