How to design for humans in the age of robots.

In 2018, it is impossible to go through a news cycle without hearing about AI, AR, VR, and the threat (or promise) of technology replacing human jobs, decisions, and routines. While much of the world’s top talent and investment is being poured into computational advancement, there still remains a gaping need to design better products, services, experiences, and structures that address the most basic needs of the average person on good ol’ planet earth. From systemic challenges as complex as access to effective and compassionate healthcare or safe and nutritious food, to age old frustrations around getting your license at the DMV or using a remote control, human-centered design can be a powerful enabler of enlightened progress.

What is Human-Centered Design?

Human-centered design is defined as a creative approach to problem solving that begins with taking the time to personally understand and observe the people and organizations you are designing for, or more simply put, gaining empathy for your users. Instead of converging around a singular hypothesis, it strives to test assumptions and tangibly explore a multitude of possibilities, continually iterating and building towards the best solution that lies at the intersection of people’s unmet needs and wants, business viability, and technical feasibility. Interest in human-centered design has risen with the increasing failure of traditional, more linear or efficiency driven methods in the face of the world’s “big hairy problems”.

Contrary to popular belief, human-centered design is not “asking people what they want” and then figuring out how to make it. In fact, that can be a recipe for disaster because as visionaries such as Henry Ford and Steve Jobs have expressed, most people are not able to articulate new-to-the-world solutions or the alternate paradigms they require (and nor should we expect them too!). Having been a Human Factors Researcher at IDEO, and Design and Innovation Strategist for over a decade, I’ve learned that what people intrinsically want, need, and value is much more nuanced, contradictory, and abstract than what they are able to articulate on a survey or during a focus group. It requires decoding, synthesis, observation, and consideration of the larger context of social, economic, and political forces at play. As design thinkers, our role is often less about finding facts or definitive answers, and more about figuring out how to connect the right dots in a sea of noise, and before the tide shifts.

Silver Bullet or Perfectly Imperfect?

Human-centered design is unapologetically visual, messy, unpredictable, and reliant on intuition and informed judgment which may sound untrustworthy in a fact-loving world, but happens to be the same qualities that have helped humans survive throughout the ages. While the process has been demystified and propagated by pioneers such as IDEO into the general three phases of inspiration, ideation, and implementation, many aspiring practitioners are left wondering what the “secret sauce”is. You’ve bought the post-its and sharpies, you’ve gone out into the field and talked to people, you’ve brainstormed and sketched with an interdisciplinary team, but where is the magical, innovative, billion-dollar idea that is supposed to appear? While it is no silver bullet, the integration of principles, spirit, and process gives your ideas a better chance of success in the real world because it takes the most unpredictable factor — human behavior and experience — and moves it upstream where it can inform how your concepts evolve.

The Virtues of Human-Centered Design

Having gone through the design process hundreds of times, I’ve come to realize that much of the art and success of human-centered design is actually in the culture that surrounds it. You can employ all the right methods and tools, but if you or your team does not exercise the right principles and virtues of human-centered design, your output will fall short.

Here are 5 virtues of Human-Centered Design that are often missing:

  1. Humility — If an individual or organization assumes they “know what is best” or are not willing to challenge preconceived notions, empathy and collaboration will be starved. Going out to engage users and stakeholders is only useful when you are willing to listen to their opinions and feedback without judgment. While this may seem obvious, many companies blame customers for not following directions when things go wrong, instead of trying to make their directions easier to understand or designing for the reality that most people skip instructions altogether and prefer to tinker. Within a team, the best ideas flourish when individuals are willing to listen and are open to the ideas of others, especially those who might have less seniority or experience than them.
  2. Dialogue — Human-Centered Design is meant to be a team sport. We’ve been reading about the dangers of “echo chambers” in the age of social media and self-selected information. The same theory applies here. Sense-making and learning has always happened through storytelling, open discussion, and debate. These are the activities that help us digest information, draw patterns, and synthesize meaning beyond the obvious. When you go through the process in isolation, or try to jump from inputs to conclusions without engaging diverse perspectives, you are likely to end up with a one-dimensional interpretation and miss the bigger, richer picture.
  3. Play — The greatest artists were able to create interesting art because they lived interesting lives. The same goes for the design process. Teams and individuals need the time and space to get inspired, throw paint on the wall, experiment, feel lost, and then find their way back to a confident solution. This doesn’t necessarily require a great deal of time or money, but does require permission to meander, to go on field-trips to see/do/try new things, move furniture around, even take a walk on the beach or go people-watching in the park. What traditional corporate culture may perceive as distractions or wastes of time and money should be embraced instead of questioned. Those prized “aha moments” are often discovered in moments of serendipity, which happen when the mind and body are allowed to wander, absorb new stimulus, open up, and have fun. Just imagine if Newton never took the time to sit under that apple tree.
  4. Optimism — At the risk of sounding dramatic, you cannot be a good human-centered designer or innovator unless you are optimistic. There is just no other way to sustain such an ambiguous, risk-ridden, and tumultuous journey. It’s okay to be skeptical, but chronic naysayers seldom have the patience to go through the entire process of exploring possibilities, listening to outside perspectives, collaborating on ideas and incorporating feedback. Believing that it is possible to make something or someone’s experience better is the most powerful fuel to drive the engine of human-centered design.
  5. Compassion — Last but not least, compassion is the ingredient that gives our secret sauce its authentic taste. Empathy is a word that is emphasized over and over again in the human-centered design process, but in some ways empathy is merely the means by which we become more compassionate dreamers, thinkers and doers. So much of the pains and frustrations we experience as customers, patients, and citizens are the result of apathy and greed. Businesses who only measure success by looking at profits ignore the actual costs to people and our planet, and standard KPIs fail to provide insight into people’s actual values or well-being. The end goals of human-centered design are not profit driven (although companies like Apple have proven that user-friendly design is profitable), but to alleviate needless suffering and the waste of human time or energy, and to maximize well-being, joy, purpose, and utility.

So there you have it… 5 lesser known virtues of human-centered design: humility, dialogue, play, optimism, and compassion. Interestingly enough, these are all characteristics that even the most intelligent computer can never replace. And while they can neither be engineered or quantified, they can be nurtured, practiced, and felt. By no means are human-centered design and technology in conflict, but as we strive to make technology more human, let us not forget the worthy cause of helping humans be more human too.