April 15, 2021

Evolving Beyond Human-Centered Design


Users are our north star. Of course they are, right? For decades, that’s been the premise of user-, or human-centered, design in building apps and digital properties.

What do users want? What do analytics say about what’s performing? What does usability testing tell us? Yes, these are questions we must ask, but …

In our enthusiasm to address user needs by responding to their desires and behavior, we’ve missed a step. What’s fallen by the wayside, far too often, is our own instinct and craftsmanship, and our own professional knowledge and knowhow. In far too many cases, the design community has moved farther and farther away from trusting ourselves, and let human-centered design run amuck.

Of course, it’s important to have a human-centered – and, in our work specifically, a patient-centric – mindset when you build. I would never argue to remove that and just listen to ourselves.

Like so many things, though, there’s a continuum, and the pendulum has swung too far to one end.

We Need More Than Just Human-Centered Design
This goes far beyond app design. Consider the detriment that social media has caused to society in recent years, as profit-maximizing algorithms have won out – “give users more of what they already want to make them stay longer!” – rather than preventing (or even just discouraging) misinformation and disinformation. Social media has been commoditized, and kids are depressed and politics is fractured. We’ve seen a blur between real and fake, and an artificial value system created in which people crave the importance they feel from winning insignificant charms doled out by a system.

Societally, we’re realizing now – perhaps too late to prevent much harm – that we need more than human-centered design. We need ethical design. We need to bring back our own moral compasses and principles, and to design with an eye toward things like equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

Human-centered design, at its simplest, allows users to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and provides more of that to them in the platform. That’s not the best idea.

Friction can be an enormously important tool, not just a hindrance to be avoided. Not all experiences should be seamless or no-holds-barred. Deliberate friction can be helpful.

We need to bring back our own moral compasses and principles, and to design with an eye toward things like equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

And it’s important to look beyond, as well – another facet that a strict human-centered design approach can sometimes miss. Google UX Manager and UX Researcher Jess Holbrook has called for “relational design” – the systems approach of taking into consideration everything else that’s going on for the user, around and outside the specific interface that you’re working on. Context is vital, and considering context is vital, too.

Consider — and Demonstrate — Social Responsibility
It’s our job to create work that’s thoughtfully designed, not work that just responds to an analytics statistic. We can’t walk out of the room and let algorithms run all of the decision making. We’ve been smart enough to get here; we can’t abdicate now. A system – even the best system – can’t think about things like social responsibility. We can.

Historically, brands, particularly in conservative industries, have been hesitant to take strong points of view on social issues, but that time is ending, and brands that are ignoring that fact are looking increasingly out of touch.

Consumers today feel a right and a responsibility to know where a brand stands on issues that matter to them. This doesn’t mean opining on every news headline, but it does mean a brand that knows itself and who it wants to be, and what community it wants to support.

If you follow the stats blindly, you might get short-term gains for a while, but you’ll be following, not leading. That’s uninspired. Where’s your Jiminy Cricket – your inner voice that’s telling you who you are, and who you want to be? If you haven’t listened in a while, it’s time.