26 July 2012
What is User-Centred Design and why should I care about it?
I've been working with publishers for many years, and one issue that comes up again and again is that the workflows and approach to projects are very, very different for digital - yet publishers are increasingly having to straddle both worlds. With the advent of 'app books', and the widespread adoption of e-reading devices, publishing 'books' can become more like creating software. Where does the line come between them? And how can publishers learn to navigate it?
Publishing is changing, and people who work in publishing can often feel bewildered by the jargon of digital, and unsure whether they'll get a return on investment for an unfamiliar product. They often have to learn to work with software companies, or develop digital publishing teams within their own organisations - and in both of these scenarios it's key that they know the difference between good and bad digital production, and how to handle issues that might arise.
User-centred design (UCD) provides many useful tools for developing and managing these kinds of products. It also helps to create a bridge between traditional and digital publishing. Publishers know their audience, their markets and what they want to communicate: it's a question of giving them the skills to do that in multiple formats. It's about a holistic approach that allows them to create lots of parallel publishing streams, and content that works for the audience no matter what format it's delivered in. It was these kinds of questions that gave the impetus for creating the new Developing Digital Products with User-Centred Design course.
So, what does user-centred design offer? What kinds of tools and practices are relevant to traditional publishers? Well, user-centred design starts (unsurprisingly) with the user. First it seeks to understand the target customer through profiling and mapping the user's wants and needs; and not just in the immediate term, but their ongoing relationship with the product over time. At each stage of the product development, from initial concept development, through to prototyping, implementation and launch, the product will be tested with the target audience, and their feedback on usability, content and price point translated back into the process to make the product better.
A key part of UCD is mapping and communicating how the product will work. Specifications tend to be visual and wireframe based, rather than long text documents, and focus on how the user interacts with the product. UCD is a highly iterative process, so documentation has to be fast and easy to produce, and clear enough that multiple teams can work from it (often simultaneously).
One frequent attribute of UCD projects is parallel development of many different work streams. For example, content mark-up is likely to be happening at the same time as interface design and the development framework for the project. Most publishers tend to work within the traditional 'waterfall' approach to project management, where tasks are carried out sequentially and projects have a long life. So one of the things we'll be focussing on is 'agile' development, and how that can work with traditional publishing work streams.
And of course, once the product has got to market, how do you then maintain it? What does the lifecycle of a digital product look like, compared to that of a print product? Again, UCD can help with this - as the detailed understanding of how customers interact with the product, and how their own lives are structured can help publishers to create compelling digital content, within an affordable and sustainable framework.
The new course, Developing Digital Products with User-Centred Design, will be launching on 1-2 October 2012.