Designing for humans means recognizing our distinctions and commonalities at the same time.
Human-centred design suggests that we design for individuals’ needs and wants. As the theory goes, once we empathize with our intended users by doing some background research or even involving them in the creation of the ‘thing’ we are designing for, we will generate something attractive and useful. The end.
The problem of course is that this isn’t the end. It’s not the beginning, either. Often it’s a distraction and whom it serves might depend on who defines what ‘human-centred’ is (hint: it’s usually the designer).
Human-centred design (HCD) can generate some useful, enjoyable products and services. But it’s still a process that focuses less on the humans and more on those products and services that the designer has been hired to create. That’s where language matters and why HCD often fails to fit who humans actually are.
To start with a critique of the concept of human-centred design just consider the term ‘user’ , which is what this approach focuses on. After all, it is the user – who is a human — that will use whatever is produced.
Aside from its transactional nature, user is also a term most commonly associated as a label for those who ‘use’ illicit substances. Humans are more than transactional, we’re relational. Much of what passes for human-centred design is about creating a product or service for a client, it’s not first and foremost about creating better lives for the humans who represent that client base. Clients are the ones who pay and have the agenda that shapes why someone might engage in human-centred design.
This is fine for a transactional arrangement, but much of the life we live is not about transactions — or at least, transactions are simply a part of a larger part of what makes up our lived life. Further, many challenges we face in creating a healthy planet, living together, thriving and surviving as a species do not have a client. Or rather, the client is us.
The issue I have with human-centred design and many other models of design are that they were created by those who deal in transactions to describe their work. It was created by designers seeking to better sell and improve their work, but not necessarily the outcomes of their work. As I’ve written before, designers don’t do much in the way of evaluation. We can’t just be satisfied with people liking our work, if humans are to survive and thrive it has to do more.
If you don’t gather any data on what impact you’re having on the world, how do you know you’re doing good for it? That’s not an issue when the bottom line is whether your client pays or not.
Except, for humanity, it matters much more than that.
The Complicated User
Another issue with many of the design approaches that lead with some kind of empathy-building exercise or research is that it is almost invariably flawed. There is an enormous empathy gap to fill in many cases.
Consider first the idea that the ‘user’ is in touch with their wants and needs to begin with. Some of what we want is not practical, healthy or useful and might conflict with our values and other wants at the same time. I can speak from personal experience that many times I’ve been grateful after-the-fact to have not got what I wanted or thought I needed because it was neither.
This isn’t to suggest that we abdicate our preferences to others’ intentions, it’s about recognizing that we are complicated. Our moods, social lives, situations, and context all shape what we need, want, and choose. The assumptions are also based on a model of behaviour that is rational, logical, and predictable — of which we know very little actually falls into this category.
Our social and cultural world, the way our individual brains work, and the interchange between us and our environment all shapes our behaviour and decisions.
In short: we are complicated.
Diversity in Practice
Much of what passes for diversity in design is of a generic, partly-human nature. While we might talk about concepts of race, gender, political viewpoint, physical ability, sexual identity or others, we are really scratching the surface.
I favour the definition of intersectionality proposed by York University scholar Roberta K. Timothy that suggests it is ‘all of who I am.’ We are complicated and our diversity is part of our humanity and not some adjunct to it. We are products of our families, our shared histories, our individual lived experience, our beliefs and dreams, our situations, and, to quote Shakespeare, ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’
This definition is glorious in its truth and troublesome for those who wish to design for all, all the time. Part of our diverse nature as humans is that we have shared qualities. We connect to communities of interest, geography, and shared experience. We also, within such communities, have our own ideas, interests, needs, and that these can shift just as some can remain immutable in the face of challenge.
On top of that, we have design options for different bodies and brains, too. We are now referring to conditions associated with autism or attention as existing on a spectrum and less about disorders and more about different abilities (and associated constraints). We are all on some kind of spectrum with our personalities, brain behaviour, bodies, and neurological patterning.
(An aside, I still recall seeing a documentary on the design of jeans and hearing that the model size used as the basis for designing for men — that is ‘the average man’ — is found in about 1 in 6000 people. In other words, the average man is very rare).
Designing for Humans means recognizing this and designing for our irrational selves, our aspirational selves, our shared selves, and our dynamic selves. It’s never about getting it perfect, but it is about getting things to fit.
Designing for Fit, Form, and Function
What does diversity look like in practice? It’s not or never will be a one-sized fits all. It may not be a many sizes fits many, either.
The last point of contention I wish to share about human-centred design is that it, and other areas of design practice like it, have a view that good products and services can and should be designed to scale.
Good design for humans is situational. Much of what we speak of when discussing scale is conceptually incorrect. It’s based on poor science, a lack of understanding of what scale is and how it’s done, and also is based (largely) on a manufacturing and digital-focused model.
Yes, toilet paper will scale. Facebook reaches half the planet — so it scales well. Podcasts do OK as do media like YouTube videos. Books — assuming we have good eyesight, are able to hold it upright and speak the same language as the author — scale decently, too.
These are digital or physical objects that can be replicated easily.
Look around your life at the kind of services you love, the people that matter to you, the learning experiences that transform you, and the things (in use and context) that you enjoy and you’ll find that much of what really matters and makes a different doesn’t scale all that well beyond you. Maybe to your club, your family and friends, your team, or your neighbourhood, but you’ll be challenged to find many examples.
That’s because it’s in the human scale that we live and the real difference to our lives matter. When we design for this scale – the human scale – we see design differently.
The fit, the form and the function of most of our life’s meaningful moments is designed for diversity and designed for you.
Thanks for reading. This is the sixth article in the Design for Humans series.