Do not write off human centred design before it has started

Square card held up — text says Do not flip this card. Let us now assume we are kind, astute and capable
Square card held up — text says Do not flip this card. Let us now assume we are kind, astute and capable

There is an old conservative trick to stop radical change happening. Politicians and journalists talk as tho such a change has happened and then condemn its clear failure.

I have read slightly too many tweets and read too many articles lately talking of the failure of human centred design. Mostly they are written by people who are not conservative but have been captured by this old narrative trick.

This is a quick post just to clearly state that human centred design has not failed because we have not really even started with it yet. In order to start out (again), we need to change a few things about how we think of humans and humanity.

Starting out

Human centred design is hard to start with when there are some poisonous assumptions about what it is to be human.

A lot of my work (in workshops and talks) this year has been on enabling dissent and hope. There are two books I need to talk of here.

Humankind by Rutger Bregman and Rekindling Democracy by Cormac Russell.

Cover of Humankind book
Cover of Humankind book

Humankind is important because it clearly shows how many arguments about the awfulness of humans are based on fake and biased research (ironically much of that research condemning the biases of humans).

Do read the whole book but these are two points from it which are meaningful here.

  • The Stanford Prison Experiment was fundamentally biased by guards being instructed to be cruel. When re-run, without such an instruction, the ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ started planning a commune.
  • The well-known story of the murder of Kitty Genovese is often used to show the uncaring nature of people. Yet, she died in the arms of her neighbour, the murderer was caught by reports provided by neighbours and many people rang the police when they heard her cries. All those facts were deliberately lost in the newspaper reports because they reduced the power of the story.

Social psychology and journalism have sought stories of human cruelty and unkindness that match longer historical narratives (in religion and politics) that justify the control and punishment of humans.

Rutger Bregman is asking us to consider the kindness of humans and his book shows that we are all much more kind than cruel.

Cover of Rekindling Democracy
Cover of Rekindling Democracy

Rekindling Democracy matters because it clearly resets ideas of humanity as being part of community and not just individualised consumers.

This book is good for reframing the unit of design away from the individual (a consumer with needs) to the neighbourhood (many people with gifts) and away from personal incapacity and impairment to shared capacity and capability.

Human centred design when you assume humans are cruel, foolish and broken individuals will fail because it does not value being human.

What if we started with new assumptions?

What if…?

Cover of No! The power of disagreement
Cover of No! The power of disagreement

One book that was useful in the Design For Dissent workshop research was No: The Power of Disagreement by Charlan Nemeth.

One clear point she makes about stopping group think and convergent thinking is the need for someone to simply break the apparent unanimity of the group.

You will not necessarily convince people with your divergent opinion but, in the simple act of voicing publicly such a different idea, you create a crack in the group that enables each member to individually think more critically and seek more evidence.

A selection of workshop cards spread on the floor
A selection of workshop cards spread on the floor

I make a lot of cards for workshops to help people think about issues, practice new techniques and have something to share with colleagues back at work.

I have made some new cards on this topic of changing assumptions about being human. They are called Flip The Myths cards.

They are the ones pictured at the start of this post. They are for creating dissent, breaking unanimity and enabling new conversations.

What if we assume humans are kind, astute and capable? Rather than assuming individual cruelty, foolishness and brokenness, what if we sought out the shared kindness and unique capacities?

What if we flipped the myths?

What if we flip the cards?

Starting out (again)

Rekindling Democracy is a tricky read for professionals as it is very clearly centred on seeking the capabilities of humans and not presuming that institutions are needed. This does link to some ideas in Humankind on how ‘leaders’ were viewed in early human societies. Leadership then was a temporary intervention: a person with a specific skill or with the charisma to bridge an argument in the group. Rekindling Democracy has a similar sense of leaders, institutions and services: temporary interventions and only once all the capacities and knowledge at neighbourhood level have been exhausted or agreed locally to be insufficient.

This is human centred design as described in codesign and cocreation.

Beyond Sticky Notes by Kelly Ann McKercher is a good new book I recommend on that. It is similarly questioning on the purpose and meaning of professionalism but also supportive with good questions for people to ask themselves and their colleagues thru projects.

How to be human, humane and human centred. How to start out in new ways. Showing kindness to ourselves and to each other.

Starting new conversations

Flip the myth cards on table
Flip the myth cards on table

If you would like any of the Flip The Myths cards, please contact me in the comments or on Twitter @acuity_design.

I am happy to send them to people who want to create a little dissent and start some new conversations about human centred design.

Written by

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

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