The debate about the approach called User-Centred Design has rumbled back into life. How and when to use UCD is a great question to ask; it’s something that any senior practitioner should be comfortable discussing. But UX blogs and conferences have a habit of trading generalisations and principles and wondering why the same conversations happen year after year.

So let me give you an example. Dyson recently introduced two new AirBlade hand dryers, like me you probably saw the coverage of the AirBlade tap which integrates the hand dryer right into the tap. This is one of the shorter videos about it.

This is a really nice user-centred story. You have a problem, we’ve made something to help you, here’s the benefit. (Then, because you need to learn some unfamiliar behaviours, they spend some time building up your mental model of how it works. Very nice stuff)

Like Cennydd says, this is the platonic ideal of how product development should be done according to UCD. Identify a need, design something, prototype and launch. Check out the reply to the first comment where Dyson claim to have made over 3300 prototypes. Not bad. So, score one victory for UCD. Right?

I don’t know anything about how Dyson made this product, but if they really started with a user need I will eat my hat. Of course they started with their technology. Dyson make the fastest motors in the business. The AirBlade has a motor that spins at 100,000rpm, “three times faster than any rivals”. They developed these motors in their vacuum cleaners and made a nice business selling them at a premium. A few years ago they moved this core competence into adjacent categories: first the fan, then the hand-dryer, then a heater and now the tap.

If there was a eureka moment in the development of the AirBlade tap, it wasn’t James Dyson looking at the floor of his bathroom and getting frustrated about how it was wet. It would have come from someone thinking about all the places in an office that they could possibly stick a really fast motor and make money. Or maybe thinking about making cheaper and less obtrusive AirBlades to capture more of the market. Don’t confuse the user-centred sales pitch in that video with a user-centred development process.

If I’m right and Dyson didn’t start with the user, does this mean this is a bad product? No. It looks a bit strange and it may or may not be a commercial success, but it is certainly interesting and speaks to a need.

My challenge to fans and critics of UCD is this: we have to acknowledge that many, many innovations are technology-led. Our contribution can be to productise these innovations into relevant, beautiful and successful offerings; that is find uses, markets and customers. UCD gives us great ways to test and refine products. But the user doesn’t always have to come first. We need to be confident that we will end with the user, even if we don’t always start with the user.