What Are Alternatives to User-Centered Design (UCD)?

Someone I met in my business adventures told me he had his own version of UCD. That’s what he uses and that’s what he teaches others.

I Googled it. It looks like only he is the only guy using it. It doesn’t seem to be catching on, especially since (according to him) it’s a derivative of UCD. It also made me wonder what kind of person tries to create his own model (based on the most popular model on the planet) and doesn’t seem to teach the most popular model on the planet.

I didn’t think UCD needed a derivative. I thought it was pretty darn good the way it was.

So I Googled for “alternatives” to UCD. Jared Spool wrote an article in January 2009 detailing four other approaches to design. Unintended Design, Self Design, Genius Design, and Activity-Focused Design.

Here is my take on each of these.

Unintended Design

This appears to be when nobody (purposefully) designed something. You still see this from time to time when there’s nobody doing UX or when a developer decides to come up with his or her own solution to an edge case.

This normally doesn’t work out very well. I actually have a super batting average at looking at a design and figuring out which non-UX role designed it. Sometimes it’s been a visual designer, a developer, a product person, and even The CEO.

Self Design

This appears to be when a team of one mostly designs what he or she would want (for himself or herself). This can be OK if the target audience happens to be just like you, and there are no other target audiences. Otherwise, it’s unlikely to go that well.

Genius Design

This appears to be group self design. Spool describes a design approach that only includes the smarts and experience of whoever is on the UX team with no outside input or research.

With enough experience on the team and enough genius on the team, this could go well. Barring that, this insular approach could be a disaster… especially if a manager has overestimated anybody’s genius.

Activity-Focused Design

Spool describes a person or team researching a user’s activities. Once you are looking to users for research, behaviors, archetypes, etc… I would suggest that you are doing user-centered design. You might not be taking all the recommended steps in the process, but you are incorporating the user in your approach. The previous methodologies do not include the user in their approaches.


I think we can boil these five down to three (with two fresh names):

  • Non-Expert Design: Design done by non-UX people, possibly to save money, possibly for some other reason. These people may have good intentions and even do a decent job. But that might have been a happy accident.

I still don’t think we need derivatives of UCD. What else is there? I guess that’s it.

Design is either user-centered or user-uninvolved.

Delta CX author | Customer Experience Strategist, Architect, Speaker, Trainer. “The Mary Poppins of CX & UX.” Learn more at DeltaCX.com and Pty.pe.

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