Why I talk about human-centred approaches

Human-centred approaches include... user experience, interaction design, lean thinking, behavioural insights, service design, design thinking ...anything as long as they put humans at the centre of decisions

It is difficult to find a phrase that exactly describes my work and the way I approach it.

I’ve started to talk about human-centred approaches. This post explains what I mean by that.

Human-centred approaches include user experience, service design, design thinking, interaction design, lean thinking… Anything that puts humans at the centre of our decision-making.

The names of disciplines like user experience and service design often confuse people. The word design itself is loaded with unhelpful connotations.

Notably, each of these disciplines can also be pursued in ways that are not human-centred.

I use the phrase human-centred approaches intentionally to include human-centred implementations of any discipline.

You don’t need to be a designer to be human-centred. You can be a human-centred developer, a human-centred product owner, a human-centred business analyst, or a human-centred project manager. Whatever your role is, if you want to be good at it, you can choose to be human-centred.

UX? UI? You what?

My job title is user experience manager. But many people don’t understand what user experience means. It is often confused with user interface design (which overlaps with, but is distinct from, user experience).

Meanwhile, some people draw a clear distinction between user experience and service design. While this distinction does exist, and can sometimes be useful to understand, it is often exaggerated.

In a sense, the rise of service design can be seen as a way of rescuing the original meaning of user experience back from user interface design. But service design itself is beginning to fall foul of the same problem. Job titles like “Senior Service Designer (UX/UI)” have been seen in the wild.

Even more confusingly, service design has a quite separate meaning within the Itil framework, which has little to do with being human-centred.

Problems with the word design

One of the major reasons this happens is the word design itself. Although designers may have a particular understanding of what design can encompass, for most people the word brings more specific connotations.

Mention design, and most people will think you’re talking about how it looks. If you’re lucky, they might think about how it feels. But most people will not think about, for example, how to improve business processes to make a transaction more seamless.

Design also has an unfortunate connotation with luxury. Think designer handbags, designer watches, designer shoes. This is not the best face of designers’ work and its potential to meaningfully improve the lives of people.

We won’t change perceptions by repeatedly telling people that their understanding of design is wrong. A human-centred approach would be to accept most people’s understanding of design. This means we should design the word design out of our vocabulary.

People in any role can choose to be human-centred

It is not just designers who should make intentional, human-centred decisions. Whether or not everyone is a designer is an interesting but unhelpful Twitter debate. The real point is that everyone’s decision-making can have an impact on the humans that are affected by your service. So it is everyone’s job to make their decision-making more human-centred.

People in any role can choose to be human-centred.

This is another reason why I find it unhelpful to use the word design at all.

Be a lumper, not a splitter

I’ve already mentioned the similarities and differences between certain design disciplines: user experience, user interface design, interaction design, service design. We can also talk about disciplines like design thinking and lean.

I mentioned other jobs that aren’t traditionally seen as design roles — software development, business analysis, project management. We can take inspiration from good examples within these disciplines.

Social sciences also overlap greatly in that it’s all about understanding humans. My degree was in economics, and I’ve always found that background highly useful in my work — first as a web designer, and latterly as a user experience manager.

The book This is Service Design Doing talks about splitters and lumpers. Splitters obsess about the differences between related disciplines. Lumpers point out that the disciplines have more in common than they have differences. Like the authors of the book, I count myself among the lumpers.

Don’t just pay lip-service to being human-centred

What is more significant is that each of these disciplines can be done in a human-centred way, or not.

Many people who call themselves user experience practitioners are in fact doing UX theatre. They are paying lip-service to being user-centred without ever actually talking to users.

Some service designers are doing a similar thing. They are running with some cookie-cutter templates downloaded from the internet, messing about with sticky notes, and patting themselves on the back — sometimes without ever conducting properly planned research with service users.

Meanwhile, design thinking has a bad reputation as being superficial. But I have also seen some design thinking approaches being extremely effective at involving users in novel and useful ways where more formal approaches would have failed.

No matter what label you choose to describe your work — user experience, service design, design thinking, whatever — you can do it in a human-centred way, or not.

Problems with the word user

I also intentionally use the word human instead of user.

One reason is that the word user is heavily intertwined with IT and computers. It conjures up the image of a person prodding buttons on a computer. This is one reason why user experience gets reduced only to user interface design in the minds of some.

But more fundamentally, the word user — and the standard approaches of user experience — lead us to focus on individuals. This can leave us unaware of potential negative consequences on society as a whole. Economists call them externalities — the consequences a trade between two individuals has on others.

We have to look beyond the individual

The lesson is that optimising for individual experiences doesn’t always prove optimal for society as a whole. An example is the approach to road design taken in the Netherlands by Hans Monderman. He minimised the number of road markings and signs, and designed junctions so that drivers, cyclists and pedestrians all had to look out for each other.

Each individual navigating such a junction finds it inconvenient and believes it is dangerous. But it has been demonstrated that these junctions improve safety and journey times.

This shows that we need to do more than maximising a design for an aggregate of individuals. It is possible that by making a design less convenient for each individual, you can improve outcomes for communities and societies as a whole.

We have to look beyond the present

Another issue with user-centred design is that it has a tendency to optimise for the present, without properly considering unintended future consequences.

In his presentation Building Better Worlds, Cennydd Bowles talked about how we can consider different actors with our designs: individuals, other people, society, non-humans and the planet.

(I would argue that the reason we need to care about non-humans and the planet is ultimately to improve outcomes for humans. Optimising for non-humans or the planet if it has a negative consequence for humans would be a bad idea.)

He also showed that we consider different timeframes: now, or months, years or decades in the future.

Chart with time plotted on the x-axis (Now, Months, Years, Decades...); actors plotted on the y-axis (Individual users, Other people, Society, Non-humans, Planet). User-centred design occupies the Now, Individual users area, with the rest of the chart blank

User-centred design is literally boxed into a corner. Diagram adapted from one by Cennydd Bowles.

User-centred design tends to optimise for individuals now. When you plot this against the potential to address additional actors and timeframes, it becomes starkly clear how user-centred design is literally boxed into a corner.

The potential of our work is so much greater when we consider how to minimise negative externalities on third parties, and unintended consequences in the future.

Don’t just improve outcomes for individuals now. Improve outcomes for societies in the future. This would be a more human-centred approach.

Let’s all put humans at the centre of our decision-making

Everyone can and should take a human-centred approach to their work. You can be a human-centred developer, a human-centred product owner, a human-centred business analyst or a human-centred project manager.

You don’t have to think of yourself as a designer. If you do think of yourself as a designer, you should also make sure you’re being truly human-centred, and not just paying lip-service to it.

Don’t just consider how your work affects individuals. Think about how it might affect communities and societies. Consider future unintended consequences.

Whatever your role is, if you want to be good at it, you can choose to be human-centred.


One response to “Why I talk about human-centred approaches”

  1. […] of stepping on people’s toes are mainly coming from those who don’t want to take a human-centred approach to their work. But for those who do want their work to improve people’s lives, human-centred […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.