What If Human-Centered Design Isn’t Enough?
By Jarrett Fuller
March 1, 2023
In the last two decades, nearly every design field has been transformed by the development of human-centered design. Where design decisions were previously driven by a designer’s preferences, manufacturing capabilities, or market competition, human-centered design shifted the focus of design goals from the object itself to the context of the end user. This led to a revolution in design processes, but somewhere along the way human-centered design started to lose its way. Is human-centered design really the goal we should be focused on? Does it overlook non-human design, for example, or ignore environmental issues? How can we think about design that is, perhaps, ecology-centered or as ID faculty Ruth Schmidt refers to it: humanity-centered design?
To think through these questions, I spoke with ID faculty members Ruth Scmidth and Carlos Teixeira about what comes after human-centered design. Ruth has been teaching at ID since 2009 and developed courses in behavioral design, communication theory, and semiotics. Her current research is on the intersection of what she calls humanity-centered design with behavioral economics.
Carlos joined ID in 2016 and works across design strategy, open innovation, and sustainable solutions. He is the faculty director for ID’s Action Labs. His current research revolves around the question, “How can design affect the lives and well-being of people and communities by leveraging the interconnectivity of markets, technology, environment, finance, and social networks?”
JF— What is “humanity-centered design” and how it is different than the more common term “human-centered design”
RS— I got a master’s here at ID, and human-centered design was the name of the game. That really was where the action was at the time but more recently — partly because of where human-centered design as a whole is going and partly because of where my natural interests and research were leading — it’s been demonstrated in a variety of settings that only designing for humans can actually lead us down a dangerous path. We satisfy human needs at the expense of others — others being non-human elements like the planet — or by not thinking about systemic effects.
For example, you could argue that human-centered design has actually led to a bunch of dangerous habits when it comes to using digital devices. We can lean into human tendencies by having them use infinite scroll, but we all know that that’s actually not such a great thing for people to do.
So humanity-centered design is a step toward the right place where we want to go. The intent behind it is to acknowledge that humans are still important but it’s also an effort to connect what has normally been centered on people but accept that humanity is a much bigger set of concerns because it’s about the sustainability of our planet or how we interact and work in systems.
JF— Ruth, your work is about this relationship between behavioral science and design. How do those two fields come together? What does that actually look like in your work?
RS— Behavioral design is a fairly new field. The field started in the ’70s and it’s a more scientific way of understanding people’s behavior. It’s looking at all the ways in which we’re “irrational”, for example why we grab the cookie instead of the apple even though we know we shouldn’t. We’re terrible about planning for the future, even though we know better. Behavioral design tries to understand all of these tendencies that we have that are not necessarily in our best interest. That field hit the mainstream in about 2008, which is when I was here getting my master’s.
I was already steeped in human-centered design and as I started to become aware of this other field, found it to be a beautiful complement. It’s a way of understanding different aspects of how people act, make decisions, and make judgments. After spending time using those insights in professional practice, I now focus on how to make designers conversant and comfortable with behavioral science so they can bring that into their practice. And on the flip side, I talk to behavioral scientists and help them understand the importance and the value of design because if you’re only designing for behavior, you’re actually leaving a bunch of really, really important stuff out.
JF— Carlos, in your biography, it says that your research is centered around the question, “How can design affect the lives and well-being of people and communities by leveraging the interconnectivity of markets, technology, environment, finance, and social networks?”
So I’m going to ask you — how can design affect the lives and well-being of people and communities by leveraging the interconnectivity of markets, technology, environments, finance, and social networks? What does that research look like right now?
CT—To put the question in context, it’s based on trying to move the understanding of products and services beyond focusing on the product in itself and designing the products for industrial production. You have the human-centered design approach — understanding those products as they interact with humans in their daily lives and their experiences — but what we are saying is that those products, in reality, happen at the intersection of multiple systems. I like to think about projects and services as things in a larger context.
For example, if you just think about bike sharing, we can think about a service for micro-mobility. But in reality, it is something that has multiple intersections: It’s related to payments that you do. It relates to exercise that you use the bike, it relates to mobility, to commerce depending on where you’re putting those bike stations and the local commerce that you are enabling around that. So when you start to look at those products and services in the larger context in which they exist — not only as it relates to the user experience — then you’re going to see that there are multiple intersections happening all the time.
JF— A lot of what we call human-centered design is really a corporation-centered design. I think when we don’t think about design in these systems and in these contexts, often what we are centering is profit, attention, eyeballs, etc. What do you think about this trajectory of human-centered design and its relationship, in most cases, to profit and business use cases?
RS— It’s a really wonderful question in part because there are probably many causes. It’s interesting because I think this is part of the DNA of ID. Under the leadership of Jay Doblin, the idea that you could combine business and design and strategy was at the time really new and exciting, and novel. That instinct, which is interesting and powerful, is still there but it has also taken on a life of its own.
I was one of these people who went into consulting, for example. People need to get jobs after graduating and what happens is you end up working in the service of somebody who is there to make a profit. So human-centered design is not evil or good, but it certainly is taking the skillset of what designers are good at and sending it in a direction where there is a lot of capitalist momentum behind it. Getting eyeballs on things and selling things that people want to purchase has gotten very, very intertwined, I think, with where human-centered design has led us. It’s not exclusive to that, but it has definitely been a contributing factor.
CT— One of the key novelties of human-centered design was the idea that when we are designing, we need to shift our focus from looking at the product itself to considering the context of daily activities. Human-centered design was not a commercial issue or a corporate issue. It was about how to understand the products as they exist and the agency they have in daily life. Products in the past were designed as the result of industrial production but also as part of market competition. Everything was about market share — where and how do we beat the competition. This does not necessarily always create the best product for the consumer, it’s just creating something that competes better in the marketplace. Human-centered design, then, was picked up by corporations as a business strategy where you’d find products that fit better in people’s daily lives and entire markets could be created around that.
JF— How do we get back to this idea of focusing on activities, responding to the needs of people as opposed to market share? It seems like some of that has gotten lost in the discourse. How are you making sure it remains a focus in the classroom?
CT— We need to see that there are unintended consequences of focusing on the user experience. For example, when we design for the user, we often focus on convenience but making everything very convenient for the user can generate a lot of waste.
Think about the bike-sharing example again and people having the convenience of paying with a credit card. This is fantastic. But this is also discriminatory because people that don’t have credit and financial access, are discriminated against using bike sharing. In focusing on convenience again, it becomes something that is for the privileged, the ones that can be consumers, those that can afford the better quality products.
JF— This connects to this shift from human-centered, which sounds like a single person, to humanity-centered, where it is about all of us collectively. What does that mean when we’re thinking about us as a species as opposed to us as a human? I’m wondering if that can even be pushed further: What does an eco-centered design look like, for example, or an environment-centered design?
RS— I would argue that questions about what progress looks like are really important to consider here because we tend to think of it as questions like: How do I do it faster? How do I get more, cheaper? All of these things that feel beneficial to that end consumer are possibly at the expense of larger systems.
I think reflection is an incredibly important part of design, both as a designer but also just as a person, as a human. We don’t often get the chance to reflect when things are happening in a speedy way. Not to pick on Amazon, but anyone who has one-click Amazon setup, as soon as you click it, it’s purchased. There’s no friction to that process. That can be both for sustainability reasons and waste reasons, but it can also mean that we don’t always temper our own behavior.
This question about who has access is incredibly important. Things like the switch from cash to credit cards, which has been coming up in a variety of ways over the past couple of years, is a great example of that. It can seem like we’re leaning into progress: You wave a phone, you can buy it. But it leaves whole swaths of populations out and it means that the difference between who the haves and the have-nots are becomes enormous. I sometimes talk about this notion of choice infrastructure, which is not targeted behavior change, but the whole set of conditions that surround how we make decisions or what we have access to. That sense of humanity is not just about what’s good for me or people like me, but recognizing the inequity that gets built into those systems altogether. If human-centered design is not focusing on those things, it’s not doing a great job of making sure that we as a society are actually standing up for what we should.
JF— There’s a line from the systems theorist, Stafford Beer: “The purpose of a system is what it does.” At face value, that seems obvious but it raises all these questions about unintended consequences. The purpose of a system is not what we say it does or what it is supposed to do or what we set out to do, but actually what it does when it is in the world doing what it does. Is this actually what it was designed to do? How do you encourage that kind of thinking in the classroom and with your students?
RS— I think being a good designer means being a good critical thinker. When I look back to my own classes, whether it was in college or graduate school, I realize that the things that make me a really strong designer are less about specific skills. The things that I find important are about really looking at all of these questions and interrogating the choices you’re making and having different lenses to understand the implications of choices.
Even the term unintended consequences, you could argue about. Maybe they were unintended but sometimes we could’ve seen that that was going to happen. I find in my behavioral design classes, in particular, a lot of what we work through is how to understand what it is that we’re designing into but also how to understand, for example, where there are uncertainties and how to design for uncertainty. What are the conditions? What are the infrastructures? How is that going to support things that we didn’t intend but are likely to happen because we’re functioning in spaces that encourage certain kinds of behavior over others?
JF— Is part of the responsibility or role of the designer to make space for that reflection when they are working in these complex systems? There seems to be something about the position of the designer, who can have that overall view of how these systems are coming together, that makes for an interesting place to start to raise these questions.
CT— We engage in very deep and extended conversations about this with our students because the tendency, when we look at those systems, is for us to try to be the superhero. Design is the one that can understand the whole, can understand all the specifics, can be fully interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and be at the center and do everything and solve all the problems. I think this is one very dangerous and very problematic extreme. For me, designers have a unique position, which is expertise on products and services. We have a long history of that and I think we need to be able to leverage that expertise as it relates to systems.
I see a lot of other fields that can deal with systems much better than designers. Policymakers, engineers, and many others, for example, can think about the totality of systems. They can think about the parts and their connections. What I think is exclusive to designers is that most of the people who are thinking about systems, they are thinking at the macro level and the meso level, but they’re not thinking at the micro level, where products and service exists. They can never explain how something like the like button has a major impact on how people are categorized into different groups, how they create echo chambers of discussions, etc.. As we are entering this new era of design, I strongly believe that designers need to leverage the expertise in product, service, and communication. But they need to contextualize that in larger systems and work with the other disciplines to show the role that those things play in the larger context.
JF— Can design help businesses think beyond short-term profit or think through these ideas about climate change, about inequalities, about democracy? How can design help others think about systems at these micro and macro levels?
RS— Similarly to how Carlos was just describing the macro, meso, micro in terms of systems, we can think about that happening within commercial organizations. There are decisions happening at that high strategic level, there’s the middle level of deciding how to execute on things or how they’re organized to do that, and then there’s the lowest level of actually doing those things and getting products out the door, making decisions around how to build an app or how to deliver services. Part of what I think makes it complicated is that when we train our students here, they go into practice and they don’t jump right to the top of the food chain.
Plus, there’s not one kind of design. How people think about design’s value has always been a little tricky because it’s not always easily measurable. And so whether that’s value towards really positive, beneficial ends that are broader in societal terms, or how we think about design used to create individual services or offerings.
We’re having so many more conversations at school about these issues than we certainly did when I was here as a student. When I was here about thirteen years ago as a student, we just didn’t talk as much about power or equity or how design can contribute in different ways. There’s been a real change I think just in terms of like, “Hey, this is something that we can’t control only by ourselves.” But we better talk about it because we can’t be sending people out into the world who are not considering the implications of what they bring.
CT— I strongly believe that the way that we’re going to deal with those large systems — what I call complex spaces of innovation, because they are at the intersection of multiple systems— is that we’re going to depend on large corporations or large organizations because they are the ones that have the resources. They are the ones that have the talent; they are the ones that can do long-term investment; they have the expertise to do implementation, and they can stand resiliently through a process of transformation. It can be government agencies, universities, corporations, and foundations and we have to think about where design is situated in them and how we can have the greatest impact by situating design strategically where these decisions are taking place. Design is the field that’s going to bring choices rather than just decisions to those organizations. So I think we need to deconstruct a lot of the current design practices and start to imagine new design practices in new kinds of organizations.