Design for humans as they are, not as you want them to be.

Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

If humans are your technology’s problem, your technology isn’t very good.

If everyone you dance with steps on your toes, you‘re probably the problem… If you’re the boss at a company with 50% annual turnover, you’re likely a crappy boss. If you think everyone you date is the same, your decisions are letting you down. If your design has the same amount of problems as it did decades ago when it began, it’s broken. If humans aren’t using your product the way you want them too, your product sucks.

It’s not about who is using the product, it’s about how it is intended to be used.

Is it intended to be used in an organic, human way or a robotic, uniform way? Are today’s roads meant to be used in a human way? They are not. Today’s engineering techniques carry over from a time when we thought we could roboticize humans. “Form follows function,” they would say as they justified Brutalist Architecture, urban sprawl, and inhuman, jammed freeways. “Man is a rational being,” was heard in the halls of the influential Chicago School of Economics and in the design meetings of Transportation Engineers across the world. We know better now, but it took us more than a century and despite knowing better, the change to better methods has been sluggish (another link about the irrationality that comes naturally to humans). Old 20th Century Modernist ideas enabled snarling traffic, meaningless work, cheap architecture, manufactured ‘place’, unnatural social structures, inequality, and dehumanized cities.

Ask not what you can do for your technology, ask what your technology can do for you.

In the past 100 years, we asked humans to overcome their nature, aptitudes, heuristics, biases, habits, and behavior to make our designs work. This is how top-down processes work; someone in an office far away decides that everyone should behave in a way that satisfies their organized and reductionist view of the world. Perhaps we should ask more of what we design. Maybe our technology should serve humans, make life better for humans. This is how distributed and decentralized networks work. Wouldn’t it be easier to work WITH hard-wired human behavior rather than fighting it? The past 100 years of city building demonstrate how we’ve resorted to repeatedly trying the same things while expecting a different results…

The problem is top-down urban planning and design.

People on the design end of things forget sometimes that what we’re designing is intended to make life better for others, not fulfill our OCD dreams of obedient econs and autons or stroke our ego as we saw with the top-down organizations of the past. It’s natural to fall in love with our creation and disparage the dull masses for misunderstanding our unique genius. Sometimes we need a hard dose of truth and I’m here to dish some truth, urban transportation networks in North America are terrible and the problems are fundamental. The end-users aren’t to blame; the design wasn’t human-centered, it was designer-centered. There’s a better way. We need the genius of making decisions in a more decentralized way, inclusive of more perspectives. This protects against a powerful individual ruining cities for everyone (like Robert Moses).

A Transportation Engineering Example

We like to blame humans for low compliance with the rules of the road and fatality rates. The problems aren’t humans, who happen to be the intended end-user of this technology. It’s that driving and road networks are not built for humans. In road engineering, we use something called design speed. We design everything from the location of signs to the radius of curves using this design speed. In nearly all cases, this design speed is higher than the posted speed by anywhere from 5–15 mph or 10–30 km/h. So we design the road for a faster speed than we allow people to drive. This is for various reasons, but primarily, this design technique introduces a factor of safety. We say that the large majority of drivers can maneuver this roadway safely at 75 mph, then nearly everyone can likely due so at 60 mph. It means roads can accommodate slow reaction times, inclement weather, and the variability of human skills, health, and experience. This approach does not trust humans to act in their best interests and drive in a manner safe for themselves and others. It takes decisions out of the hands of drivers, forcing them to act in accordance with the designer’s imposed rules with signs, signs everywhere and surveillance on nearly every corner. Despite the intentions to keep people safe, for many people, these posted limits are TOO safe because we design for the weakest drivers, not the ones with average reflexes, average vision, and average experience, let alone above average abilities. So we are relying on the willpower of drivers to overcome their nature and remain ever vigilant against their human nature. They have to continually ignore their brain’s subconscious signals and impulses that are telling them it’s safe to go faster (which it is). The 21st Century is seeing the introduction of transportation strategies that conform to human nature rather than try to transform it. Roads will be safer for it. Autonomous Vehicles present a major opportunity to re-humanize our roadways, but there’s also a chance roadways will become even more inhospitable with the adoption of this technology.

Urban Transportation Needs an Overhaul.

From the routing of our roads to the scheduled stops at signs or lights, is any aspect of driving in cities truly similar to how humans would move under their own volition? Without the constraints imposted by the mechanization of individual transportation, wouldn’t people move in self-organized efficient manner? Unnatural behavior is imposed upon citizens: their route is imposed, their speed is imposed, stops are imposed, etc. People are forced to wait at red lights when no other cars are in sight, that’s not human behavior. On car-centric roads, it is considered ideal behavior to be mechanical, rational, and predictable, the definitions of these terms determined by an administrator in a city office. Essentially, we design roads for robots, calling on drivers who are not robots to behave robotically. We put people in metal enclosures and we herd them around the city as they stare blankly at the back of the car in front of them. Aesthetics and experience (nature and vibrancy) are considered dangerous distractions and not cost effective in the pursuit of the singular purpose of roads, to move cars faster. Notice I said move cars faster. The goal isn’t even to move the most humans in the most efficient way, it is to move as many CARS as fast as possible. It’s not the most efficient way to move people and it’s not designed with human behavior in mind. Urban transportation needs an overhaul. There’s a place for cars, it’s where the speed limits are over 60 mph and there are no irrational humans around being unpredictable as comes naturally. That place is outside the city.

Putting people ahead of cars. Humans need to take back public spaces from the machines.
Photo by Patricia Jekki on Unsplash

Urban space needs an overhaul.

Here’s another example. I walked past a construction site the other day. What was once a Brick Pavement promenade (pedestrian walkway) had been closed completely to pedestrians in order to accommodate re-routed cars that were affected by the construction. Automobiles were offered an alternate route at the expense of pedestrians (humans) due to encroaching construction activities. This wasn’t in the suburbs, it was in the “cultural district” of this city’s downtown. Additionally, the sidewalk that would represent the next shortest route for pedestrians was also closed due to the construction, but the car lanes adjacent were noticeably unimpeded. Re-routed pedestrians were called on to walk to the nearest appropriate crossing, wait for approval from the signalized authorities (crosswalk signal), and politely cross the street under the watchful supervision of CCTV cameras. In all, the humans lost 5 to 10 minutes due to the closure of a purpose-built pedestrian corridor (a promenade) that they were no longer allowed to use in order to accommodate cars. Humans, in their most natural state are treated as second class citizens in most cities in North America. Before you mention the humans in the cars, consider what I said earlier:

1. Are they behaving like humans and making decisions for themselves?

2. How is the road intended to be used, like humans want to move or the a conforming robot would move?

Designing cities for humans, means letting humans move how they want to move. It means letting stimulating distraction (nature and free movement for people) come back to city streets, it makes the brain happy. It means removing the severity of the danger posed to humans by automobiles, which means Vision Zero. It means Shared Streets (A.K.A. Naked Streets or Woonerfs). It means public squares. It means placemaking. It means winterized pedestrian corridors in cold cities. It means reasonable and tasteful density to facilitate on-foot movement. Whether the cars are autonomous or human controlled, we have to make more room for freedom of choice for the most human mode of transportation, walking.

Robots vs. Humans

The AVs are coming. They will solve some of our transportation system overhaul needs, but in terms of cities, Jeff Speck said it well: “They’re the right solution to the wrong problem.” The humans outside of cars will still be considered second-class citizens unless the way we think about transportation changes. Infrastructure will get more expensive with the Internet of Things installations that will be needed (5G is on the way!). We’ll still be getting fatter. We’ll be moved faster and play with our phones even more. We’ll need to clear more snow. We’ll pay higher and higher property taxes to afford all this expensive infrastructure. We’ll sprawl. Most depressingly, we’ll continue to live disconnected lives without true community and miss out on those serendipitous moments that make cities the pinnacle of human social evolution. Or maybe there’s a chance the pedestrian will make a comeback. AVs will concede right-of-way automatically to pedestrians. It’ll be okay to have nice looking architecture and de-clutter the sides of our roadways of signs. Jay-walking will no longer be dangerous or illegal. Cars will move slower, but stop less… Maybe we’ll see some human-centered urban development…

Next time you design something…

Whether it’s a transportation network or an app, don’t start by deciding how people should use your product. Start by asking how they want to or will use your product. We know a lot more about human behavior today than we did 70 years ago when the trend of imposing behavior on humans started to become the norm in many aspects of our lives. Solutions for humans should make life better for humans, in all dimensions of their lives.