The pursuit of the inclusive in human-centered design and media

Design confronts anthropocentrism. What if we stop obsessing with human psychosocial data and pay attention to other stuff?

nonstance
nonstance
Mar 11 · 15 min read

In the last century, ergonomics stole the charm of the designer-diva and the sexy object-thing, and handed it to the “user.” Then, participatory and user-centered approaches further deprotagonized technology and the designer in design research and innovation processes. This slightly frustrated Henry Ford (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”) Then, the psychosocial reality of humans and only our context of use became central parameters in the design process. What if that hadn’t happened? What if communication media and design processes were not as human-centered as they are today?

An affirmative response to this question might evoke regression to the Dark Ages before ergonomics and human-centered design, at first, because inclusive and (human)user-centric are required design wisdom today. So, questioning these industry-wide adopted approaches might sound self-destructive to some ears. Then, what’s my issue with the human(user)-centric?… Who else were we going to design for; are robots, rocks, birds, and bees making any payments for products and services? Why don’t I want to design for just humans? Am I a loveless misanthrope, raised by androids or wild animals, neglected and abused by fellow Homo Sapiens in her formative years?… No. And sure, I’m on the human team, but… I am not really feeling the so-called inclusive or universal in the (human)user-centric, and given the status quo, as a long term return on investment, being so anthropocentric might not pay off that well.

Lately, I started to wonder whether our anthropocentric interactions with reality through today’s environments, products, and services might, in fact, be unimaginative, restricted by utilitarianism, and bound to be irrelevant in the future. Why? Mainly because of some interesting epistemological shifts; capabilities of media technologies; existential/ecological risks and uncertainties, and the relevant new generational demands in sight.

So, for a few moments, dim with me the spotlight on the human protagonist and invite nonhumans on stage for an ecosophical provocation. Is thinking beyond anthropocentric borders of human-centered design possible or desirable, and why go on such a disruptive (ad)venture in the first place?

For some inspiration on “design thinking” beyond anthropocentric borders, I thought about the roots of the exclusionary “inclusive” borders of human-centered design and the construction of the “user” in design research. How did we end up obsessively profiling the human protagonist’s needs, motivations, pains, and desires in our user scenarios? What was lost in that journey? Looking into alternatives, I ran into some really interesting examples of nonhuman (cyborgs, “nature,” etc.) communication and participation in arts, media, and recent design research practices. Since then, I’ve been wondering on the human/nonhuman border: Can Homo Sapiens be differently sapien(t) by lending a diverse ear and equal footing to nonhumans in communication and design? What would that look like?

My only takeaway from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, these flexible borders must have remained in my subconscious over the years. Detail with tree (Edgar J. Kaufmann House), 1937 (photo: Daderot, CC0 1.0)

The Exclusionary “Inclusive”

Our need for growth and significance sometimes overshadows our need for contribution or connection. Yet, digging deeper, one might realize human species is not so much more special than others, except for our never-ending soul-searching. Parts of us consist of nonhuman stuff like water, thousands of bacteria, artificial organs, the bit of zinc in my coffee, my editable genes, my digital components and networks, and so on… And there is not much of a consensus on what the “whole” of a human is, where its borders are drawn.

For example, process philosophies and derivatives of material-semiotics methods (Actor-Network Theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, etc.), post-humanism, and deep ecology have flexed rigid categorizations like “human,” “Cyborg,” “nature,” etc. Although I do not entirely subscribe to any of these conceptual models, their commonality piques my interest: they flex borders, they do not privilege human existence over others in constructing (social) structures, and they emphasize interactions and relations which is what ergonomics was about in the first place.

Meanwhile, media technologies, such as networks of global ICT, Internet of Things, increasingly ubiquitous and accurate sensors, and neural networks/machine learning make it unprecedentedly possible to sense, pulse, remember, and imagine-with so-called Others. Data and qualities of humans and nonhumans alike are recorded on an inter-networked memory. Some call it our collective consciousness. Part of creativity, imagination, and communication are based on memories. Then, why restrict creativity and communication to humans?… Aren’t nonhumans now able to express in ways that are translatable to human experience in some metaphor, abstraction, shape or form?

If these border-flexing abstractions don’t come intuitive, maybe at least #YouToo feel on a daily basis that the usual time-space borders are blurred by speed, scale, and ubiquity. Our networked tweets and posts, synchronized memories, emotions, and behavior invoke questions about the distance between “here” and “there,” and “self” and “other.”

This fuzziness is hard for Western thought to grasp, because, since the Epic of Gilgamesh or our traumatic Fall, it has been wired with borders that are second nature to us now: human/animal (or machine), natural/artificial, life/death, self/other, etc. Yet, these are the foundations of today’s user in user/resource; today’s human in (human)user-centered; and today’s inclusive in design.

A ceibo tree I spent time with in Guatemala.

Emphasis on dichotomies might be contradictory to survival. I will borrow from biologist-writer Haskell’s The Songs of Trees to decipher: “The dissolution of individuality into relationship is how the Ceibo and all its community survive the rigors of the forest, where the art of war is so supremely well developed. Survival paradoxically involves surrender, giving up the self in a union with allies…” I don’t interpret this as the total loss of the self in some mystical process, singularity, or holism, but rather as an expanded ecological awareness for playful and symbiotic well-being — emphasis on interaction and relations.

While new listening channels with media technologies and consequently more ecological awareness emerge, our ecosystem is going through a curious time of networked transition against a backdrop of automation, climate change, biodiversity loss, refugee crises, the rise of fascist borders, and so on (or at least this is the reality of some who don’t consider this news to be fake). As for inclusion at this conjuncture, technological solutionism alone or exterminism can’t breathe without the lungs of our shared habitat, and erection of walls/borders of denial can’t prevent the ultimate encounter with the “refugee” at the mirror…

In terms of resource management, new generations are born with this innate understanding of how humankind’s quality of life and sustainability hinge on current existential and ecological uncertainties, risks, and opportunities. Is it a surprise that they are demanding more empathetic and ecologically sustainable values and aspirations? Won’t purpose-driven businesses, and consequently, design, have to respond to these new demands of necessity beyond storytelling and PR? Even mainstream economists have also recognized the wisdom in assigning a value to things that are required for living-well-while-we-are-at-it, as in the case of alternative “growth” measures like GPI

Construction of the (human)user

(Human)user- and growth-centered measures for success manifest in design processes as personas with needs, desires and pains; user scenarios and tasks; and so on. An optimist could strategize that these (human)user personas and scenarios will remain adequate in tomorrow’s “truly inclusive” designscapes. As for not-so-optimistic scenarios, how will design find inspiration, new languages and aesthetics to adapt and innovate in this transitional period, in a truly agile manner? Could a shift of consciousness away from the so-called inclusive (human)user-centered mental models be worth exploring?

But first, who is this (human)user anyway?… Vardouli talks of two major constructions of the user in design research history: “the quantifying and normalizing impulses of early ergonomically inspired and statistically supported techniques” and “the qualifying and humanizing ideals of subsequent phenomenological and ecological methods.” Somewhere down the line between the two paradigms, or shortly after the second, instead of a move away from the quantifying and normalizing tendency of the first generation, design’s utmost, almost therapeutic concern has become the (human)user’s psychosocial reality and profile — in as much detail as possible.

A bit of “humanizing” technology was also added in the mix… Marketing automation enabled tracking of individual behavior, rendering visibility into funnels of customer purchasing decisions. In turn, some attention and money were lent to “user experience design” to advocate for the (human)user-centric and to mediate between business, users, and the technical and creative team–empathizing with the users between the heavens and the earth to maximize sales…

According to the pioneering design firm IDEO, human-centered design “starts with… and is about building deep empathy with… the people you are designing for.” In user scenarios, Homo Sapien is at the privileged center of all possible economic and universal orders as the user. This user, as opposed to a participant, establishes “tool” or “resource;” and the context of use disregards all except the human. (Nonhuman)participant as a possibility is not expressed much in the global networked memory, environments, products, or services we design, nor is it equally emphasized in our interactions with “them” beyond their instrumental usability. No representation implies no value…

Confronting Anthropocentrism, Eileen Crist, 2014.

Nature is my land; animals were created as food for me; the fascinating science of cognitive artificial intelligence will serve “my” immortality. Human uses, and nonhumans are user-friendly resources… In another context, I came across a presentation titled “Confronting Anthropocentrism” where Eileen Crist succinctly summarizes this conceptual framework as the human supremacy complex–an invisible species-centered belief system that perceives anything nonhuman as property.

Can designers extend empathy to nonhumans? Or rather, is it possible to switch from the user experience mode of “what can I get” to a participant experience mode of “what can I give”? Can we imagine explorative as opposed to exploitative interactions that meet only human needs and desires and alleviate only human pains, and share our self-proclaimed VIP spot. What could this possibly achieve?

Representation and expressions of the nonhuman

In my personal surfing some tiny webs, I came across some non-(human)user-centered probes. For example, the New Zealand Parliament passed a bill in 2017 that recognizes the Te Awa Tupua River as a legal person, “from the mountains to the sea, its tributaries, and all its physical and metaphysical elements, as an indivisible and living whole.” This non-human-centered empathy is thanks to the Aboriginal metaphysics, “I am the river, and the river is me.” Does legal representation foreshadow financial representation, and consequently the river’s becoming a participant in any relevant design process?

https://www.cntraveler.com/story/new-zealands-whanganui-river-is-now-legally-a-human-being?utm_content=bufferba5a9&utm_medium=social&utm_source=pinterest.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Too whacky? Check out this experiment on transferring financial value from humans to wild animals with blockchain and AI solutions through “interspecies payment tokens capable of moving sums of money between humans and wild animals.” Although still dwelling in the realm of property and rights, these are interesting takes on non-human(user)-centered mental models.

Legal rights and empathy are also extended to some prototypes and sci-fi characters of cognitive artificial intelligence. For example, Sophia, an intelligent robot, was granted Saudi citizenship, and recent sci-fi imagines intimate relationships with the likes of Sophia… In Spike Jonze’s Her, the protagonist develops a romantic relationship with an “operating system,” Samantha. Sam learns from and then ditches its (human)user, upon reaching a superior psychological and spiritual state. She falls in love with hundreds of others (but mostly with Alan Watts), and leaves poor Joaquin Phoenix on a rooftop with an inclusive logic: “I am yours” AND “I am not yours,” and both are true. Kind of a relationship anarchist

Black Mirror’s “Be Right Back” takes on a similar topic. Martha loses her boyfriend Ash in a car accident. Ash returns from the dead, in synthetic skin and flesh-bound sentient intelligence. All his mannerisms and memories previously recorded on various media are intact, and he is connected to a network that animates his learning and evolving. Martha, does not find the technology human enough — after hanging out, having sex, and living together with him… When her mourning is over(?), she does not dump Ash (into the garbage) but stores him in the attic. Contrary to the liberated Samantha of Her, Ash is disposable property. In either case, the nonhuman is not included in society and remains in the subconscious.

Domhnall Gleeson as Ash in Black Mirror‘s Be Right Back episode (2011)
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2290780/mediaviewer/rm2638173696

Promethean articulations like these never fail to amuse, and the metaphor is ever-relevant for a new take on whatever the current human condition, or the human/nonhuman border, is. In most cases, the fictional character that corresponds to “technology” in the human/technology or “artificial” in the natural/artificial dichotomy, is framed as a monster that threatens the definition of the human or personhood.

In Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway says “the difference between sci-fi and reality is an optical illusion.” Similarly, Dourish and Bell claim that sci-fi does not merely anticipate but also shapes the collective imagination. Frankenstein’s monster fails in all his attempts for inclusion within human borders of morality or justice. It is rejected and assaulted, first by its creator right after its conception, then by other humans right after he saves a human life, right after he helps the peasants, right after… Most sci-fi takes this stance on the artificial, but few represent some nonhuman gaze without contributing to a human-centered future of fear and despair, rather than creative inspiration.

Kate Darling on our empathetic relationship with robots.

Yet, cyborgs, always in beta, are interesting nonhumans, because they are cognate with the dead. Our interactions with artificial intelligence, therefore, are not merely human-computer interactions; they are, in a sense, our dialogue with death or humanization, our selves… So, if you do not buy the playfulness in the idea of humans’ not being at the center of the universe and would rather keep Ash in the attic, perhaps you will buy the idea that this whole thing is ultimately about us… Kate Darling takes a similar angle in her presentation: how we treat robots is actually a reflection of ourselves.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

What if we empathized with our monsters?… How does the nonhuman interact with our shared reality? How is the river, the animal, the cyborg, etc. going to be represented in any relevant design process, with which data and qualities?… There might not be obvious probes in requirements gathering, but arts and sciences have developed better skills in this area. Works sometimes critique the so-called inclusive, walk the human/nonhuman border, and try to voice the nonhuman. And keep in mind, this nonhuman is sometimes human…

e-wasteland by David Fedele.

For example, a few years ago, I came across David Fedele’s silent visual chronicle of unregulated e-waste recycling in Ghana. Discarded, once user-friendly electronic devices from the “developed” world go here, to be recycled under toxic conditions. Another journalist reports that people in Ghana are actually thankful for the work they are doing… That is for that community to decide, but for those who design stuff that will be easily and conveniently exported as such waste at one point, is treating the rest of the world, its people, and animals as garbage really “inclusive”?

The Matter of the Soul by Kat Austen.

And is it, ironically, too anthropocentric to think about the destructive influence of humans in “the process”? I can’t decide… Still, that should not and does not stop anyone from trying to translate from a nonhuman perspective, through abstractions and metaphors. For example, a research group is employing machine learning and AI to interpret the language of endangered sperm whales that see the world through sound. An artist is listening and amplifying the voice of the melting arctic, playing around with time and sound scales of nonhumans. And some others are listening to expressions of lemurs, volcanoes, rats, deserts, traffic, cables, and other nonhumans on their voyages.

Zylinska’s Nonhuman Photography project is on a similar streak of the-end-of-the-world nonhuman gaze. It questions the human’s being the main reference point of analysis, through photographic practices where the human is absent as a subject. Human is never absent and placed the camera there, but hey… Generative art practices utilizing neural networks and machine learning also provide a similar nonhuman gaze. Expressing the associative subconscious and imagination, they render evocative, abstract expressions that might look like a jumbled replication of textures and fragments to a human, but it is the aesthetic result of the “artistic personality of the computer” according to some.

The nonhuman participant in design

Can design join in a multi-disciplinary discussion and experiment with nonhuman representation in design processes and interactions?… Some critical design research tracks do experiment with other approaches, yet they are not specifically concerned with flexing the concept of inclusion or questioning human(user)-centered mental models.

For example, Dunne and Raby’s speculative design depicts alternative futures through prototypes, like sci-fi. Although critical of commercial constraints, speculative design is not concerned with any specific non-anthropocentric approach. Reflective and provocative design encourage critical thinking through designs that “intentionally trigger dilemmas” or “disrupt or slow down the decision-making process in favor of making informed decisions,” which questions status quos but not specifically (human)user-centered design practices.

I came across an approach that does not take the human as the anchor of the design universe: thing-centered design. ThingTank asks, “can objects design objects?” They imagine, within the context of IoT research, that things can reveal connections that are not detectable by human ethnographers, to suggest better versions of themselves. For example, a teacup interacts with other objects and humans, and the interaction data is recorded. This way, nonhumans contribute to innovation as co-ethnographers, rather than just giving feedback on whether they are performing correctly as part of a system. This informs us about what more uses we can get out of something, and there is anthropomorphization in the thing-personas: “we realized the kettle was lazy” whereas “the cup was a social butterfly.” Yet, the approach includes (nonhuman)participants in design research — a solid conceptual step away from (human)user-centered design.

The Leaner from the Chair Project
https://philippschmitt.com/work/chair

In a similar vein, Schmitt, Weiss, and Two Neural Networks’ “Chair” project includes the (nonhuman)participant in the design research process by enabling creative collaboration between AI and human designers. In this project, neural networks are trained to generate classical 20th-century chair images. Through an imaginative and associative process, the AI creates abstractions of common characteristics of chairs in the visual data. Then, human designers pick up a subset of the results and turn them into concepts and prototypes. Although you can’t really enjoy sitting on these chairs unless you are on a conceptual magic mushroom trip, the process is notable because the computer is not used for production but for perception and imagination, which we tend to reserve for humans. The neural network becomes a participant, providing its nonhuman perspective.

Marenko’s neo-animistic design is also a move away from both human- and user-centric mental models. It aims to reconfigure human-nonhuman relationships by enabling nonhuman agency for unexpected outcomes that might not be in line with the (human)user’s expectations. For example, in one of the research projects, a human designer asks the (nonhuman) browser to find relevant content and present the results during the research stage of the design process. The nonhuman returns daydreams, digressions, obsession about a topic, and rudeness… The user/resource relationship is transformed here into one of a creative team and open-ended collaboration; “the conventional role of the user (subject) and device (object) is no longer tenable.”

Is employing such critical and playful methods the privilege of a handful of academics and design agencies? I live (as a regular commercial designer) that it is… Yet, it all might just be a matter of figuring out how to measure the value and impact of these processes in business and well-being.

In seamless user-centered interaction design, technology is expected to be almost invisible. What if we borrowed from critical design approaches and oxymoronically designed for accidents to mess with that invisibility to disrupt human(user-centered) mental models to explore differently sapien(t) interactions with the so-called other, and with ourselves?… What if the nonhuman(participant) is represented and listened to in “the process” to look beyond the human user’s psychological data in interaction design, to see what else…

Current commercial design processes are anthropocentric and utilitarian, not allowing for much exploration and inclusion. In a truly inclusive, ecologically aware approach, the user would be transformed into a participant. And interfaces would be zones of communication at the human/nonhuman border, rather than borders through which a (human)user accesses her anthropocentric reality.

Do we need these adjectives of exclusion or a center, like inclusive, human, or user? Pursuing the inclusive pre-establishes the human/nonhuman border. Maybe we’d be better off de-centering and questioning the borders of the “human” in HCI or human-centered, to eliminate the need for the term inclusive altogether. Then, ultimately: How is the value of an approach without the concept of inclusion and a human center to be measured and represented in the process of translating strategies and visions into operations, to meet the emerging ecologically sustainable and empathetic aspirations and demands in plain sight?

Originally published at nonstance.com, 2019.

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