Alastair Somerville

Dec 11, 2016

3 min read

Designer-Centered Design

I spoke at a multisensory architectural design event this week. It was the final part of a series of evening talks where people from academia and practice (an odd division of professional lives but it’s still a thing) explained their research and their products in terms of delivering better sensory experiences for health and happiness.

You can find out more about the whole project here.

Person centered design

Detail of tactile map

I did a quick talk on the design of a tactile map at the Imperial War Museum in London. I wanted to mention a problem we had during research and testing that is a problem for design in general.

The slides for my talk are here.

The Trap

The trap of the content mesh

The problem, the trap, is not really a deliberate choice but an accident of several professions trying to grab attention at the same time.

Creating multisensory places is a perfectly reasonable idea (if done respectfully of the specifics needs of people with different sensory processing capacities).

Creating narrative linking artefacts and places is also a perfectly reasonable idea. It can be done with both physical interpretation panels and digital apps.


Doing both at the same time enmeshes the person in content that is cognitively sticky and the more there is, the more they are caught.

This is not good. This is not person centered design. It creates stresses and weights that may not be easy to escape. The person loses their agency. They lose their independence.

Designer centered design

The trap is not deliberate but it is painful for people. Knowing how it will affect people is tricky as the reactions are highly personalised. Some people will use all the design and technology that is presented and happily skim it. Some will be overwhelmed by specific moments.

However, designers can make the experiences more respectful and rewarding for people by being aware of what else is being done by other designers.

Designer centered design is both researching and building for peoples’ needs but also being aware of what other solutions are in use.

This is not about being aware of other products and services as threats or opportunities to how you build your better thing.

This is accepting that your product is part of the mixture of things (physical, digital, etc.) that people want to use or are forced to be exposed to.

Be aware of what other designers are doing and consider how your product will help or hinder people. Person centered design must not be about a selfish view of you and the user. It must recognise you, the user and all the other professional designers who make things that envelop us all.

Attention economy

At core this is the problem of a consumer driven attention economy. More eyeballs to your design is viewed as more income.

Yet if designers are not designer centered, they will create over complex sensory and cognitive environments that are stressful and painful to the end user.

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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