Designed For Humans, Not A Machine

Several months ago, I signed up for a course on Human-Centered Design. The class began this week, and it has already opened my eyes to the ways in which our world often neglects human factors when creating or revisiting products and systems. We design aesthetically stunning marble showers, in which people slip and injure themselves. Designers prototype and manufacture easy-to-replicate plastic office chairs without ascertaining whether the chair will be comfortable for eight hours per day. Beyond mere design and comfort, the idea of “design thinking” must also consider cultural habits and beliefs.

It’s my hope to apply for a Master’s program in Human-Centered Design and Engineering, and then apply the acquired knowledge and skills towards a valiant cause–a project that would significantly increase the quality of life for one or more groups of people. I’ll be using this blog as a platform on which to share some of key points, revelations, and projects relating to Human-Centered Design.

Human-Centered Design: The Basics

So, what is Human-Centered Design? In short, it’s a framework that develops solutions to problems by considering the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process. Designers typically observe the problem within its context, brainstorm, conceptualize, develop, and then implement the solution.

How is Human-Centered Design different than every other design framework? Human-centered design is based on building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for and requires generating lots of ideas, and developing several prototypes. It also involves sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for, and then releasing the innovative new solution out into the world.

What are the stages of Human-Centered Design? This form of design consists of three phases: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. The Inspiration Phase relies of learning directly from the people you’re designing for, and may include immersion in their daily lives to fully understand their needs. In the Ideation Phase, the designer makes sense of what they’ve learned and, from there, identifies opportunities for design and prototypes possible solutions. Finally, in the Implementation Phase, the solution is brought to life and, eventually, to market.

The Introduction of Mass Production

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, the world transitioned from specialized tradesmen to mass-production assembly lines. Products that were once handcrafted and personalized at a premium were standardized and pieced together by unskilled laborers. It was truly a revolution.

Henry Ford supposedly once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Though there is no evidence that he actually uttered these words, they do raise an interesting point: What if what people actually want is different from what they think they want?

Mass production led to wider availability of products, as well as reduced production costs and consumer prices. Both of these factors encouraged the growth of Industrialization into the early 21st century. However, the progression of technology began to reveal some flaws in the mass production model. In the late 1940s, the United States Air Force noticed a steep rise in plane crashes where the pilot was deemed at fault.

With more questions than answers, officials considered whether the 1926 cockpit design was still adequate for the pilots of 1950, whose average size had increased slightly over that of their fathers. Researchers measured 4,000 pilots on 140 dimensions of size–categorized into 10 main dimensions–and then calculated the average for each of these dimensions. The researchers all expected the vast majority of pilots to fall within the average range on most dimensions–all except one young researcher. Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels was responsible for taking the measurements and couldn’t help wondering: How many pilots were really average?

When the numbers were crunched, the answer was clear. Not one of the 4,000 pilots with into the average range on all 10 dimensions. It quickly became clear: If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.

The Rise of Personalization

In a recent post, Seth Godin wrote about the movement from built-for-the-masses products to more personalized ones. Those in the business of mass production tried to persuade us that “by grouping everyone into a tight bundle of normal, everything would become more efficient and we’d all do better.” Called leptokurtosis, this idea spread wildly by promoting the idea of control, reliability, and compatibility.

However, we’ve discovered that a platykurtic distribution–with its wide, long tail–is actually more efficient, more powerful, and more fair. People want products and systems that are designed for humans, not machines. “When we build an adjustable seat, when we make things that work for more and more people, we don’t spend more. We get more.”

The 21st century has been marked by a rise in technological advancement. Today, nearly everyone–even those in third-world countries–have personal cell phones. Personal computers, vehicles, and entertainment devices are nearly as prevalent. Yet, with globalization, production has been outsourced and the cheap labor has let to common, low-quality products: fast fashion, fast food, and cheaply-made trinkets.

Over the last decade, there has been a gradual return to handcrafted products. People are fed up with shirts that fall apart after one wash, seeing the same Target rug in every friend’s home, and microwave meal mush. More and more people seek out the artisans that preserve the crafts of soap-making, sewing, pottery, and jewelry-making. In a world where everything looks more and more alike–and there’s no hiding the similarities when everything is posted online–individuals want an opportunity to stand out, and to tell a story. “This was handmade,” they tell their friends, “by this quirky potter in Portland who’s obsessed with her cat.”

Learning to Observe

Returning to Henry Ford’s quote, we must consider what people explicitly claim to need in design, as well as the beliefs and values that influence their desires in unseen ways. Of course someone would not want an automobile if they’ve never conceptualized the ideas!

The course I’m taking presented the story of a group trying to bring personal toilets to homes in Ghana, where sanitation has room for improvement. Along with designing a toilet that was intuitive, approachable, and size-appropriate for the given space, the designers also had to consider waste disposal. Though locals initially thought they would prefer disposing of their own waste, a trial period led to requests for sanitation workers to enter homes and collect the waste. Without observations, the designers would not have had the opportunity to adjust the system to best benefit its users.

Another example explains the important of an appropriate distribution system. In this story, a nonprofit organization built a water distribution but noticed that the locals still opted for unsanitary pond water. By asking questions and observing, they learned that the center’s limited hours, bulky jerricans, and monthly payment for large amounts of water discouraged usage. Following this understanding, they were able to make appropriate changes.

Wrapping Up Week #1

In short, a designer should have an understanding of users and the users’ problems via empirical, observational, anecdotal methods, and even intuition. Human-Centered Design and Engineering is about challenging assumptions, observing the world around them, asking “what if?” questions, and innovating in ways that truly benefit humans, rather than simply being easy and profitable to manufacture. In the end, people will gladly pay for a product that solves their problem.

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