For a long time, we’ve thought that the world revolves around us. We’ve called it by different names: human-centric, user-centered, and customer-centricity. There are nuances between these terms, but broadly speaking, it’s always about human needs, wants, happiness, and satisfaction.
The stars of this approach are the iPhone and the Swiffer. Both are incredibly useful and convenient, but the iPhone is horrible to repair for the consumer, and the Swiffer is a waste of virgin resources.
They are the result of thoughtful research and applied design thinking. The one is supposed to bring us closer together but make us exceed our credit card level and urge for the next generation while constantly blocking or interrupting any real-life conversation with sounds or blinking displays. And the other solves the pain of dusty front rooms and floors by producing many discarded clothes.
This has been an unintended consequence of businesses following the route design thinking pathed for them. And we, the user, purchased happily regardless of the non-repairability or wastefulness.
What if we had it all wrong all along?
Humans demanded that design is all about our comfort and convenience as consumers and users but not about our holistic well-being as human beings. We seemed not to care. Why should the industry?
Speaking for the western world, we’re confusing wants with needs. Designers, marketers, and managers address our wants and their underlying drivers by creating products and services that can speak to us. As a rough classification, we could describe these drivers as Time Savings, Money Savings, Comfort, and Ease of Use. The need for food is a must-have, or you will die. However, wanting Delivery Hero or UberEats to deliver in 15 minutes is nice to have.
Suppose you compare our wants with Maslow’s pyramid scheme of our needs. Today’s consumer markets cater mainly to the top four levels. Depending on the brand engagement, they can substitute or fuel even the top levels.
Also, brands aiming for the more basic segments like Britta (water purifier), Dyson (air conditioning), or Nestle (food) have got rightful negative press lately. The relentless consumerism of the last decades has led to massive waste, and the extraction and processing of virgin materials deny our basic needs sooner than later.
Hardly any company fights to preserve fresh air, clear water, and shelter. Instead of safeguarding natural recourses, they extract, manufacture, and sell them elsewhere, leaving entire areas with limited choices.
And globally, we see through such a lens that human-centered design cannot be deemed ‘successful’ if a person has to breathe polluted air, if social bonds are weak and superficial, and if someone who’s flipping burgers every day at McDonald’s still needs to live off food stamps. This implies that we shouldn’t view Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a ladder to climb, with one level making way for the next. Instead, we need to consider all five levels simultaneously and holistically.
What lies beyond human-centered design?
At INDEED Innovation, we strive beyond human-centered design or the view of “humanity-centered design” as Taylor Cone, Founder, and CEO of Lightshed, a design and innovation firm based in San Francisco, puts it:
“Humanity-centered design embraces the mindset that what isn’t good for the hive isn’t good for the bee. It’s a world of designing solutions focused not just on doing the most good for an individual human but also the larger community of humans.”
In 2005 design researcher Donald A. Norman cautioned against human-centeredness in design that leads to significant benefits for some but detrimentally affects others. The platform economy is a case in point. It’s very convenient for the customer who is hailing an Uber. Still, the lived reality for Uber drivers globally is not so rosy, in particular, because they have no safety net in the form of social security.
Similarly, Thomas Both, director of the Designing for Social Systems Program at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, argues that it is essential to consider the “downstream consequences of your creations,” and we couldn’t agree more.
Tools, tips, and frameworks to help you go beyond human-centered design
Kevin Slavin, Assistant Professor and Founder of Playful Systems at MIT Media Lab, formulates the pertinent question that has started to hound the practice of human-centered design: “When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects.”
Designer Johanna Schmeer echoes this sentiment. It’s not just about considering the needs of the other humans who are not your users. What is required is to consider the other-than-human actors as well: “ecologies, bacteria, air, soil, artificial intelligence, etc.” She writes: “In times when robots are granted citizenship and residency rights, undefined forests and mountains are given the same legal status as humans to protect them from ecological disaster, and in which we now understand that humans are to a large extent other-than-human, hosting more microbial cells in our body than human cells, our attitudes toward design and human-centeredness need to be re-examined.”
Schmeer argues that the problem is that the future people want is not necessarily the same as the future that “the environment, an AI, or your gut microbiome wants.” This is why she makes a case for Xenodesign. While it does not disregard humans, it endeavors to account for multiple perspectives simultaneously by paying equal attention to the experiences of various stakeholders: from humans to artificially intelligent beings to the air, bacteria, and beyond.
Actant Map or Non-human personas
Another way to ensure that you bring the voice of the environment into the conversation is to draw and plot an actant map. Human and non-human actors are both deemed to have agency.
Non-human personas can also be created to help make the needs and concerns of the environment explicit.
Economist Kate Raworth’s concept of Doughnut Economics contains several principles that designers would do well to heed. The Doughnut is a “compass for human prosperity in the 21st century, intending to meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet.” The Doughnut Economics Action Lab explains these principles as follows:
- Embrace the 21st-century goal: Meet the needs of all people within the planet’s limits.
- See the big picture: Note the various roles and actors and how they interact, from households, the commons, the market, and the state.
- Nurture human nature: Focus on strengthening community relationships, building trust, and looking after the well-being of people; make the circle bigger by widening participation and promoting diversity.
- Think in systems: Realize that elements within a system influence one another and be on the lookout for dynamic effects, feedback loops, and tipping points.
- Be distributive: Share value with those who helped create it and aim to redistribute power to build more societal equity.
- Be regenerative: Share, repair, regenerate, and steward; think of the climate and energy when making decisions.
- Aim to thrive rather than grow: Consider becoming better rather than more extensive, and don’t let growth be your ultimate goal.
And there are many more tools we use, and you might like—Check-in with us to learn more.
We are going beyond human-centered design—what’s next?
The shift from caring just about us to caring about everything and everyone should have occurred yesterday, so there’s no time to waste. We illustrated why it has become problematic to put the human at the center of everything and what it might entail when designing, not just for the individual user or consumer’s satisfaction.
We explained why it’s essential to implement a beyond-human-centered mindset and showcased some practical application tips to go beyond human-centered design. Now it’s up to you and us to deliver the change. However, you call it: planet-centered design, humanity-centered design, life-centered design, society-centered design, or stakeholder design (Editor’s note: We are currently leaning towards system design).
The key is to design in a way that considers the well-being of humans, animals, ecosystems, and the broader society. It’s a way of designing to actively plan for the downstream consequences of your actions and address the unintended effects.
This article is co-authored by Karel J. Golta, Michael Leitl, Marizanne Knoesen, and Stefanie Wibbeke.