Design For How We See Ourselves

Identity shapes design of products and services so why ignore it when we are designing for humans lives?

Who we are, who we think we are, or who we see ourselves to be all shapes how we act. Our identity is among the most powerful forces that influence our behaviour.

Research on change has shown positive effects from such as how we stand (our physical bodies), how we speak to ourselves, and the way we construct our identity with others. We are social creatures and, when you break it down, the thing that makes us who we are is our identity.

When I identify as something I am more likely to affiliate with certain things, find similarities with others like me, and explore how I am in relation to others. It can be a powerful force for learning, discovery, and community. (It’s not universally positive either as we see with the more negative aspects of identity politics like racism, sexism, politically driven hate or discrimination).

Identity Design

Among the biggest errors in design research is the focus on what people want or say they need at the expense of understanding who people see themselves to be. This focus on identity is where behavioural design comes in.

A behavioural design strategy includes detailed research and attention toward how people construct their identities in relation to what we design. Events like the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the power of identity and how it can form, evolve and change.

Labels like ‘front-line workers’ or ‘anti-masker’ or ‘vaxxed ’ were among those terms that were introduced to popular language with people literally identifying with the term and those associated with it.

We don’t need a pandemic to design for this kind of behaviour. How we see ourselves is something that shapes our choices and the confidence we have in our choices. Identity research has shown how we often believe something and then see things based on that belief. The more powerful and associated that belief is with others we affiliate with or want to be like, the stronger it has on our behaviour.

Shared identity is about both the individual and their relationship with others and this is something we can design for.

Identity Relations

How do we account for identity in our designs? One of the first things we must consider is how people see themselves in others’ identities. What are the similarities we hold with others? How do we resonate and connect to others and what parts of others do we see in ourselves?

Personas can be a useful tool in helping frame some of these questions. Social network maps with identity indicators are another. Using visual tools to help create a picture of people can literally help people ‘see’ themselves in their minds in others.

This is the touchpoint for learning more about what motivates and shapes an individual’s behaviour to help find areas of common interest and action with others. From there, we can start designing out.

Using the smallest visible system approach we can start looking at what the closest area of influence is, take some design actions and evaluate what they induce and then evolve our creations from there.

This overcomes the design bias toward creating things based on simplistic accounts of mental processes (saying what we want based on logic). This is a means to design for who we see ourselves which can also allow us to shape who we want to be. It’s in this that we see why designing for identity is so important if we want something to be better as our ‘next.’

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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