When Users Design! And Why That's Okay

I have wondered before whether an architect or interior designer, upon starting a new project, goes back to see how their previous work is being used.

Do they wonder how the inhabitants of the buildings they’ve worked on changed the space or if the inhabitants have adapted in negative ways?

Here’s my case in point (the image above).

Someone here at work, probably walking up the stairs, likely hit or scraped their shoulder on the post that attaches the glass retainer above the stairwell to the wall. My guess is it has happened more than once and someone got fed up and redesigned the post.

If I were the architect or interior designer (not sure whose shoulders this falls on) of this building and I saw this… I’d feel ashamed. In software terms, this is the equivalent of sticky notes on the monitor, or cheat sheets, or… training! Something that had to be made in order to get the user safely around the poorly designed interface.

Post-Launch Assessment

Design is a cyclical process. At least that’s how I view it. And viewing it that way provides me with more work, which equals more money so you should agree with me. :)

It isn’t enough to design something, test it, build it, then launch. If you plan on maintaining what you launch (or your client does) you need to understand how people interact with and use what you’ve made.

That means giving them a few months to use it, then going out and seeing what they’ve done to make things better. Your findings can lead into the next round of requirements for v2. This is why having someone who is good at interviewing people (interaction designers, HCI people, usability specialists, whathaveyou) involved in all aspects of the design and development cycle.

These are the people you can rely on to tell you about the sticky notes, cheat sheets, and tennis balls.


Some of the workarounds I’ve mentioned are artifacts: physical items that help users deal with their everyday world. You won’t find them with a survey, or a remote usability test, or reading tech support tickets.

You have to step into the user’s world and see how they live. If you are in the biz, this is your Contextual Inquiry or Ethnography. But you don’t need fancy names to make a case for getting out into the user’s domain and talking with them.

Yes, it has a cost and it can be high. But it also has a distinct reward: you never know what people are really going to do with your product until you watch them use it. There could be opportunities abound.

Opportunities not only to fix problems you introduced in your design (for you will introduce problems) but gaps you didn’t know were there in the first place that you can fill with future revs or alternate products.


The next time you deliver a design to a client, or ship a product from your company consider including a free tennis ball for your customer. They probably won’t understand why, but then again you never know when a tennis ball will be handy to have around.

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