User or usage? That's the question. User-centered design has been the rage for several years. And why not? Who knows about their work better than the user? The question that Larry Constanatine has me thinking about now is critical. His point is that the user knows their job, but do they really know how to best design software? Doubtful. This is NOT to say that usability testing and yes, engaging the user in the process is not important. It is!
But, what really is important is that the analyst (interaction designer, business analyst, and developers) understand "how" the user works. That's actual usage of their tools. If I ask you how you work, or put you in a focus group with others who do similar jobs, I will get a different perspective than if I just go to your workplace and watch what you do. Many of us actually have very little ability to describe our jobs very well, as strange as that seems. Try it out. Keep a journal for a week and record everything you do. You'll be amazed (not to mention annoyed) about how different those perspectives were.
Putting the analyst in the users' offices really is important. Observation will beat focus groups every time. We are way too easy to get reality and desires confused.
Again, this does not diminsh the need for the user's invovlement in the design. But spend the time on the "interesting" or complex tasks, and use the expert observation to design the mundane task completion. Usage-centered design is the way to go.
More to be said on this, buf for now, let's think about a better way to design.