Chapter 6: Thinking More Human Being

This is the sixth chapter from my book “Hippo — The Human Focused Digital Book” which is available to buy now on all Amazon Platforms.


‘Mathematical reasoning may be regarded rather schematically as the exercise of a combination of two facilities, which we may call intuition and ingenuity.’ Alan Turing

A more human focused approach to designing products and solutions would drastically change how we think about people and the lives we all live. It helps us to realise that people do not behave as we think they do. Even under the microscope of qualitative and quantitative, field and desk research, the results are often an observation of the person’s mind-set at a ‘moment’ in time. Technology gives us the ability to track and observe people over ‘periods’ of time, much more ethnographically than any other method and also makes more regular observations about them — coupled with behavioural, environmental and other psychological factors. I see two perspectives and approaches to human focused digital. One is based on intuition, the other — on a systematic approach to identifying the change you want to see.

Most of us aren’t at such an advanced level in terms of intuitive abilities. It is therefore more reliable to follow a systematic process as we evolve and culture our own intuition. Then you are not depending only on an individual’s currently repressed ability, which is going to be very different in terms of effectiveness from person to person, rather: we are harnessing the collective intuition through systems. Remember that collective unconscious we spoke of earlier? No matter how much you trust your intuition, it’s always beneficial to go through this process of scanning the ecosystem, extrapolating the future outcomes, developing models, consulting experts, and creating a vision. Often, this can simply support that which you were initially able to intuit — and there is surely nothing wrong with that.

Moreover, let’s not forget that technologies create new social practices, specialisations and knowledge requirements. This then adds a new set of social divides between those who possess the required skills and those who don’t. The societal implications of new technologies have become more and more complex with the advent of computational systems. ‘If we learn the reasons for and the properties of these various technologies, then maybe we can control the impact,’ Don Norman says.

Always start your design approach by mapping out the very basic design pyramid in which the classical rhetorical questions of Quis (who), Quid (what), Quango (when), Quem ad Modum (in what way) and Cur (why) are answered. This interpretation of human focused digital is based on Maslow’s hierarchy, which has its base in scientific facts about human physical, perceptual, cognitive and emotional characteristics: followed by progressively more complex, interactive and sociological considerations.

Human focused digital should answer a series of questions and answers, ones that cross the entire spectrum: from the physical nature of people’s interaction with product, system and service to the — metaphysical. Good design is about questions, not functions. Ask yourself then, how you want someone to feel and not how you want someone to behave. Designs whose purpose and characteristics are to answer questions and curiosities which are feeling powered, further climb up the psychological and philosophical hierarchical pyramid of information gathering. Designs will then be able to appeal to a wider range of people — and they will. Subsequently embedding themselves deeper within people’s minds and lives will nurture the potential between the design and a person’s potential to pull out of it all that they can. Try creating a product then, which introduces a new meaning into someone’s life. It will offer deeper meaning and also move it closer onto the path of being a mass need and in turn, a commercial success.

As ‘User Experience’ practitioners start to shift away from thinking for users and think more for people, there will still be methods that they use today that will benefit them tomorrow. For instance, a user experience designer today should be spending more time scanning the environment and picking up trends that aren’t necessarily what the so-called-user is asking for, but what the user-experience-turned-human designer believes could create a more emotional, human experience.

Take a minute to count the problems you’ve had to solve today. Most likely, you’ve chosen what to wear, what to have for breakfast, which route to take to work. Once at work, you took stock of pressing demands and made some decisions about which tasks to tackle first. If you’re a manager, you might have had to schedule and attend meetings, possibly negotiate with team members on a proposal, counsel some staff, prepare reports or presentations and you might have had to pitch an idea, all before lunch.

The key organising principle in the brain is to minimise threat and maximise reward. This has implications for problem-solving because when we experience a problem that we need to solve, it activates the same parts of the brain that process threats, which in turn impacts our capacity to think clearly and make good decisions. The threat response is both mentally taxing and deadly to productivity. It also impairs analytical thinking and creative insight. Creativity and problem solving does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain, it involves all of it as one organ working as one. There is no one location in the brain that makes decisions and solves problems (all four lobes are involved and so too are a lot of sub-regions), as well as then the entire organism that makes up the human being. Everything, we must recall, is connected to everything else and although we don’t see the connections — this does not mean that they are not there. The entire system is connected, and these connections are built to self-perfect, refine and solve issues that are otherwise premature with respect to our current state of evolution.

The most basic definition of a problem is ‘any given situation that differs from a desired goal’. Go back a thousand years or so and this included issues like finding food in harsh winters, remembering where you left your provisions, making decisions about which way to go, learning, repeating and varying all kinds of complex movements. Problem solving has been crucial during the evolutionary process that created us the way we are. Solving problems is good — it makes us better. So we need to think really hard when we’re designing solutions about the way in which they are helping people solve problems. I have a simple principle — everything we design should make people better (because the brain is wired to solve and evolve).

I boil all types of problem solving down to two very simple kinds. We have linear problem solving, including problems that can be solved using a single solution and are usually best solved analytically. An example of a linear problem might be balancing a budget because the outcome should always be the same, regardless of the individual performing the task and their own method. Another example would be using Uber. You want to get home, you pull out your phone, you set your location and your destination and you press a button.

Secondly, there are non-linear problems, which have more than one solution and are solved only with a different kind of thinking. They require non-conscious thoughts to come through and lead, and these are what we might refer to as Insight Problems. These organic problems demand an organic approach and thus differ to the linear analytical obstacles in that they don’t have obvious solutions or sequential steps in-built toward ‘the’ solution. They are ‘complex problems’ and demand something very different to achieve the goal and because the answers are all pinned to infinite variables: the weather, the ability to dance, read maps, read English, and everything else, then prior learning is of little help. Such productive thinking involves insight and these problems demand creativity and the ability to combine information in whole new ways of being. Consequently, these problems have the potential for an infinite number of solutions because each solution will hold within it its own credible solution that is relative.

Practice does make perfect, or edges toward perfection and there is plenty of evidence that bears this out. We develop expertise in linear tasks by their repetition, which creates and strengthens pathways in the brain, even resulting in growth of the part of the brain associated with that activity.

Compared to bus drivers, London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus in the posterior region of the brain. Why? A bus driver’s hippocampus has a specialised role in developing the skill used to navigate routes. The bus drivers’ hippocampus will be relatively under-stimulated because they drive the same route day after day. The entire problem solving process, complex or simple — from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification — consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions.

Complex problems though, need creative solutions, ones that come to us in the form of these insights. When we have an insight, what is not obvious becomes obvious, as if a fog has simply cleared and the vista has appeared. In that moment, nobody can tell us that the vista is not real — we simply realise that they cannot yet see it. More complex tasks are less commonly encountered and therefore solutions aren’t readily to hand. Faced with what is at first sight an insurmountable problem, we cast our eyes to the skies and seek inspiration wherever we can find it. The key it seems is to try less, do less, and allow the silence to speak to us. The Eureka moment that is always so spontaneous can be hindered by anxiety as that which is being delivered from the unconscious is suppressed through that state of anxious being. When in that more relaxed zone, the unconscious brain throws aspects of the problem into the mix and, by making new connections, delivers solutions for us to run with.

The unconscious can be thought of as our parents and until we are ready to hear something and connect with it, our parents will keep it from us. However, once the unconscious does reveal more knowledge to our conscious selves, we experience the insight and it is for us to take advantage of the moment. Repressing it back into the unconscious is rather obtuse and a habit of our culture while we ‘think’ too much and procrastination runs amok. The reason this process is somewhat immature, is because all the unconscious will do is keep providing the insight, until eventually we surf the wave that always wanted to take us to the next level, place, country, relationship. The brain is simply pulling together remotely linked ideas as if playing a game of dot to dot without our knowing, to create solutions to long-standing problems — not something our prefrontal cortex is very good at. Letting go of trying to figure things out and trusting that our brain is doing it anyway, is one of the things we find hardest.

We need to start designing solutions for some of life’s big problems (like financial planning) that tap into the power of the non-conscious brain. Setting people a problem or challenge to solve and then actually asking them to walk away from it feels counter-intuitive, but it’s a genuine neurological recipe for success.

Sometimes the way to do more is to do less and this is hard to fathom in a society that stresses, encourages speed, progress and especially more progress than another person’s — progress. Anxiety and stress distract people from their silence and clear thoughts, inhibiting their ability to have and pay attention to insights. When we are in stress, even the simplest of decisions — what shirt to wear, whether to shave or not, can become a complicated process. ‘I can’t think straight’ or ‘my head is not in the right place for that’ are certainly phrases that I have said out loud. When we are in anxiety, we are not in flow and insights (those eureka moments) are muted. A great shame considering they are the exact thing we search for in our anxious hysteria. Insights — those special things — they always occur when our brains are quiet, and activity level is low, so we should aim to design solutions that keep an audience in a positive mood from the very start — don’t bamboozle, keep it calm, keep it light. It’s what I call ‘The Smile Test’. How can you keep someone smiling through an entire process? There’s an art to it, and the key is not to encourage more anxiety. Lifting off the seals of stress from people will allow them to ground into that quiet place, insights will come to them, and then that smile, and not one that is short or quick and ‘chemical’, but the other kind, the one that is constant and present and remains, for a long period, the one that emits an inner glow — the one that has come because you have initiated a lighter, more stress-free ride to allow them to be with their insights — to be with themselves.

Does a product make me smile? If it does, then my brain is going to be on a low-anxiety mode and I’m then primed to start solving problems from that relaxed state. Emotions, you see, are the perfect measurement of human focused products. In addition to their internal and psychological relevance, emotions have a specific social role and when people experience emotions — they tend to show them. Like laughter and smiling, the feeling of happiness has been proven to enhance social bonds. Laughter — it is a good example of something that has evolved from the ‘lay face’ expression seen in other primates during their chill out time. These very expressions and positive emotions enhance social relations by producing analogous pleasurable feelings in others. Think of some of your favourite people to be around. It’s likely they’ll emit this very energy. By rewarding the efforts of others, we can encourage on-going social contact. There are thus, good biological, psychological, and social reasons to presume that using emotions as the measurement of your products success, alongside traditional metrics like sales would be relevant to human happiness and your business problem.

Another good reason to judge your product on how happy it makes people is because happy people might share their good fortune (for example, by being pragmatically helpful or financially generous to others), or change their behaviour towards others (for example, by being nicer or less hostile), or merely exude an emotion that is genuinely contagious. Psychoneuroimmunological mechanisms are also in play, and just being surrounded by happy individuals has beneficial biological effects. It seems that everything Greek philosophers, medicine men and the original herbalists taught us has been on point all along, and that a person’s mental state completely influences disease and healing. It is key, therefore, to be in health and well-being so we are then able to design that out. Are we for example, asking our audiences to focus on too many things at once? Try to focus their attention on one thing at a time.


Overcoming an impasse is achieved only with a shift in perspective — a break in the current mental mode. This is hard for us because it is so normal that we learn from past experiences and then carry that knowledge into current situations to reference — this is how we evolved as a species (learning and applying). That which we have applied before and seen work — we use again. Unfortunately, this also hinders our ability to see things from a different perspective — how ironic because it is this new perspective, which is needed to so often — move forward.

One of our greatest challenges in shattering the current state of analytical and critical thought is rationality. To solve anything with insight and creativity, we have to stop focusing on the rational, which is often culturally the less sensible but we surely must as focusing on the problem and putting further effort into finding the solution within the confines of analytical focus does not allow the space conducive to having an insight. Critical thought and culturally sensible behaviour with respect to problem solving are controlling as these states of being bring a person back to rationality and a rational approach doesn’t fix a problem — it just analyses it.

Embracing data and analysis is, in and of itself, rational. In this fashion, the brain thus constrains our ability to creatively strike a problem away using insight by further cementing a particular perspective or corollary into the analytical, often academic border. Limits, boundaries, margins — none of this opens doors. ‘This is the way it is, this is how it’s done, this is the right way,’ halts and stagnates the en flow of all that is. As an approach, this rigidity will perpetually firewall the insight — a powerful almost spiritual sound with an ability to help you see and hear the different perspectives emanating from out of the void. It’s time for disruption. Pride though, has a way of keeping us confined to the space we are allowing ourselves to reach, both in emotion and mind — it doesn’t want us to listen to those insights. Letting go of pride, social norms, conventions, theories, conducts and traditions will allow the self to hear and in turn harness an ability to see and feel the different perspectives. Emergence is thus allowed to blossom, as the path of its growth has been un-blocked. On March 1st, 1980, at the Thomas J. Watson Research Centre at IBM in New York, Benoit Mandelbrot saw something — a formula. He had an insight. What he envisioned came to be known as the Mandelbrot set, and a set of complex numbers was now able to animate the emergent nature of our universe. A mathematical visualisation or set of ‘fractals’ were capable of displaying visually the repeating emergence or natural appearance of all things, including natural phenomena that blossom out of the empty and into — manifestation, here in our reality — including in psychoanalytics, thoughts or realisations. From the veins of an oak leaf or the pattern of frost crystals on cold glass to river networks observed from space, the flowering birth of an organism that grows ‘out of itself’ was now confirmed scientifically as being the rising and emanating pattern that was making itself known and present. It was the thing that Dylan Thomas said when describing creative flow. It was: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

Try designing solutions that describe a problem to be solved using metaphors or parallels. For example, stop talking about financial problem solving using money. Instead, create a solution that uses a metaphor because it will switch the fixation on the actual problem, to one that’s more creative.

Sometimes if we want to experience creative solutions to long-standing problems, we have to step back so that we can see the bigger picture. Studies show that people are able to solve problems more if they visualise or imagine themselves in the future solving their problem. This promotes a form of stepping back, which produces more creative ideas as the unconscious passes them up to you in no different a way than a conveyor belt functions. All we have to do it seems, is take our foot off of the stop pedal and allow the unconscious conveyor belt to keep delivering through that sacred content that is reaching through to save us from our analytical mind prisons!

Encourage the audience to take a break, and go for a quick walk. While this may be seen as eating into the experience time, we know the process of stopping and not thinking about a problem can quieten the brain (allowing for an insight you may not have otherwise had). In addition, research tells us that it is much easier to take a positive perspective on a challenging situation when we are in a good mood. Negative moods are associated with a narrow focus, sometimes referred to as tunnel vision, sometimes referred to as… pride. When faced with a complex problem, allow your brain to gain some distance from the problem and notice how many more creative ideas bubble to the surface. Consider starting your problem-solving tool by asking people what mood they’re in and if the mood is specified as gloomy, then suggest they come back and try to solve the problem at another time.

‘Restructuring’ as a term serves to describe the behaviours at work in people when we use novel approaches to problem solving and achieving desired outcomes. We should bear this in mind when designing and consider how a problem is represented in a person’s mind. ‘How does solving this problem involve a reorganisation or restructuring of this representation?’, we may wish to ask.

When you step away from interfaces and meditate over the problems you’re trying to solve, connecting humanity and design back together becomes quite an abstract challenge. In a rapidly changing world, the separate disciplines of SEAD (science, engineering, art and design) should more usefully be considered together, as a means to promote problem solving and exploration of possible outcomes.

A human focused approach affects digital product design in three steps:

1. It changes how we diagnose the problems we’re going to fix. For example, when we want to diagnose why people don’t have enough money, we may be tempted to conclude that they do not understand the value of money or the effect on their future selves. Human focused design forces us to consider another possibility: they want to save, they understand the benefits, but they simply don’t get around to doing it. Saving may just be one of many behaviours, such as exercising or giving to charity, where what we do fails to match up with what we want to do.

2. It shifts up a gear on how we begin to design fixes to problems. In some situations it might suggest that a basic reminder will cause unreasonable effects on behaviour, while in others it might suggest a different approach to offsetting biases toward planning our poor spending, for example.

3. It can completely change how we decide on what the scope of a problem is. We have to convince people that problems that they are overlooking may suddenly become interesting ones to solve — if they choose to see them this way — and we can help there. (For twenty years, we’ve focused too heavily on access to the ‘tool’, but that focus needs to shift in recognition that the important problems still remain — even after access to said tool is made easy. How do we make sure that people actually save money rather than just use the tool? That is the question.)

Remember, that when we solve, we evolve.


Copyright © 2017 Nexus CX Ltd

www.nexus.design

Paperback ISBN 978–0–9955361–3–5
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First published in Great Britain in 2016 by Nexus CX Ltd

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