Mining our Natural Resources: The User as Expert

Elaine Ostroff, Founding Director of Adaptive Environments, Boston MA developed the Universal Design Education Project. She holds a M.Ed. from Harvard and received the Environmental Design Research Association Achievement Award in 1995 for helping to make architectural access a civil right.

Users of the products we design are an extraordinary and often overlooked natural resource in the design process. Especially in Universal Design, where the needs and limitations of users may be unfamiliar, the designer can learn a great deal from the experiences of the potential consumers. In fact, the Universal Design Education Project, a pilot program involving 22 school of design, "found that engaging user consultants in the classroom was the single most valuable strategy in teaching universal design". Similarly, participants in a hands-on-workshop at the 1995 Industrial Designers Society of America conference in Santa Fe found the experiences and insights of so-called user/experts to be a perfect reflection of the conference theme, Natural Resources.

A user/expert can be anyone who has developed natural experience in dealing with the challenges of our built environment. User/experts include parents managing with toddlers, older people with changing vision or stamina, people of short stature, limited grasp or who use wheelchairs. These diverse people have developed strategies for coping with the barriers and hazards they encounter everyday. The experience of the user/expert is usually in strong contrast to the life experience of most designers and is invaluable in evaluating both existing products and places as well as new designs in development.

These experiences offer unique and expanded insights to universal designers, who tell of how real interactions with people have been memorable, intense experiences that provide usable information for the design process. The user/expert can offer the perspective of life experience and firsthand qualitative information in response to a design problem. A diverse group of user/experts offer a wider range of perspectives as a means of understanding the responses of possible user populations. User/experts with extreme needs challenge designers to create innovations that go beyond the narrow abilities of what has been considered the average user. Lifchez's work in the 1970's, at the University of California-Berkeley, provided the most extensive documentation of the use of consultants in the design studio, as he tried to teach architecture students to design for people unlike themselves. (2)

To extend this work to the field of Industrial Design, we saw a unique opportunity in the Santa Fe conference. Four user/experts from the Santa Fe/Albuquerque area provided a range of professional orientations, ages, abilities and perspectives. A man in his early 50's, a former broadcaster who is blind, vividly described how he relearned to get around after he lost his sight and the problems he has with the lack of contrasting color or texture on controls. A 70-year-old retired rehabilitation counselor who uses a wheelchair professed her appreciation of her perfect cup designed by Raymond Loewy and her dissatisfaction with her refrigerator and fixed, awkward shelving. A 30-something architect, who broke her neck while sky diving and now uses a power chair, described her working office and increased use of CAD. A consultant on learning disabilities described methods of organizing space and objects to help people who have difficulty processing information.

After slide presentations of universally designed products and group discussions of product, strategies and concepts, the participants worked in small groups on specific projects brainstorming what doesn't work, what would work and what is needed.

On the four small groups, three worked on the refrigerator and one group worked on the ATM's. The refrigerator problems led to some major redesign concepts. Hard-to-open doors, awkward, hard-to-see or -reach food storage, food waste, lack of adjacent work space: these produced new ideas for food refrigeration including refrigerated drawers that could be separated from a single compressor, remote-control door or drawer openers, shelves that raised and lowered into a work surface, transparent door fronts, barcoded foods and related printouts of use by dates. Ideas turned into sketches, getting immediate feedback. For instance, the comment that a counter-supporting leg was hard to maneuver around elicited a cantilevered counter.

The ATM group enumerated issues at drive-in and at walk-up machines. Problems with reach from the car generated designs with telescoping devices; the card insertion problems evoked wider openings, error of proof edges and space for finger grips; lack of life assistance suggested voice-activated communications; and the problem with the sequence of transactions led to recommendations for user studies.

The participants, who were mostly designers and a few design students, were enthusiastic in their evaluations. Several months later in follow up phone interviews, we heard, "I thought of Hazel and Arthur (user/experts from the workshop) while I was designing-they made a tremendous impression on me". Such a comment proves that user/experts are valuable natural resources for designers. They help to identify issues to frame design problems in new ways. No survey research, ergonomic study or focus group can substitute for direct interaction with potential users during the design process. Even though it may not be possible to engage many user/experts in any one project, each encounter is memorable and will help in future work. Including a range of individuals helps to expand the designers view of the diverse population that needs to be served. Planning workshops like this one for other professional meetings can provide more exposure of this untapped natural resource to the professional community. As in schools, this practice could become a primary means to improve design quality.


  1. Welch, Strategies for Teaching Universal Design, 1995
  2. Lifchez, Rethinking Architecture, Design Students and Physically Disabled People, 1986
Elaine Ostroff
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Published in INNOVATION, the Quarterly Journal of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), Volume 16, No. 1 1997.

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