Design for Wellbeing: Humanity-Centered Design?
Updated: Jan 13
What kind of world do you want to build? Cultivating a positive vision of the future is essential for everyone’s development as a designer. “Humanity-Centered Design” is a perspective and method that can help individuals and organizations develop a humanistic rationale and vision to serve as a foundation for their design work. It helps us focus on how we might design systems to generally advance human wellbeing at scale.
What is the “Center” of Your Design Process?
It is impossible to please everyone. Therefore, a center to a design process can serve as a lens for design teams, providing both focus and alignment. Don Norman popularized the term User-Centered Design in his 1986 book User-Centered System Design, which he wrote as the head of the world’s first department of Cognitive Science, at UC San Diego. (Disclosure: Don Norman was also my postdoc advisor at UCSD).
While user-centered design remains a productive method for improving the design of computer user interfaces, it can lead to the neglect of non-users. To address this, Don Norman introduced a new term, Human-Centered Design (HCD), in his book The Design of Everyday Things. He describes HCD as a “design philosophy” and a set of processes that help new designs match human “needs, capabilities and behaviors.”
Recently, however, he suggested that Human-Centered Design can be harmful. In an email to me, Don clarified that
“I think the search for a single word that captures what we do is doomed to fail. X-centered design, where x is user-, human-, people-, system-, activity-, task-, use-, experience-, agent-, ecologically-, humanity-, harmony-, …. Every one of those words conveys a slightly different image of what is foremost. My view is that we want designers who incorporate multiple viewpoints or perspectives in their work. Each of those words captures a different perspective, and all are equally valid. I certainly do not want to argue about which term is correct.
So I don’t want to settle on a word. I want a design that has viewed the product through all the different lenses, all the different frameworks and perspectives.”
So, we can adopt Don’s attitude when we realize that we can and do take on diverse lenses. It can be helpful to understand, then, some of the other “centers”. User-centered design was developed in response to Customer-Centered Design, where designers focus on institutional buyer requirements — but not actual users. This approach has produced more than one horrible copy machine. Having a customer focus can be a winning strategy for higher sales, but it won’t necessarily produce good design (unless, of course, the customer knows exactly what they need).
While human-centered design starts with the goal of understanding real human needs and designing solutions for them, Technology-Centered Design projects start with the goal of using an available technology. This approach can be useful and important, but it can be problematic when design teams deceive themselves into thinking that their core purpose is to support human needs. If the team had first gone out into the field to understand human needs, would they have decided that this particular technology was necessary? Sometimes.
It’s also worth mentioning Designer-Centered Design. Don’t laugh! Many companies hire design firms because they admire and desire the character of the designers. This is especially true in stylized visual settings, such as architecture and advertising. Companies sometimes want Artists. They want designers to be their authentic selves: to do what they want and express their own unique character. However, design projects can become designer-centered inadvertently, when a designer’s ego takes priority over the needs of a client.
The below illustration shows how using different lenses can lead to an alignment of values between designers, customers, users, other humans and broader humanity.
It can be challenging to align the needs of diverse stakeholders. What is the center of your design process?
Towards the Wellbeing of Humanity
Humanity-centered design is humanistic — despite the word, a humanistic perspective is not merely concerned with people — it also attends to the wellbeing of ideas and ecosystems. What gives us a sense of humanity is our concern for these bigger and broader notions of goodness. We would lose our humanity, for instance, if we allowed the destruction of the rainforest or works of art.
A focus on humanity implies a general concern for wellbeing more than money. If wellbeing seems vague, take heart in knowing that it has been studied by psychologists for decades and philosophers for millennia. But, by understanding what all humans need to be happy, we may uncover generalizable knowledge that is useful for guiding “need-finding” in any design process.
Potential Benefits of Humanity-Centered Design
Design projects benefit from an understanding of psychological wellbeing because it sets common expectations about what humans need. Humanity-Centered Design can provoke designers to take the time to understand the basic needs of humans at scale. Is the work contributing to the needs of humanity as a whole? Designers need to harmonize their self-interest, their client’s interests and the broader needs of humanity.
Can “humanity-centered” design bring practical or concrete benefits or is it purely an altruistic practice? Humanity-Centered Design can help transform designers by helping them to reflect on the needs of future society. This can help designers develop a designerly vision for a better world — a vision that is a core characteristic of great designers (Hekkert, 2011). For instance, I consider Elon Musk’s goal of “making humans a multi-planetary species” a great example of Humanity-Centered Design.
Contributing to something big—the future of humanity—is clearly important. This purposefulness can improve outcomes by improving teamwork, improving persuasion and improving designer motivation. Humanity-Centered Design can even improve individual wellbeing if it contributes to a sense of purpose. Making the world a better place is in everyone’s best interest.
Potential Risks of Humanity-Centered Design
A Humanity-Centered Design orientation can be a partner to high quality design work anywhere in the world. Yet, designers need to know that the pursuit of humanitarian, humanistic or Humanity-Centered goals can present real risks that can hurt the success of design projects and the communities they aim to serve.
In my own background designing educational games (past and present), I’ve spent a considerable amount of time participating in design communities that aim to “design for the other 90%.” Their work is sometimes called Human-Centered Design for Development, Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) or HCI4D. I deeply appreciate the sense of passion that drives these designers — there are many great examples of Humanity-Centered Design.
However, from my personal experience, a “humanity-centered” approach has real risks that should be carefully considered.
In the absence of a real client, a designer is far more likely to come up with a solution that looks good on paper but doesn’t have a distribution mechanism to achieve scalable impact. The vision still needs reality, which means providing real solutions for real clients and real users.
Avoid a sensationalist, colonialist or a missionary mentality. Don’t try to help people who don’t want help and always be aware of the validity of alternative values. People can have different ideas about what would make the world a better place.
Don’t pursue humanistic goals just for the warm glow of altruism: your desire to feel good can be a conflict of interest with identifying actual human needs and appropriate solutions.
Don’t forget the trees for the forest: Human-centered design focuses on human engagement with real people in order to empathically understand their needs (“warm data”). In contrast, the scaled-up objectives of humanity-centered design tends to favor statistics (“cold data”). Both are important.
Technology rarely solves social issues.
“Humanity-Centered Design” can help designers consider how their work aligns with humanistic needs — namely, wellbeing at scale. Understanding the needs of humanity at scale may help designers develop a personal vision for the future, inspiring greater design. A mission or “true north” can strengthen your purpose and resolve. Ultimately, understanding the universal needs of humanity may be a natural part of what it means to be a human-centered designer.
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