Why “mom-centered design” isn’t an established discipline

It’s fun to work with beginning designers because they make fundamental mistakes so predictably. Perhaps the most enduring beginner mistake is to design for yourself. The key to user-centered design is to realize that you are designing for someone else and that all your decisions should be made from their point of view, not yours.

It’s so typical for a beginning designer to say “I would never do that.” If you then remind them that they are designing for their target users not themselves, they’ll often reply “OK then, my mom would never do that!” As if that somehow makes their case stronger.

What’s so wrong with designing for mom?

While we all want to please our moms, designing for our mothers is pointless (unless your mom really is the target user.) Despite the tremendous number of practitioners, there’s a reason why “mom-centered design” isn’t an established discipline.

You aren’t the target user, and neither is your mom. Imagine your mom walking into the cockpit of a jet aircraft and saying “All these dials and levers are really complicated—I would never use this.” True, but unless your mom is a professional pilot, it hardly matters. More typical examples are just as pointless, just less obviously so.

My mom would never fly this plane.

Another problem with mom-centered design is that it’s disingenuous. You are still designing for yourself or for your assumptions about your target user—you’re just using mom as a proxy.

We all do this

While I expect beginners to design for themselves, experienced designers often do it too. This is such an easy trap to fall into.

My mom would never drive this car.

In the discussion How not to design for user experience: the Ferrari example, the poster asserts “When the use of something as intuitive as a steering wheel takes a nine-minute video for just a brief overview, you’ve got a problem.” Most of the people leaving comments agreed. But this is a design blog and the commenters are all designers, and they are thinking about this design purely from their own point of view. If Michael Schumacher felt this way, then I would be concerned.

Yes, the Ferrari Formula 1 steering wheel is complex, but it’s designed for professional race car drivers whose livelihood totally depends upon winning races. They need the features—saving a second is a big deal. They have the motivation. They can spare the nine minutes to learn how to use it.

Real users aren’t you—or your mom

Different users have different characteristics. Here are some of them:

  • General computer knowledge (expert vs. novice)
  • Application and task knowledge (expert vs. novice)
  • Goals, tasks (what they are going to do)
  • Frequency of using apps, doing tasks
  • Vocabulary (to speak the user’s language)
  • Motivation (willing to make effort, endure misery)
  • Environment (data, scale, formality)
  • Age, physical abilities

Details like motivation make a big difference with respect to what users can or are willing to do. Having a clear understanding of these characteristics enables you to make better decisions on behalf of your target users—something mom-centered design can never do.

If you do only one thing:
Remember that user-centered design is all about designing for your real target users. Not you. Not your assumptions. Definitely not your mom.

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