The Reflective Practitioner in User Centred Design

The reflective practitioner, as described by Schon in his 1983 book, is the idea of continually reflecting on your work and the process during the design or production of a system. By continually reviewing, and improving the manner in which you work, and the deliverables, the process can be continually refined and improved, leading to better products. This fits in well with the philosophy behind the Agile design methodology, since this also requires a dedication towards continued reflection and iteration (also, Jazz music). But how does it work with User Centred Design?


UCD in action

User Centred Design, and participatory design, typically allows users to lead the design process, with their input and feedback being sought throughout an agile development. Unlike the reflective practitioner, where the impetus to improve comes from self-reflection, UCD externalises this and hence the impetus to improve comes from users surrounding the ‘expert’, rather than the ‘expert’ themselves.

So do you still get the benefits from reflective practice? Since understanding users, and applying this knowledge is a complex and ill-defined problem, there is are a large degree of potential approaches with no one approach being considered ‘best’. Hence there is the space, and need, in UCD for improvement. Contact with external people, such as the users, also gives a clear route for feedback from the results of UCD, and the ability to judge success in an objective manner. Hence, user insight seems like a suitable vehicle and impetus for reflection when improving practice.

If the impetus is coming from outside, rather than self reflection, does this avoid the self-reflection typically needed for expertise? Does this mean that no-one can ever become an expert in UCD? An interesting parallel that can help unravel this is considering how one becomes an expert in chess. Expert players in Chess have been found to be no better at conscious thought than a beginner, yet are much better at recognising established patterns or plays, and acting on their previous knowledge to make decisions quickly.

Hence expertise in these fields, and seemingly UCD too, is the ability to be a better reflective practitioner, and quickly dismissing areas that have been evaluated before. Although it isn’t a pure implementation, it does seem that the idea of the reflective practitioner is applicable to the field of user centred design!

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