Design for Human Living

Our designs put too much focus on our intentions and desires and to the neglect our realities and tendencies.

Design is a positive field of practice. At it’s core, design is about making things and transforming our futures. Designers tend to be optimistic and energetic individuals, which is what allows them to inspire new thinking about possibilities.

Possibilities are what make design powerful while reality is what keeps designs from reaching their potential. The reason for this is that we rarely design for humans. Human-centred design is not the same as designing for humans.

Human-centred design is all about engaging humans in the design process and recognizing their preferences, but is not about how humans actually behave. When I am asked about what I want I often don’t reflect on how I am, but how and who I want to be.

Designing for humans incorporates behavioural science with human-centred design and seeks to design for how human being live, not just how they want to live.

Human Living

Wants, needs, and preferences are only part of what comprises our lives. While much is being written about the future of work and other areas of our lives post-pandemic, these are all based on naive assumptions that we can choose what we do next based on our preferences and desires.

While this is functionally true, it’s practically false. Great organizational or lifestyle changes rarely come about due to a quest for specific changes. The reason is that our patterns of behaviour are anchored to embedded patterns that are deeply ingrained. These are hidden systems of influence.

These come from our environment, our history (where and when we came to the present situation), and who we see ourselves to be. Our identity – the way we see ourselves and others – shapes what we perceive in our environment. These include possibilities.

We often need to believe something to see it.

This is how humans live in the world. We rely heavily on patterns and each other to make sense of the world because novelty takes energy and most of us are tired. It takes energy to discover something new.

But this is not how innovation models and design workshops portray how lives. These are events designed to shake us out of the everyday, yet they are also not created for the everyday. Yet, it is in the everyday that our designs live.

Design With Data

Many designers are not familiar with data science. Most data scientists aren’t designers, either. Yet, we need to bring these two domains together. By data science I refer to the systematic collection, review, and use of data – qualitative and quantitative, original and secondary, large and small — to inform design.

Design, as stated above, is the entire enterprise and not just a phase. Design research is meant to reflect more than just a simple stage of design – the early exploration process. But, it’s more than just design for problems and situations, it’s about designing for the people themselves.

For example, if you’re part of an organization that has had many different attempts to transform itself and failed to do so you are far more likely to be resistant to new initiatives aimed at change. Great (and new) leadership, resources, incentives, and talent won’t fully erase the memories of the past. What has to be designed is a strategy that accounts for these past failures, false starts, and dashed expectations.

Data, in this case, might be on individual attitudes, experiences, concerns, and patterns of organizational activity. Too often consultants working with change management find themselves overhearing statements like “here we go again” or “just like last time” when seeking to undertake something new.

Approaching a problem with fresh eyes doesn’t account for this. What’s needed is more than strategy, it’s also about energy and history, too. having data on this can guide our efforts to know just how much energy is necessary.

Living With Data

Another challenge is that we often collect data as part of ‘events’ — such as surveys or focus groups. While useful for certain things, these episodic means of data gathering have certain distortions attached to them. What might be called ethnographic data can be particularly useful in circumventing and complementing this kind of research. By looking at how people live within context we can better understand the present designs to inform the future ones.

Visualizing systems can help guide our vision on what to look at and where. Often our social and living systems are invisible to us in the everyday. These design constraints from social conventions and customs to spatial design to the use of tools (by the tool itself and the person using the tool) all influence what we create, how, and what we see.

Behavioural design is about gathering data on human activities and tying those activities to outcomes. It brings together design with psychology and, when done well, systems thinking using data. Combined with the craft and making aspects of design along with the focus on the project that comes from evaluation, we can start designing more for how people live and are and not how we want them to be or imagine them.

This is one of the reasons so many of these post-pandemic designs are feeling so flat and are unlikely to be realized for much benefit. They are designed based on data decontextualized from humans and design methods that don’t consider how people actually live.

If you’re looking to design for real impact and real humans, contact me and let’s talk. Working with real humans and designing for them with data is what I do.

Photo by Petr Sevcovic on Unsplash

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