Two news stories caught my attention recently – the UK launch of the iPhone and the scandal at the BBC over naming Blue Peter’s kitten. 

You might not think they are related, or related to usability - but I beg to differ.

I never saw Steve Jobs when he visited Apple’s flagship London store to launch the iPhone in the UK, but I can guess what he was like – I watched the keynote at Macworld last year. 

I am sure he was genuinely delighted with the phone and enthusiastic about its features, although I’m sure noone knows better than him what could be improved – and no doubt will be in the next version.

Contrast this with the story about the BBC Children’s television programme Blue Peter (named after a flag in case you ask) and its competition to name its new pet kitten. 

Apparently the voting was favouring ‘Cookie’ but the production team did not like this answer so ‘decided’ that the winning name was ‘Socks’. Not a big deal you might think, although the media thought differently. But to me it reveals a complete disregard for the wishes of the viewers who voted.  

So the contrast is between people who empathise completely with their customers – because they are basically designing for themselves – and people who do not regard their customers’ views as important enough to follow. 

One of the biggest problems for interface designers is truly understanding their users. Not all products are like i-Pods (as I discussed on our website recently…….) so designers do need to find more systematic ways of gathering context information and really understanding their users – which is where human-centred design comes in (as described in ISO 13407). 

That’s why we are offering 15 free places on our 1 day human-centred design course as part of our contribution to World Usability Day 2008. For a more details and information on how to apply please see the full article on our website.

One of the strengths of the human centred design process is that it provides a systematic way of encouraging designers to understand and empathise with their users, even if they are not people like the designers themselves. 

In our experience, user profiling and the use of personas really change attitudes – and help improve the fit between systems and users which in turn increases the likelihood that the system will deliver real business benefits.

Tom Stewart is joint MD of System Concepts.