“Design for Mind” at Doing Dementia Design 2017

Alastair Somerville
5 min readSep 15, 2017

I was invited to do a 80 minute workshop on senses and person-centered design at the Doing Dementia Design conference in Liverpool this week.

None of what I talked about was really about dementia at all. In a conference packed with people with both lived experience and professional knowledge there was never going to be anything I could add on that. I just hoped to help clarify some things people would have noticed in their lives but were not sure what they meant.

This is a post on the 3 key points I did make:

  • A framework
  • A moment
  • A tool

You can download the whole slidedeck from Dropbox.

A Framework

Person centered design can be overwhelming as it seems to be unconstrained. If every person’s perspective and needs is to be counted, how can anything solid be made?

Some designers try to solve this problem through data and averages. Choose a midpoint and that should, assuming a bell curve distribution, be enough to work for most users.

This can work but, with cognitive accessibility (design for people with dementia, autistic people, etc.), it breaks quickly. Averages are not a good way to anchor design.

This framework uses an adaption of Kano’s Iron Triangle to show constraints and tensions of design for person and place through personal perspective.

A framework for design for mind in embodied space

The issues are flexing around the internal capacities and capabilities of the person (their senses, their emotions and their memories) in that time and place AND the designed environment of symbols and affordances (are they perceivable, intelligible, actionable?).

The triangles cannot break. Lose one corner or ignore one corner and nothing works.

Yet the triangles can flex. You can consider people with different sensory capacities. You can wonder about environments that are slightly confusing.

When talking about this framework, I needed to pick out one factor for greater examination.

It was not memories. It was emotions.

A moment

A question

I asked workshop participants to write down something that they tried to do which annoyed them. A missed train when the timetable was wrong, a weighing machine that would not switch from Kilos to Pounds and a water stopcock tap that was impossible to shut off were mentioned.

Simple things. Easy tasks that were memorable for the emotion they raised up. Moments of anger and infuriation.

Generally you just change trains, you just switch the measures over, you just turn the tap off. They’re immemorable moments.

Emotions are ignored in too many design processes as too many people do not appreciate what they are for.

Emotions are part of the meaning making system. They focus our capacities to make sense of stuff. They are not a reaction to failure to understand, they are making understanding.

The emotions (good or bad) that you see in peoples’ interactions are active focusing of the sense making and perception capacities.

This is why you need to look at the anger and annoyance of users in those moments, not look away. You need to see how people are on the cusp of understanding and acting but something is not quite right.

All those moments of anger are moments where the person knows what should be happening (mental models, memories and skills are available) but something is wrong.

Emotion can help us get through these moments. Yet sometimes, it cannot.

It’s a moment designers should look at more.

A tool

Finally, we tried out a practical tool to use at work with groups of stakeholders and users. It’s the KJ Affinity model for raising up multiple issues and concerns about a design problem and then sorting and ranking them.

Just before describing this tool, I talked about the problems of future person-centered design.

Of these 4 points, it is the 3rd one that most concerns me. Contradiction is something that is badly managed in too many designs and, as we head into a world of hyper-personalised services, it is going to get worse.

Contradiction of personal need (that the user is not a stable, rational figure but a person with different capacities and needs in different times and places) is tricky. Yet this is merely one person. When you have places (like care homes or hospitals) with many people with multiple changing needs and capacities, then it is not a world of complexity but a world of contradiction that needs understanding.

The old ‘use an average’ ergonomic solution cannot work. For example, the need for brighter lighter amongst people with dementia does not work well with the need for dimmer lighting for people with sensory processing disorders. An average light level is bad for both. The design constraints are contradictory. You cannot solve them.

And you, alone, should not.

The KJ affinity method is tool for using both the wisdom of the crowd and the reasonableness of the crowd. Rather than trying to balance out contradictions and rather than trying to constrain opinions and options offered, you let the crowd show you all the possibilities and experiences and facilitate mutual understanding and compromise.

The contradictions will remain but they are mitigated.

We tried it out on one question.

It took 20 minutes and the top three choices are 1) cake 2) biscuits 3) crisps. Fruit and ‘posh’ snacks were runners up.

It’s a good tool as it’s simple: pens, two colours of sticky note and a wall.

It enables people from all backgrounds to make their opinions heard, it validates both lived and professional experience and it makes contradictions overt.

And that’s it.

3 ideas, 80 minutes and a shared solution to the “What snack goes with Tea?” conundrum.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX