“Human-centered” isn’t: closing the people gap

The need for a dose of Humans 101, and what that might include

All illustrations by Hannah du Plessis (@hannahdup). They were created for her #Dare Conference talk on Nonviolent Communication, available on Vimeo.

In an article entitled “How Do We Work?”, I described two gaps that make our tools inadequate for complex challenges (and which led me to quit my job). I’ve been looking into these gaps through recent years, looking to find things that will help advance our practice, and trying to pull them together into one story.

Here’s how I summarize the first gap.

Gap Number 1: Relationship and human depth are key to understanding situations and producing lasting results, but we don’t take time to understand either, and we aren’t good at working with either.

Part 1: “Human centered?” Grumping about a collective lack of people-literacy

Getting it off my chest: “Human-centered” isn’t human-centered

I’m a pretty positive guy. I don’t normally grump. But indulge me for a few paragraphs so I can get this off my chest, then we can move on.

Seriously. For all this talk (over decades!) about “human-centered design,” “putting people first,” and so on, you’d think our conversations would be different by now. Attend a conference, sit in a classroom, or work on a project team, and what is most of our conversation about? Technology. Our own methods, our own smart ideas. Our own careers. Business. Mostly technology. Oh, and money.

“Users” and “customers” are consistently seen and discussed as “other.” Not us, but “them.” We see ourselves as different than “them.” Or just as bad, we see ourselves as the same as “them.” “Oh, this thing we made is great. They’re going to love this!”

We do “ethnographic research,” but usually the results are abstracted, packaged and synthesized to the point where emotion, personality, and life’s complexities are reduced to a bag of dried shiitakes, leaving everyone safe to continue seeing “users” or “customers” as abstract others. The few people who actually go out and spend time with people outside the office — the “researchers” — are the exception. When they do their job well, they develop authentic connection to people. They experience de-abstraction from “Other” to “Jim and Marge, who live outside of town, still deal with the loss of their son, who take piano lessons together,….”

But when they bring that back to the office, there is no place for it in the process. The organization has no input for the complexities of human depth, no ears for emotion, compassion, sympathy, or love as business drivers. As strategic pillars.

Ridiculous. As though leaving half of our humanity at home, parking it outside the door when we enter the project room or board room is a good recipe for creating work that matters, that contributes to the world, that endures. As though our strategic minds alone, divorced from the emotional and mythic parts of ourselves, could make our days at work satisfying and fulfilling or lead to profound results.

The team members who did field research are left trying to package their sense of connection in a form that is acceptable to the organization and its processes. Experience maps, opportunity descriptions, insights and themes, persona, highlight videos, relationship maps, and so on and on.

These are all abstractions. They are all distancing technologies. They document otherness. As tools for connecting the business to the world, they utterly suck. They make the world seem safe. They preserve the comfort of everyone in the cubicles and project rooms.

But the world is not safe. Contact with the real depth of real peoples’ lives is uncomfortable.

These are my complaints:

  • Our processes don’t have enough surface area. They don’t get enough of the organization outside the office, in direct contact with the depth and complexity of human experience, without intervening abstraction or mediation.
  • Humans aren’t part of our shop talk. Typical organizations, teams, and professionals aren’t curious about people, aren’t excited about people, don’t spend time learning about people.
  • We don’t fight for people. We allow business and technology concerns to trump human concerns.
  • We don’t allow ourselves to be fully human. We feel good about ourselves to the degree that we can perform, produce, be cool, be accepted and admired. Our reluctance, doubt, fear, uncertainty, insecurity, desires, unbusinesslike and unprofessional passions: those all have to stay hidden. They are unwelcome at the workplace.

People are broad and deep; why do we insist on labeling them?

People are so huge, but how we see them is so tiny. Each person is a lake of experience, memory, imagination, emotion, possibility, and constant process of change and becoming. But we shrink people by forcing our image of them (in an instant!) to fit behind a simple label. Customer. Old. Boss. Teacher. Programmer. Enemy. Immature. Annoying. Wife. Husband. Soldier. Terrorist. Criminal. Loved One. Liar. Foreigner. Labels are judgments, and labels are cataracts on our vision.

So why does the commercial design research process put itself in the business of manufacturing labels?

Labels may be fine or even necessary when it comes to just getting through the day with all our fingers intact and a few groceries in the fridge. But if you work with people? If you create products and services for people? If your decisions are going to affect millions of real human beings as they go through their process of life? Not good. Actively harmful.

Suppose you were applying for a job as a web developer. It would be perfectly reasonable for me to show you a list during the job interview, and say, “Pick three things from this list, and summarize for me a few of the most important ideas about those topics.”

  • Web architectures and protocols
  • Markup languages
  • Separating style, structure, and content
  • Interface design
  • Information architecture
  • Visual hierarchy
  • Server-client responsibilities

… I won’t try to be complete. You get the idea…

Now suppose you were applying for a job in “human-centered design” or “[human] experience design.” If I conducted the same interview activity using a list of basic topics in human understanding: emotions, relationships, communication, social structures, decision-making, stages of development, the relationship between perception and judgment, and so on. Most candidates would be shocked. “I’m a UX designer! Do they expect me to know psychology and sociology too?!”

I hope the day comes when the answer is, “No, we don’t expect you to be an expert in psychology and sociology. But we insist that you are literate in the basics of the inner lives of human beings. The very name of the thing you do has the word ‘human’ in it, so this doesn’t seem like too much to ask.”

And maybe we can work on spreading the idea in the business world that “customers” and “employees” are actually humans, so maybe Humans 101 literacy would make sense to learn.

Thank you for letting me rant. I feel better now.

But what difference would it make?

What difference would it make if design professionals, managers, and the organizations and processes they participate in had a greater understanding of humans, human experience, and human change and development?

Part 2, Imagining a Humans 101 course

Where does this come from?

For the past five years, my colleague Hannah du Plessis and I have steadily acquired more literacy in human depth, human development, and the formation and life of social systems. We’ve been greatly helped by teaching appointments at Carnegie Mellon and the School of Visual Arts, and we’ve had some wonderful chances to try new ways of working with some of our clients.

So the complaints above and the suggestions below actually come from somewhere other than wishful thinking. Our teachers are those who are seriously engaged in shifting repetitive, unproductive or destructive patterns at individual, team, organizational, and systemic scales. We’re learning a lot, and we have been developing a body of material to help others learn for themselves. Not much is public yet, but stay tuned.

Getting started: the long list

When I first sat down to write this, I made a list. I asked myself, “If I was going to package basic literacy in human beings, the way others try to provide literacy in computing, business, physics, design or whatever, what would need to be in that package?”

So I started my informal, top-of-mind list.

Well, it quickly became too much. I quickly realized that a real Human Beings 101 course can’t include it all. A full degree can’t cover it all.

A broader but shorter topic list

I started again, this time asking myself, “If I was putting together a course in Humans 101, and I only had seven weeks to teach, what would be my list of topics?”

I found myself using poetic, metaphorical language to avoid the technical terminology and formal framing of social sciences. On the one hand this feels risky, because institutional cultures are typically uncomfortable with “soft,” “imprecise” poetic language. On the other hand, I’m talking about a 101 class here: a sufficient understanding and literacy that is broad before it is deep, and that offers both the compelling richness it needs to be memorable and the grounded accuracy it needs to be useful in practice. It needs vivid, memorable, compelling language if the ideas are going to stick in people’s minds and have a chance of getting a foot in the door of our conversations and practices.

That’s a tall order. But let’s see what it’s like to play with a prototype.

Human depth: We are each a lake. 
Depth and layers of being and experience. Some layers/aspects are accessible through language and image. Some not so much. What’s down there? Stories, for one thing. Defining stories, that unconsciously affect how we see, how we listen, how we make sense and respond. What is “state of mind?”

Relationships and belonging: We are each a stitch in the weave.
The essential, defining role of relationships in our identity and experience. The myth of the individual. Relationship dynamics. Belonging. Care. Useful, working definitions of love and power. Emergence of social patterns. The way our identity and stories are mutually entangled with family, group, community, and society. Social scales and the importance of small groups. Societal trauma, societal care. The notion of “social fields.”

Dynamics: We are each a process, a becoming. 
Static views of humans considered as deceptive and oversimplified abstractions. “Becoming” in the short term: habits and repetitive patterns, habit-forming, pattern-entrainment and pattern-emergence, models of individual change and pattern-breaking. “Becoming” in the long term: the mythopoetic human journey, stages of life, human development.

Integration: We each have a shadow side.
Humans experience a tremendous range of emotions, desires, and appetites. But starting in childhood, we are taught that only a narrow range of these are acceptable, and the rest must be hidden or suppressed. Eventually we come to believe that parts of our experience are “bad” or shameful. What does it mean to integrate these into our identity? How does this relate to maturity and creative contribution to those around us?

Dialog: We depend on communication (but aren’t taught how to do it).
Relationships, those essential threads in life’s fabric, are mostly made of conversation. Communication. What are the basic practices of good communication? What are the common dysfunctions, and how might they be addressed? “Listening,” it turns out, is a far richer topic and deeper skill than we’ve been led to believe. Same goes for “speaking.”

Purposeful creativity: We each contain a creative fire. 
An under-appreciated human need, a universal human potential: to give creative expression to our individual voice, vision, and possibility. To move into a state of being where we experience an integration of our personality and a sense of power and belonging in the world, making the furnace for creative expression. What is the common human experience of creative expression (and suppression)? How do we create together, and how do we move from “closed” to “open” creativity? How do we understand creative self-expression and creative community? What is collective or community creativity?


Working with Humans 101

If we only understood more about people, that would be a great start. It would have a significant impact on our ways of working. But really the Humans 101 course needs a lab component. Desk learning is one thing, but we all know how desk learning can let us down when we find ourselves face-to-face with people who are different than ourselves, in situations that make us feel uncomfortable, or in positions where we feel small and inadequate.

I’m not going to spell out a speculative outline for the lab course here. My colleague Hannah du Plessis and I are developing the building blocks of this through our courses at Carnegie Mellon and School of Visual Arts. It isn’t easy to do, but I can say that we are employing a diverse mix of:

  • journaling and other activities for personal exploration (there’s only one person who can give you access to their inner state: you. So for parts of the lab course, you are the lab)
  • theater games and methods, especially those drawn from applied improv
  • various group dialog and reflection activities
  • field observation, interview, projects and participation
  • artistic methods, which can give expression to non-linguistic, non-analytical parts of ourselves

We’d like to try this!

This rant / article is not a pitch for me to teach a course. One course won’t fill this need, either in capacity or content.

But maybe one course could make a little dent. Maybe it could get something started. Maybe it would be good for a few people, a few teams, a few companies and institutions. Maybe if would be fun!

We have the raw material for Version 1 (beta) of the Humans 101 course. We’ve wondered whether someone out there would like to host it in their city, or whether it might be something we could do online. Given our current resources and work load, we think we would need a partner to do this well.

We would be interested in your ideas, expressions of interest, doubts and concerns, questions and comments. Comment here, or use the contact form on our site to find other ways to get ahold of us.


Marc Rettig
Pittsburgh, December 2015

Marc and Hannah’s professional home: fitassociates.com