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People-Centred Design: Overcoming the dismal divide and integrating with the way people want to live

Guest blog from Martin Rigby, a technology venture investor and entrepreneur and creator of Psonar.

In Britain, good design and excellent products have not always coincided.  While no-one can doubt the aesthetic quality of British design displayed in the Festival of Britain or the futuristic furniture on show at the Design Centre in London's Haymarket in the 1960s and 70s, it frequently didn't feed through into the products developed by the majority of British companies.  Even the beauty of the Concorde supersonic airliner was driven by engineering requirements and it's hard to discern what precisely determined the form of the lacklustre contemporary products of the British motor industry such as the Austin Allegro or the Morris Marina.

This failure to incorporate design into product development (let alone service development) was a major failing of British industry in the 20th Century and one which still limits the competitiveness of the UK economy today.  It arises from the dismal divide between form and function, where the first is seen as essentially aesthetic and artistic and the second as purely utilitarian.  Great design, in contrast, is an effective fusion of the two where the aesthetic enhances function and the functional enriches appearance and form.  It is obvious that the quality and attractiveness of a product, and what consumers are prepared to pay to obtain it, is a reflection of both its aesthetic appeal and its functional effectiveness - and the two are mutually reinforcing:  you're more inclined to use, and get more out of, a device or service that is pleasurable or complements your sense of yourself than one that doesn't.

Understanding the subtle interaction between people and the services or products that they use is at the heart of people centred design.  Ergonomics and other quasi-mechanical descriptions of interaction miss the subtle point that it's what people feel about what they do and how they do it that is as important as productivity or efficiency.  In management terms, it's equivalent to the realisation in the 20th century that Taylorism and time and motion study were not the ultimate determinants of industrial productivity but that subtle environmental and cultural influences can affect human output just as much - as the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Factory experiments demonstrated.

New services that are socially driven but essentially functional, fuse both the practical and the inspirational that is the essence of great user experience and which gets people coming back to a service time and time again.  It's not just how a product or service works or how the individual interacts with it, nor simply how it looks and whether people admire its aesthetic, but also, at a much more subtle level, how it integrates with the way people want to live. 

As an investor, I look for products or services that take people on a journey that surprises and delights them as well as meets their needs. As an entrepreneur, I have made sure Psonar, an internet service which lets people discover, listen to and share music on a Pay Per Play basis, fits with the way teenagers want to live by investing in design thinking and people-centred design from the very beginning.

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