Exploring the Ambiguity of Autonomy in Design

E.Louise Larson
Dec 5, 2018 · 4 min read

Autonomy is the amount of freedom a person can act within. In Design, the principle of autonomy aims to give users enough tools and information to accomplish their goals. But not so much information they feel overwhelmed and give up.

Have you ever purchased a new app and were forced to click through a tutorial of features? That app was trying to increase your autonomy in the long run by restricting it in the short term. By forcing you into a tutorial, the app was training you on new or advanced features that will come in handy as you gain expertise. This is common practice in apps, games, and software.

Autonomy is also experienced in the physical world. For example, putting training wheels on a bicycle gives you the autonomy to ride by yourself. Getting a driver’s license gives you the autonomy to travel long distances on your own schedule. These different measures of autonomy, however, all exist within larger systems.

What can we learn about the relationship between Design and autonomy in today’s politics, society, and industry?

Designing the Perfect Park

Designers work across all public and private sectors. They use Design Thinking for executive teams, policymaking, and governments. Their unique skills navigate big problems to find meaningful solutions.

Designers might be hired by a city government to help design a public park. For this kind of public works project, a design team would begin by collecting data from the public. There would be a lot of interviews and sticky notes to capture how people feel about parks. Then the designers would sort this data into meaningful chunks. They would look for relationships between these larger chunks of data.

Once the designers have analyzed the data, they would brainstorm a new park. They would make sketches of the ideal park, then meet with the city government for feedback. This begins a series of sessions between the designers and the public, redesign, then designers and the government, redesign, then back to the public…you get the idea.

This process continues until all needs are met, budget constraints are met, or time demands are met. Then the construction of a new public park begins.

In this public parks example Designers spend a lot of time going back and forth between different groups of people. This back-and-forth is one thing that makes Design so valuable. Designers can listen to very different people share very different concerns and needs. They use this information to make something custom for the stakeholders they’re working with.

It is very unlikely, however, that every single need will be met. Designers have to make choices that prioritize some needs over others. This is where the principle of autonomy is applied.

But For Whom?

Designing for autonomy means making decisions with people in mind. The people for whom you’re designing should have enough freedom and information to make their own best decision.

Let’s go back to the public parks example. This park has two kinds of trails. The first kind of trail can be used for running, walking, biking, and rollerblading. No gas-powered motorized vehicles are allowed. The second set of trails are only for motor-sports. Both trails are clearly marked with directional signage and publicly available maps.

Any citizen concerned with their daily jog can choose a safe route, distance, and time of day they want to run. Citizens with dirt bikes can choose trails that won’t conflict with joggers. Both citizen’s have enough information and autonomy to use the park how they best see fit. This is great design practice.

This parks example works great for autonomy in common physical systems. It becomes much harder when applied to abstract, uncommon, or new systems.

Death By Design

Phones and laptops create a lot of autonomy for a person. You can work at home. Stay connected with friends while traveling. Customize software and apps to your liking. These products, and the whole Tech industry, always has to design for autonomy in abstract, uncommon, or new systems. This leads to amazing innovations, and some unique business practices.

Several Tech companies have recently been scrutinized for shortening the lifespans of their products, forcing customers to buy replacements faster. This is called “planned obsolescence.” It happens when a company uses materials or software designed to fail after a certain period of time. The logic is simple. If your phone or laptop fails, you will just buy a new one. In fact, you will probably buy the newest version of the exact same thing you lost.

The forced buying cycle of planned obsolescence is a business decision that decreases personal autonomy.

Difficulty in Design

Given the examples of city parks and cell phones, the principle of autonomy might feel ambiguous. That’s because it is. Designing for autonomy is really difficult.

In Don’t Spill the Drinks I proposed a new metaphor for Design Thinking. The idea is that Design Thinking should feel more like a balancing act than an elevator. This balance is meant for Designers to guide the design process through the murky waters of design thinking without losing sight of how each phase is connected.

This balance requires Designers to practice empathy and reason in equal measure. As you grow in your expertise and process, this balance becomes more intuitive. Though this article ends in ambiguity, I propose a co-design experiment with Artificial Intelligence to explore how Design without Design Thinking might change a process.


This article is part of a series: How Do We Get There From Here? Each essay explores a component of Design and how it shapes our practices. You can find the full series and related content at How Might We…, ongoing thoughts from my Graduate work at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design.

How Might We…

Finding Balance in Philosophy, Technology, Ethics and Design

E.Louise Larson

Written by

Easily excitable. Carnegie Mellon University School of Design. IDeATe adjunct. CEO and co-Founder @ Prototype PGH.

How Might We…

Finding Balance in Philosophy, Technology, Ethics and Design

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade