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The Copernicus Awards

A few years back, an enterprising usability consulting firm came up with the idea of the "Copernicus Awards". These awards were to be given to companies who put users at the centre of their business.

The award was named after Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), themathematicianand astronomer who questioned the belief that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Instead, Copernicus supported the Heliocentric theory: thefactthat the Earth revolves around the Sun.

I thought the "Copernicus Awards" was a neat idea. It made the point that your business is not the centre of the universe: your business instead should be revolving around the needs of your users. Focusing too much on the product is common mistake: development teams nearly always focus on the 'thing' rather than the users of the 'thing'. It's like a rugby scrum where the players are all grappling for the ball but the ball has squirted out of the side of the scrum and no one has noticed.

I'm not sure if the Copernicus Awards fell out of favour or perhaps they were never given. An Internet search turns up nothing about these awards, so I don't think there was a glamorous awards night with black tie, evening gowns and champagne.

But that got me thinking that we should rejuvenate the idea — but with a twist.

Introducing the Procrustes Awards

Perhaps because I'm somewhat cynical, I think a better approach might be to present awards that shame bad behaviour rather than honour companies for good behaviour. This back-to-front approach is a little like The Razzies, which award the worst movies and the worst actors; or like the Literary Review which bestows the Bad Sex Award on authors who have written an outstandingly poor sex scene in a novel.

My suggestion for the title of the analogous award in user experience is "The Procrustes". It has a nice ring about it, like the Oscars. But unlike the Oscars, a Procrustes is not an award you would want to win.

In Greek mythology,Procrusteswas arobberwho offered hospitality to passing travellers. He invited people into his house by the side of the road for a pleasant meal and a night's rest. Procrustes' guest bed was unusual: he described it as having the unique property that its length exactly matched the height of the person who choose to sleep in it.

What Procrustes didn't tell his guest was how he achieved this "one-size-fits-all" magic trick. That happened when the guest lay down on the bed. At that point, Procrustes went to work. If the guest was shorter than the bed, Procrustes stretched him by racking the body to fit. If the victim was longer than the bed, Procrustes cut off the guest's legs. The end result was the same: the guest exactly fit the bed, but died in the process.

I often see this similar "one-size-fits-all" approach in development teams. It comes in two flavours:

  • The team assumes that users are just like the development team. By designing a product for themselves, teams mistakenly believe that it will also work for end users who are the same "size".
  • Teams accept that their product targets different user groups — but they attempt to deal with the problem by including something for everyone. The product becomes bloated with features to meet every possible requirement of a mythical, average user. "Something for everyone" results in being "nothing for anyone". The target user for such products is not a real user at all but really a Frankenstein's monster, an amalgam of averages and random statistics.

How not to win a Procrustes award

You can avoid a Procrustes award by following some basic principles.

The alternative? Continue to design around untested assumptions and hope that your users will fit your Procrustean bed. It's true that your user may not die as a consequence of incorrect assumptions but your product probably will.

Nominations for a Procrustes award to @userfocus.


About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.

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This article is tagged iterative design, personas, strategy.

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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher.

Phillip Hodgson Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) has been a UX researcher for over 25 years. His work has influenced design for the US, European and Asian markets, for everything from banking software and medical devices to store displays, packaging and even baby care products. His book, Think Like a UX Researcher, was published in January 2019.

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