Many designers talk about user-centred design. When used with care and intention, design approaches can help us become more human-centred.
But design approaches alone aren’t sufficient to ensure we are human-centred. Design approaches can be used carelessly — or even maliciously — to centre the designer and sideline the user.
Being a designer is a position of power and privilege. Some of the most popular design tools and approaches serve to extend this power, rather than putting humans at the centre of our work.
The double diamond centres designers
Many designers follow a process known as the double diamond.
This model divides the design process into four phases. Two of these, the “divergent” discover and develop phases, are explicitly intended to include a variety of perspectives.
But the “convergent” define and deliver phases lead to singular points. These points serve to give designers and developers ultimate control over the entire process.
At the end of the double diamond process is a singular point — the solution. This solution is ultimately determined by the designers and developers.
In the centre of the diagram is the problem definition. This is based on designers’ interpretation of the discover and define phases. Here, designers reframe the problem they were originally presented with, or the trigger that initiates the design process.
The double diamond gives designers the power and permission to ignore uncomfortable truths if they want to. I have seen this happen.
The centre of the double diamond is literally a point where designers are given all the power. The double diamond is a designer-centred design process.
That’s not to say the double diamond is not a useful model. But it is an easy model for designers to abuse.
Using the double diamond, it can be easy for designers to pay lip service to being user-centred, only to implement the ideas they would have gone with anyway.
Co-design can exploit participants
In a similar fashion, co-design can be conducted in a way that exploits participants when it should empower them. While the idea of involving users through co-design can be a good idea, the set-up still gives power to designers.
Being a facilitator is a position of power. The very status of being a designer or a facilitator elevates us in comparison to users and participants.
Designers decide when co-design happens. They decide what shape it takes. They decide when it ends. And they decide what they take away from it.
Co-design done badly has been likened by Alastair Somerville to colonial thinking. We go in, take people’s knowledge, leave. Then we impose a solution on them.
Great care needs to be taken to design with, not for people, in the words of Kelly Ann McKercher. In their guide to co-design, they note that, despite best intentions, user-centred design: “usually ends up as system-centred, designer-centred, executive-centred or staff-centred by implementation.”
We as designers need to work alongside people with lived experience. They should not be mere “participants” in “our” process.
We can understand people as having their own agency; their own potential to make their own decisions.
Design thinking centres designers
Another common design approach is design thinking. This is supposed to be a set of tools that enable innovation. But it can often allow designers to subtly centre themselves in the process.
Design thinking privileges designers over participants. It has been described by Natasha Iskander as fundamentally conservative, and serves to preserve the status quo.
She says that design thinking:
…[turns] the everyday ability to solve a problem into a rarefied practice, limited only to those who self-consciously follow a specialised methodology… The solutions that win out are not necessarily the best — they are generally those that are favoured by the powerful…
“How might we” centres designers
One common tool within design thinking is “how might we”. This is where designers seek to solve “wicked problems” by asking a question with “how might we” in front of it.
The “we” in [how might we] refers to the people in the room, not to the users, customers, or populations for whom teams are designing their products and services.
“How might we” is yet another tool that centres designers over and above the people we design for.
Furthermore, it is a way to generate lots of superficial ideas without having to develop a deep understanding of the problem or what people need.
This means that “how might we” can promote solutions that harm people.
Design drives solutionism
Design also often operates with an inbuilt assumption that something has to be made. Designers are often drawn towards their profession because they want to create something new.
But often the most effective thing we can do is to stop a thing being made, or even remove something that has already been made.
When faced with a problem, humans are hard-wired to add something before removing something. This itself is a problem.
Endlessly creating new things is unsustainable. It needlessly uses up scarce resources, and damages the environment.
Design requires existing power and privilege — and extends it
Because design thinking centres design so much, it also exacerbates design’s inbuilt biases, and helps echo design’s lack of diversity.
Design is not unique in lacking diversity. But that lack of diversity is uniquely problematic for design, because of the sheer amount of privilege designers hold, and the amount of power and control designers give themselves over the process.
Cate McLaurin has pointed out that design thinking requires practitioners to hold power and privilege already:
It takes immense privilege to be able to speak truth to power and to experiment with playfulness and creativity inside a large bureaucracy. Popular phrases such as “ask for forgiveness, not permission”, and “move fast and break things” assume a level of pre-existing privilege for the practitioner that protects them against damaging criticism or negative consequences.
Furthermore, George Aye has noted that the way design work is set up serves to exacerbate this power inequality:
Design work is built on the professional services model, which means that any further work created to the same quality needs to be completed by those same professionals. It’s a self-serving loop that conveniently keeps power asymmetry in place and hourly fees high.
Design research has a problematic history
Design research takes heavy inspiration from social science approaches. But some of these approaches have problematic histories.
Alastair Somerville has pointed out that anthropology developed as a tool of colonialism, and psychology is intertwined with eugenics. He says that there is evidence that we “are unable to prevent their use for bad”.
We need to be aware of the problematic histories of the approaches we take. They can be used for evil as easily as good.
Empathy in design can be performative
The design thinking model promoted by the Stanford d.school and Ideo begins with a phase called “empathise”. Designers often talk about empathy. But there are big problems with how many actually practice it.
As Neil Turner says: “The problem is that empathy is an illusion. We think we can put ourselves in the shoes of others, but really we can’t.”
Empathy means: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. But can we truly share the feelings of another if we haven’t actually lived their experience?
Talking about empathy doesn’t necessarily make designers any better placed to understand people’s problems. In fact, it can be highly damaging. Designers often talk about empathy as though they own it — as if others aren’t capable of being empathic. This causes harm.
Unchecked privilege and the bias that often accompanies it are tools for hoarding empathy, not extending it; we’ve created a culture within the [user experience research] industry that encourages such hoarding. We’ve bought into the lie that UX Researchers must learn how to create and increase empathy between ourselves (or our stakeholders) and the user, when in reality we need to learn to stop hoarding it.
Designers need to work harder to protect people from our biases and our privilege
It’s not enough just to be aware of our privilege and our biases. As Vivianne Castillo says, we must actively seek to protect our colleagues and research participants from them.
Talking about being user-centred isn’t enough when you’re just engaging in user experience theatre, as described by Tanya Snook.
Reaching for the standard design toolkits like the double diamond and design thinking risks exacerbating the problems.
These approaches, if used with care, can be useful. But these toolkits alone certainly aren’t sufficient to ensure we are truly human-centred.
Constantly striving to be more human-centred
Being more human-centred is hard work. It is a continual work-in-progress. It’s not about picking up a framework or toolkit and thinking that’s enough. There are no quick-fix solutions.
I’ll finish with another quote from Vivianne Castillo, writing about “the P-word”:
Notice how I didn’t mention solutions. That’s because we need to be more people-focused, than problem-focused. When you view everything as a problem, it’s easier to disconnect from the humanity within the problem we are trying to solve.
Thank you to Lauren Tormey who provided useful feedback on an early draft of this article.
Now read these articles
If you didn’t follow the links in this article, please read them now, or bookmark them to read later.
- Co-design as strategy? — Alastair Somerville
- Design thinging — Alastair Somerville
- Losing control to offer comfort — Alastair Somerville
- Whoops apocalypse — Alastair Somerville
- The helpful(?) conceit of design thinking — Cate McLaurin
- It’s time to define what “good” means in our industry — George Aye
- Designing “with” not “for” — The social movement of co-design — Kelly Ann McKercher
- What is co-design? — Kelly Ann McKercher
- Don’t build it — A guide for practitioners in civic tech — Luke Jordan
- Design thinking is fundamentally conservative and preserves the status quo — Natasha Iskander
- Experience over empathy — Neil Turner
- UX theatre — the poster — Tanya Snook
- Adding is favoured over subtracting in problem solving — Tom Meyvis and Heeyoung Yoon
- The most popular design thinking strategy is bullshit — Tricia Wang
- An overdue conversation — The user experience research industry’s achilles heel — Vivianne Castillo
- The P-word — Vivianne Castillo