For The People: Designing for Humans

Late last week the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) published its findings after an investigation into the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines aircraft crash disasters of 2018. The report established that Boeing’s flawed assumptions of how aircraft crew would use the new safety sensor mechanism on the 737Max plane in the event of an emergency was to blame for the disasters which resulted in the death of 346 people. Neither FAA safety assessments nor Boeing’s training modules took into consideration that in real-world experiences of aircraft crews, pilots were faced with multiple alarms and alerts at the same time and consequently, their response to these alerts was inconsistent with Boeing’s assumptions. 

This gap between design assumptions and real world user experience is not uncommon in other sectors. Consumer product manufacturer Samsung Mobile, announced their new “foldable” phone earlier this year. The new flexible screen on the phone had a thin, protective layer of plastic which was critical for the display to function. But when the product was delivered to the first set of customers this summer, users instinctively (and contrary to Samsung’s expectations) removed the plastic layer assuming it was simply temporary packaging material which all smartphones, including Samsung own phones, ship with. The display stopped working instantly and Samsung was forced to recall the device from market.  

What is Human-centered Design?

These examples reinforce the need for more “human-centered design” (HCD). Sometimes referred to as “design thinking”, HCD is a simple but powerful set of tools to consult with the target audience of a service or a product and arrive at innovative solutions which respond to their needs.

Vienna’s Church of St. Leopold designed by Otto Wagner is an example of human-centered design in architecture. The 800-seat church is part of the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital. To adjust to the requirements of the patients, the church has very few sharp edges and in the original design, the pews were of different widths to accommodate different types of patients. Wagner’s design carefully considers how patients and those who care for them would use the church and sought to create a restorative environment for them. (Example quoted from unpublished manuscript of “Public Entrepreneur” by Professor Beth Simone Noveck (forthcoming 2020))
Otto Wagner’s St Leopold Church. Vienna, Austria.
© Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC BY-SA 3.0

HCD also finds application in the public sector especially since government must design services for a diverse spectrum of beneficiaries with differing needs and circumstances. Yet, it does not find widespread adoption in traditional public sector service design. A recent survey by the Governance Lab at NYU of 380 government officials found that less than half of them had used Human Centered Design practices in their job and within that group only 20% had done basic tasks like testing ideas with residents for feedback prior to implementation. The result is sub-optimal service delivery (often disproportionately affecting minority populations), frustrated residents and wasted public resources. Take the example of California’s food stamp program. While the state allowed people to apply online, that application was 50 web pages long with over 100 questions. Most families who started the process would end up abandoning it. The NGO Code for America, after engaging with the end users of the service to analyze it from their perspective, re-designed the application process so it only took 10 minutes to complete it resulting in a substantial increase in enrollments. 

How do you do it?

There are several well-documented approaches to design thinking comprising surveys, creating user personas, observing human behavior, beta testing products with focus groups, creating “journey maps” and so on. Organizations like IDEO, NESTA and the GovLab have toolkits, courses and practical guides to help entreprenuers learn and practice this skill. Thorugh each step, the aim is to understand the problem from the point of view of the person experiencing it. In some cases, this can be done by observing them “in the wild” by letting users have a go at using the product and making detailed notes of how they use it. In other cases, more structured questions might be required to guide our understanding of a problem. There is no single “right way” and often one might have to employ multiple techniques to arrive at a conclusion. To do it well and to set oneself up for success, defining our hypotheses, laying out assumptions explicitly and identifying those who are most impacted are all pre-requistes to the design thinking process. 

But to obtain any meaninful results from it, HCD can not be treated as a mere “checklist” item. It is a manner of approaching a problem and acknowledging at the very beginning that we often have blindspots simply because of the fact that we do not have the lived experiences of the people we seek to serve. Making empathy an important of our problem solving process is at the heart of design thinking. The resources and techniques are simply a way to structure that mindset into a process which can be taught and learned.

Of course, design thinking is not a panacea. It is only one of the implements in a 21st century problem solver’s toolkit. For instance, identifying new sources of data and analyzing them to make more data-driven decisions is a technique that increasing numbers of entreprenuers, organizations and governments are employing. But neither design thinking nor data analysis works in isolation. Whether you’re designing safety systems for an aircraft, making consumer tech products or delivering public services, in order to get a clear understanding of a problem or the impact of a certain intervention, we must do both – look at the data AND speak with people. 

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