Explaining Water to Fish

Seems like user-centered design just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

We’re told that user-centered design is limiting and we need to look beyond it. It’s just not good enough, because it doesn’t consider all the variables involved. Jared Spool tells us that user-centered design never worked. Even Donald Norman weighs in to discuss ways that human-centered design may be considered harmful.

It is right and good that designers evaluate and critique the process we follow. User-centered design as a methodology has limitations, which have been clearly articulated by these masters of our craft. Activity-centered design or even self-centered design are equally valid processes to follow, under the right circumstances.

I’m compelled to take a moment and remind everyone that the real benefit of user-centered design isn’t the specific points of the process and methodology. User-centered design is a transformative values system because it is user-centered. The idea that we—all of us, an entire gazillion dollar industry—are focused on designing and making products for other people to interact with is so mind-bogglingly huge, we don’t even notice it.

That we focus on users is unquestionable. It is so fundamental it almost doesn’t bear talking about. We take it for granted because it’s the water we swim in, like the fish in this anecdote from David Foster Wallace:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”… The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.


Being user-centered is the most obvious, ubiquitous, important reality of our industry. Which means we lose sight of how much our work really means.

Sure, businesses have always cared about their customers. But in a mass-media, broadcast world, communication only went one way. With only three channels to choose from, TV shows didn’t have to be that good. With one newspaper controlling the distribution network for an entire city, people couldn’t get the news from anywhere else. Once they bought the book, what difference did it make if they liked it?

Even if you made a product for people to use, what did it matter if they found it usable? Sure, you might get a few typewritten letters about your clock radio or frustrated calls to customer service about your microwave, but the customer had already paid up.

The verbs we use to describe what people do with our work—use, navigate, interact—all underscore the power, the agency, that sits in the user’s hands. The value of the web, of social, of mobile, all rests on the foundation that the work we do requires the active participation of the audience, and that the value of our work is only measured through their engagement.

[W]e are witnessing the birth of a whole new world. The digital revolution is, in fact, changing things far more dramatically than the hype-mongers of tech Internet ever imagined—only not in the way that they and their investors hoped. The move from a society dominated by print and broadcast mass media to the age of interactivity is at least as dramatic as the move from feudalism to capitalism.


It is easy to lose sight of how different our world is from the world of just a decade or two ago. Businesses cannot treat their customers as passive “consumers” any longer; every company is in the user experience business. User-centered design is more than a methodology. It is a values system that has changed the very water we swim in.

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