On Designing For Humans

Designing for Humans sounds like an obvious statement for designers, but very often we design things for things — systems, technologies, or ideas rather than actual humans and the implications of that are many. In this post I revisit a conversation I had with Scott Millar on the role of design and collaboration and touch on what it means to design for humans.

In my recent conversation with Scott Millar on the Cool Collaborations Podcast we discussed what it means to design for humans, drawing on a series of articles published last year on Censemaking. Below is an edited excerpt draw from my answer to Scott’s inquiry into the idea of designing for humans and answering the question: what does it mean to design for humans?

Clarifying Purpose

The idea of designing for humans seems a little obvious, but the reason I wrote about that and that really speaks to the approach I take working with people. It often begins with asking questions about the things — products, services, systems or policies — that we create.

What is that thing meant to do? What’s the purpose behind it?

The key is clarifying what our designs are meant to do. And if you can think like that, you can start to imagine there may be different pathways towards something. It may not necessarily have to be exactly what we want. Designing for humans is meant to reflect this ideas.

We often think that if we come up with this clever idea that is novel, technologically sophisticated, and exciting that it’s going to win the day. Yet, just take a look at commercial design and you’ll find a litany of products out there that are technologically superior and better in most ways than anything before them and yet they never take off.

A Technological Example of Human Issues

A classic example is Apple’s Newton tablet. When we think of Apple we recognize them as leaders in design of products we know and use — many of us have Apple phones and tablets, yet Apple also invented the Newton.

The Newton was effectively was the original iPad and it never took off because it just didn’t meet the needs of people at the time. It didn’t integrate with human life — even if it was technologically quite sophisticated and foretold what would eventually come. It was ahead of its time. Other designs like the Segway or Google Glass all foretold what might come, but failed because they didn’t fit at the time.

These are commercial products and they failed for many reasons, but the lack of integration with human needs, wants, habits, moods, and patterns of behaviour are among the reasons these failed and why — in the case of the Newton — their later successor was able to succeed. The iPad succeeded partly because people had learned to use the iPhone.

Good Design Connection to Human Qualities

Good design really is about touching both our rational and emotional parts of our brain (thinking). An idea might make sense, but it also requires some emotional appeal.

A great design is also about something that speaks to who we are.

What I was I found earlier in my career was I was often designing things that were exactly what people asked for and they did everything that they wanted. And yet these ideas didn’t work; it didn’t fit. The reason is because the solutions weren’t really designed for actual humans, just how we wanted humans to be. We wanted humans to believe things, act in a certain way, value certain things, and act accordingly — and they just didn’t (at least all the time).

Failure in design is often because we failed to recognize the humans who were to engage with our designs. The reason things failed in the example above is that solutions were designed for a policy or for a program. It fit perfectly in there, but it was unusable.

Design and Organizational Development

When you’re designing for an organization, you need to design ideas that are going to work for everybody, not just one group.

For example, it’s one thing to say we need to support our frontline staff, but those frontline staff have supervisors and managers who work with them. Those supervisors and managers often what might work with say procurement people or HR people or other people. So if we want to make something work, it’s got to work for everybody because all you have to have is one of those groups push back and fail to implement something and the whole thing stalls or falls apart. .

This is unworkable or the amount of paperwork it takes for me to implement something that might be a great idea that might be beneficial for one group is often something that’ll scupper it because people will just go “it’s just too difficult;. it’s too complicated.” It’s too unwieldy or something like that. This is why so many policies or programs fail: it fails to work for everybody to some extent.

And so what that means is, is that thinking about, well, what is it that humans are interested in? We humans want to try and make things work. We want to have purpose. We want to have some kind of an impact, and it’s not the same for everybody — we’re diverse in our perspectives and needs. We’re emotional. We also have identity. Like we have identification tied to certain things that we do.

All of those things are together and a great design is about getting that mix right.

It’s not about everything being perfect, but it’s about just getting the mix right. So if we’re having a conversation the topic has to be something of interest to you as well as me. Together find some way to come together that are works for both of us. And it doesn’t have to necessarily be an equal measure or anything like that. But it’s just has to be something that we’re both pretty happy with or satisfied. That’s really what design is: a conversation.

To listen to our full conversation check out Episode 31 of the Cool Collaborations podcast using this link or connecting below.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash, by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash, and by Kaleidico on Unsplash

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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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