A Design for Humans approach connects how and who we are with what we create.
Over the next few posts I’ll be looking at six dimensions of what I call Design for Humans. Designing for humans is at the core of what is called behavioural design, but goes beyond it.
Design for Humans is my attempt to better articulate issues with design that keep us from making things that work for human conditions. This is about being fit-for-purpose when the purpose evolves, is diverse, and is often shared among people.
To Design for Humans
A search of the terms humans and design will find sources on design properties or qualities, discussions of parallels with human-centred design principles, or (more recently) discussions of the emerging field of behavioural design. All of these are useful, yet none fully capture human living, preferences, and behaviours. Our behaviour is tied to who we are (and how we see ourselves), where we come from, how we’ve lived, our present context, and what we want and want to avoid.
This complex bundle of influences is what it means to be human. Creating tools, services, products, supports, and systems to help humans solve problems and navigate their world is what design for humans is about.
Our design choices shape our world, however without conscious attention to how those choices are made we risk making things that don’t fit our purposes. We designed the pre-pandemic world for certain things and now have a chance to design the post-pandemic world.
What might real design for humans involve? Let’s look at six pillars of a Design For Humans approach.
The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. – Mary Oliver
Neuropsychological diversity reflects what we know about brain and psychological (and behavioural) science and how biological, cognitive, social, and emotional factors influence our preferences, habits, tendencies, and how we think. It recognizes the significant role that personality, attention, cognitive ability, and how it all intersects within a culture, society, and interpersonal relations.
In short: this diversity is all about our similarities and differences and how we need to account for these in design choices.
It is easy to ignore the past or to allow it to define our present and future. Both are useful in some measure and both are a part of what it means to be human. We have memory and experience — in our minds, our bodies, and our communities. Where we come from shapes our present and that affects what it means to design, which is about creating futures in the present. By understanding more about how our past influences us we can better draw on it, ignore it, or reframe those experiences and memories to consciously design for what is to come.
You don’t see a masterpiece take shape until you add all the pieces. Greatness works the same way. – Nyeeam Hudson
Systems are the environments we live in. Our environment includes physical (and digital) spaces and settings, the natural climate, our proximity to people and things (e.g., services, population), social psychological factors, and the relationships that connect them all. It’s only when we see the pieces come together that we can really understand the human condition we seek to design for.
When we design within systems we design for humans.
Thinking, reflection, and going deeper take time and require us to get personal — to question our own beliefs, theories and feelings – Peter Block
Time is a critical and underappreciated factor in design. Much of the mantra of today’s design cultures are about ‘moving fast’, yet taking and making the time for proper reflection, learning, and attending is something that can’t be rushed. Time can be designed for by creating the systems and contexts for us to learn and do things that need to be done — as a designer and as someone affected by our designs. When we design for time, we better understand where we are, where we came from, and what’s needed to go forward.
Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Change comes from managing our energy and ensuring it’s directed in the right places. Energy is the attention, emotion, and physical momentum that brings forth ideas, transforms them, and puts their products into the world. When we account for energy we design processes that recognize how fleeting it can be. Designing for humans recognizes that energy is biological, psychological, and social. It also recognizes that these conditions are in flux and in flow.
Designing for humans accounts for these energy factors and recognizes that we are not always at our best.
“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend” – Robertson Davies
How we see ourselves is a significant factor that influences what we do. Our identity shapes our choices, however, we can choose who we are. The choices we make might be irrational or inconsistent depending on how we see ourselves. We are more likely to have affinity with ideas that affirm who we see ourselves to be or wish to be. When we design for humans, we need to know who those humans are. This takes us beyond the usual design research into more explicit ways of knowing and understanding people.
In posts to come we will look at each of these dimensions in some depth. We will also look at how ideas like behavioural design and human-centred design fits with these. Yet, this goes beyond behavioural design. This is a realistic approach to designing for a world that seeks to recover, heal, and grow. I’m going illustrate a design approach that is both familiar and different. We will look at systems thinking, behavioural science, and what we can learn from design theory, art, and craft.
We’ll look at designing for what’s next.
When so much is changing we need to change with it even to stay the same.
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