First WHO, then What

Little Girl

“We want to become a cooler city. What do we need to do?”

This is a common question. But it’s the wrong one.

The first questions should be, “Whom do we want to attract? For whom are we (re)building?”

Too few processes start with these questions.

Think about it. The last time your community designed a new park, the planning team probably started by checking zoning codes or reviewing portfolios of potential park designers. They implicitly started by asking, “WHAT will this park look like.”

Here are three “Who?” activities they should’ve pursued first:

  1. Talked to and observed “power users” of parks, e.g. dog walkers, caretakers of young children, and the homeless, to learn what they value in a park
  2. Observed the behavior of people at their most popular parks, to see what behaviors or actions they take most frequently at parks…or what patrons never do at parks. (Eavesdropping on conversations is also valuable, although a little stalker-ish.)
  3. Set up a videocamera at the site of the new park, to see how people use the spaces adjacent to it. (The new park is going to have to fit into its environment, so best to see how that environment is used.)

“If we observed first and designed second, we wouldn’t need most of the things we build,” says urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie.

But for cities that do have the cajones to observe first, the rewards are vast.

By putting people – your future patrons and clients and citizens and leaders – at the center of your planning, you’re using the same muscles that Steve Jobs used to shape the iconic iPod and what IDEO used to craft the first computer mouse.

It’s called user-centered design  (I prefer “human-centered design”) and the first and persistent question is, “Who is this for?” Implicitly, it’s that people-first sensibility my team and I attempt to execute every time we say, “Cities are for people. Not cars.”

And what makes human-centered design so sexy is that it’s used so infrequently. In too many cities – maybe yours? -  a bunch of 56 year old white dudes (and some dals) start work on the city’s 20 year master plan. They hire mostly mainstream, Baby Boomer consultants. They run some focus groups (pay attention to who attends these.)

And voila.

The outcome – inevitably – is downtown lofts, foodie-lovin’ restaurants, an entertainment district, and lots of parking. A Baby Boomer utopia.

But in 20 years – when that planning team is 76 years old today’s 10 year olds turn 30 – will tomorrow’s talent want to live there? In 20 years, your next generation will be more brown, more urban, drive less, and value human interaction even more. Has your 20-year plan accounted for who your citizens will be in 20 years?

So the next time you start planning, start by asking, “Who’s this for?” And invite someone – or pay someone! – to ask that question persistently throughout the process. The results will delight your end-users, because – after all – you built it for them.

Bonus points: Matthew E. May wrote a great piece for the Fall 2011 issue of Rotman called “Zen and the Art of Simplicity.” It’s not available online yet (hence no link.) But, the seven principles are covered here on his blog.

PS If you’re anywhere near Milwaukee on Tuesday, Sept. 20, I’ll be sharing more ideas on “Your Next Citizen” at the 2011 International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Conference. Learn more about the conference here, or register here.

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