Human-centered design ... but even more human.

November 15, 2017

Now more than ever, society is hungry for simplicity and human connection. 

With the speed of life, ubiquitous computing and technology, and the ability to carry a world of data in our pockets, it often feels as though we are rafts being whipped around in a storm, just trying to stay afloat.

There’s a scene in the movie “Hunger Games” when a bomb goes off near Katniss Everdeen and she can no longer hear the forest, her competitors or the shuffling of her own clothes. But she can hear her breath and the ringing in her ears and see things in the foreground of her vision. Her awareness was limited due to the conditions. Similarly, Liz Gilbert in “Eat, Pray, Love” prepares herself a meal in Italy and can see and hear the nuance of the asparagus she is preparing and the eggs she is boiling — every detail of the preparation is amplified and clear. It’s like she had super-senses for the things she was paying close attention to and the background fell away by choice.

Not unlike these film depictions, our own situations limit our awareness and perceptions. Then our priorities direct how we choose to act. Our perceptions are based on a limited data set of the full situation because we are human. One day, we may see a subset of the full situation while the next day we perceive a completely different subset of that situation. It could be because we woke up on the other side of the bed, had more coffee than usual or got a tough phone call.

Contrast Katniss to Bella in “Twilight.” When she becomes a vampire,she can simultaneously see the specs of dust in the atmosphere, hear the trees rustling outside, see the color of the room in its full vibrancy and hear the conversation nearby. For the first time, she can see and hear everything that is actually going on — and is simultaneously inspired and overwhelmed. A good metaphor for reality and our lives. It reminds us of our limitations as human beings.

What we can perceive at any given moment is most often limited by our conditions and humanity. Other times, we simply don’t slow down enough to notice or practice our ability to broaden our awareness every day.

Take a breath. Slow down. Design better.

I’ve been learning about mindfulness and meditation lately. This has opened my eyes to the different levels of awareness that we as designers use to make meaningful design decisions. Designers are responsible for making products that are relevant and useful to their users. They help us cut through the chaos to provide solutions that are meaningful both as members of humanity and individuals.

Most often, seeing through the chaos means identifying user needs, situational context and technical/ business constraints as inputs to design new products and services. Thankfully, design research has set a gold standard to identify both observed and articulated user needs so we design products that better address the meaningful context of users’ realities.

However, identifying and prioritizing ALL the users’ needs (and those of potential future users), contexts and personal situations is simply impossible. Life and conditions change every moment, every day, and for every individual. Personalized design can only go so far and there’s only enough time and budget to do so much research. So designers are left to leverage one of their superpowers — the ability to empathize with humans, imagine what they might feel like in a situation, and visualize potential future solutions.

From a scientific point of view, designers are creating heuristics of behavior and hypothesizing results. We create sketches, models and renderings so our colleagues, users and decision makers can see what that future might look like. It’s a bit like predicting the impact of a new scientific theory or imagining the acceptance of a new fashion trend. You simply don’t have all the information and must make a leap.

So what can designers do to bridge the gap between Bella’s super-senses to perceive all of reality and the individual experience of one moment in a day? We can identify our own biases and limitations as designers. Stanford’s approach to education for Equity-Centered Design suggests designers notice and reflect on our own biases and how they may impact our assumptions and ultimately solutions. 

I’d suggest that designers could also brainstorm what kinds of things simply might be missing or blind spots. Like an engineering failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA), we can evaluate what might be missed and therefore go wrong. Last, if we can begin to be more mindful in everyday life, we will all move toward a clearer picture of our individual and collective realities, which we are often too busy and overwhelmed to even notice.

By noticing and reflecting on our biases, blind spots and everyday life, our inputs into design will better represent the world as it is so our solutions can be more authentic, useful and even minimal.

Along this way, it is my hope that we can also make a small step toward being in touch with our basic humanity and maybe take a few steps towards guiding the raft to a smooth patch of sea.

Take a breath. Slow down. Design better.

What do you think?