What is User-Centered Systems Innovation?


Yesterday we had a business conversation with a client who is interested in improving the quality of their service delivery at the point of sale. On the face of it, this might not seem a very interesting challenge — something that a human resources or training firm should take on, and not necessarily a topic that requires design thinking or an innovation approach to tackle. But it is a large and complex product category, and the sales and support functions are tightly integrated, and as it turned out, there is no necessary clarity around what the right solution might be at the start.

As we began talking, I mentioned the earlier work we had done around aviation and air travel experiences, which tightly integrate human beings, human social and organizational systems, spaces, artifacts, and technological systems, from galleys and lavatories to emergency evacuation, floor-lighting and life-preservers. I talked about our ethnographic studies of ASHA-s and ANM-s, and our attempts not only to change their behavior by introducing new products and services, but also through better training and capacity enablement. Finally, I talked about work we had done for an Indian colour company on trying to enhance the colour knowledge and colour authority of territorial sales agents to ensure that they all used the same technical vocabulary to describe colour.

All these cases represent situations where we have used larger arc of the innovation cycle and the tools of ethnography, design analysis and user experience modeling not to necessarily create products and services designed for the end user, but rather sought to redesign the user (who may also be a service provider within a larger system).

This is, in some ways antithetical or heretical given the conventional wisdom of user-centered design, the idea that the tools and technologies we create must respond to existing human expectations. But this is a narrow definition and conception of design and of our responsibility to make the world a better place. The world we live in is not necessarily the best of all possible ones, and the new technologies and systems we create must not merely conform to the imaginations and intuitions of the present, but also challenge them, provoke them, spur them on to being and becoming more than they currently are.

When we hold users constant and seek to design for them, we work essentially in the mode of a marketplace provider. When we re-imagine the marketplace as a whole ecology, and then envision ways to refurnish that microcosm with new and imagined parts, we are involved is systems-level innovation. The approach and orientation of our thinking over the course of that effort may still be user-centered, in that we are working very closely with human behavior, but we are now also thinking about how that behavior might be modified, enhanced, made more pleasurable or more challenging, work more ethically or more meaningfully in relation to other interactants within the system. This is user-centered systems innovation.

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