It Takes a Team to do User-Centered Design

It takes a team to do user-centered design because there are many touch-points between a product or service and a user. For example, for a product, there are the following touch-points:

  • the discovery of the product
  • the buying experience
  • the packaging experience
  • the use of the product
  • the support for use of the product
  • the sharing of the product experience with others
  • the maintenance of the product, and
  • the disposal of the product.

From the perspective of the organization producing the product, there are different disciplines involved in each of these different touch-points. For example, marketing is involved in promoting discovery of the product while customer service is involved with supporting the use of the product. Therefore, for a consistent user experience, the different disciplines involved from the organization need to collaborate on the overall branding strategy for the product. A well-branded and pleasing user experience with your product or service is possible with the kind of collaboration needed to achieve true user-centered design.

A well-branded and pleasing user experience with your product or service is possible with the kind of collaboration needed to achieve true user-centered design.

Valerie Patrick

This post is about how different perspectives on design can inform approaches to collaboration. Design has significant impact on the user experience – good or bad. Design has traditionally been separated from the user in different ways. In the case of product/service innovation, design’s impact on the user experience was very limited because designers were typically not brought in until the end of the development. In the case of buildings, design typically happened without the user present. To connect design with the user in both these examples means new types of collaboration for designers.

This blog post was inspired by Fulcrum Connection’s Science of Success podcast interview with integrative design practitioner Leslie Billhymer (sign up for Fulcrum Connection’s Quadrant II Newsletter at to find out when and where podcasts will be posted). This post describes two approaches to user-centered design: integrative design to improve the energy performance of buildings and design thinking for development of products and services. This post compares and contrasts these two approaches to user-centered design. As a result, three insights for collaboration are proposed.

First, this post describes two forms of user-centered design: integrative design and design thinking.

Integrative design is a subset of integrated design specific to the building industry. Integrative design follows two basic principles. The first principle is to consider the building from a holistic systems perspective. With this principle, the focus is on the interactions between the building systems and elements rather than on the discrete systems and elements of the building. The second principle is to consider the entire life-cycle of work needed to implement the design and operate the building. With this principle, equal emphasis is placed on the ongoing maintenance and operations of the building as on the discrete activities of design, commissioning, and constructing. This means that users of the building need to be involved in the design phase. The integrative design approach for buildings is like the sustainability approach for organizations. Organizations practicing sustainability in a credible way understand that the organization needs to consider the system impacts of their operations, business decisions, and activities. In addition, these organizations understand the need to place equal importance on the impact of their discrete operations-decisions-activities and on the impact to ongoing natural and societal eco-systems. The challenges and impacts of integrative design are also similar to sustainability. Practicing integrated design for a building or sustainability for an organization means larger first costs because you are involving a broader range of stakeholders up front. However, the costs are viewed as an investment that will have adequate payback because it is believed that the system approach will lead to higher benefits then without the system approach. Because the benefits are in the future and the benefits derive from a systems view, it is hard to estimate the return on investment. It takes a strategic leader to place smart bets on systems approaches.

Design thinking has been described in terms of the following five characteristics by design firm IDEO (IDEO_HBR_Design_Thinking.pdf):

  • Empathy: design thinkers take a “people first” view of the world from multiple perspectives to see things others do not see in terms of needs and desires
  • Integrative Thinking: design thinkers factor in both the salient points and contradictory points of a problem as a source of new solutions that go beyond existing alternatives
  • Optimism: design thinkers believe that no matter how challenging the constraints of a given problem there exists at least one new potential solution beyond the existing alternatives
  • Experimentalism: design thinkers pose questions and explore constraints in ways that unveil entirely new directions of thought towards the problem
  • Collaboration: design thinkers not only partner with people from other disciplines but typically have experience in more than one discipline

The characteristic of empathy is how the user is included as part of the product or service development process. IDEO describes their design process as passing through the three “spaces” of inspiration, ideation, and implementation. The inspiration space is about identifying the circumstances that motivates the search for solutions. It is in the inspiration space that observing and understanding the key users and stakeholders for the product or service is undertaken. The ideation space is about generating, developing, and prototyping ideas that may lead to solutions to needs uncovered in the inspiration phase. The implementation space is about charting the path to get the solution to market.

Another but similar approach to design thinking is described by academicians in Design of Things to Come ( and Creating Breakthrough Products ( In this approach, social, economic, and technical trends are considered relevant to the market or product/service category of interest. Product/service opportunities are then identified based on the gaps between the identified trends and the current “as is” situation. Stakeholder analysis is performed for the most interesting opportunities identified to further refine the opportunities. Personas and scenarios are then created to refine the opportunities further. A value opportunities assessment is also conducted to assess the more qualitative aspects of the opportunities from the user and key stakeholder perspectives. Prototyping and identifying the path to market are also part of this approach to design thinking.

Finally, Roger Martin at Rotman School of Management describes the difference between how designers think and how business managers thinks in terms of the concepts of reliability and validity (Roger Martin at Rotman). Martin describes reliability as the production of output over and over again that is substantiated based on past data. Martin further explains that to get reliability one needs to focus on relatively few variables that are measurable and have no bias. In contrast, Martin describes validity as the production of output that meets the objective and that can only be substantiated based on future events. Martin further explains that to get validity one needs to both entertain a broad range of variables that are not all measurable and to apply judgment with the understanding that there is some bias present. Martin claims that designers tend to be more validity-oriented while corporate managers tend to be more reliability-oriented. Martin provides recommendations to help designers and business managers work better together given these orientations. Martin also points out that the most successful designers and business managers have a healthy mix of validity-orientation and reliability-orientation. Martin also describes the knowledge accumulation continuum that accompanies the journey from validity thinking to reliability thinking.

Design Thinking IFVP Jul2012 Conference LloydDangle

Picture taken by Lloyd Dangle at the International Forum for Visual Practitioners July 2012 Conference

Second, this post compares and contrasts these two forms of user-centered design. Both integrative design and design thinking are a more holistic approach to design than the approaches that preceded them. When you take a holistic approach, you enable emergent creativity. A holistic approach also means you need to involve the different people who understand the different parts of the whole. When you involve different people, you need to manage the differences well so as not to shut down creativity. This is tricky business because if it is not managed well you will have a worse result than a more tactical approach. A holistic approach to design is a strategic approach because it is forward-looking, and only a strategic approach can produce dramatic new value. A second similarity is that both successful design thinkers and integrative designers apply the five characteristics described above for design thinkers.

There are also two key ways that integrative design and design thinking are different. One difference is that design thinking applies to product and service development while integrative design applies to buildings. A second difference is how the role of the designer has evolved. Historically for design thinking, designers were brought in late in the innovation process. At this late stage, designers were not able to incorporate the user perspective into the design of the product or service. At this late stage, designers focused on creating desire for the product which would be very difficult if the product was not really what users needed. In contrast, historically for integrative design, designers were left out of the later stages of the innovation process. These later stages for a building are operations and maintenance. Leaving out operations and maintenance from the design meant leaving out the user perspective.

Third, this post has arrived at three insights for collaboration as a result of comparing and contrasting the integrative design and design thinking approaches to user-centered design.

First, a new lens for collaboration is to distinguish between what requires reliability-orientation and what could benefit from validity-orientation. Within each business process for an organization are elements that demand reliability and elements that could be improved through validity thinking. Take the business processes for customer service as an example. Order fulfillment for profitable customers demands reliability. However, order fulfillment for unprofitable customers could benefit from validity thinking. There may be an opportunity to improve business by thinking differently about the order fulfillment process for unprofitable customers. As another example, take the business processes for innovation. The front-end of innovation is more about validity while commercialization of a product or service is more about reliability. It might be argued that the entire product development process up until commercialization is more about validity then reliability thinking. Commercialization likely needs to be managed as a journey from more validity-oriented thinking to more reliability-oriented thinking. The reliability-oriented elements become boundary conditions and context for the collaboration. The validity-oriented elements become the focus for creativity and smart risk-taking in the collaboration.

Second, another new lens for collaboration is to understand where you are on the knowledge accumulation continuum. At one end of the continuum is mystery such as a newly discovered tension. An example of a mystery would be the following: how to have a good quality of life on earth without destroying it? Addressing mysteries requires the highest levels of creativity. The goal at the mystery stage is to get some ways to think about the tension. The next step along the knowledge accumulation continuum is a heuristic or a way of thinking about a tension. The goal at this stage is to validate that the heuristic will lead to ways to address the tension and create additional perspectives as needed to increase understanding so that ways to handle the tension can be developed. The next step along the knowledge accumulation continuum is an algorithm or way to address the tension. The goal at this stage is to increase understanding enough to generate a problem statement that leads to possible solutions to the tension. The final step along the knowledge accumulation continuum is implementing a scale-able solution to the tension.

Third, good preparation is needed in order to have a productive collaboration. Preparation is the recognition that things have to happen outside the collaboration to support the collaboration – both before and during or in-between. Validity orientation is inherently collaborative because of the need to incorporate lots of variables not all of which are measurable and the need to acknowledge the presence of bias. However, some due diligence may be needed to identify variables. Proper preparation for collaboration will insure that expertise to account for all relevant variables is present. Furthermore, collaboration when managed well can help identify and manage bias. The five principles of design thinking can also be incorporated into the preparation for and facilitation of the collaboration. Like facilitation, the design process has a set of tools to apply but flexibility is needed to adapt the process to follow where the participants take the collaboration. Collaboration at its best is emergent so the collaboration process needs to be emergent as well. Finally, the design process is user-centered. Therefore, user information needs to be part of the collaboration process. User information is best gathered in person through observation and interaction with users whether it is needs identification or testing of prototypes. User observation and interaction happen outside the collaboration and feed into the collaboration.

Collaboration at its best is emergent so the collaboration process needs to be emergent as well.

Valerie Patrick

Try these collaboration insights the next time you are stuck on a tough challenge. Maybe the right approach to collaboration can help you out! If you need help, then contact collaboration expert Valerie Patrick to schedule a free 30-minute consultation.

Fulcrum Connection LLC solves collaboration problems for organizations. For example, Fulcrum helps organizations improve teamwork, social intelligence, creativity, learning, and innovation using structured processes and proven tools. Sign up for Fulcrum Connection’s Quadrant II newsletter to receive a free white paper on five ways to improve creativity for innovation ( and stay up-to-date on Fulcrum Connection’s blog posts and podcasts. To learn more, please contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or Also ask about our first-time client offer.