Humanity-Centered Design

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What is Humanity-Centered Design?

Humanity-centered design is a practice where designers focus on people’s needs not as individuals but as societies with complex, deep-rooted problems. Designers can co-create proper solutions when they work with populations, address the right problems, perform systems analyses and co-design small, simple interventions.

“Learn how to work together and find a solution that is most appropriate for the people.”

— Don Norman, “Grand Old Man of User Experience”

See why humanity-centered design is key to designing the best solutions to complex global problems.

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IBM 701 by Dan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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The Best Solutions Answer Big-Picture Problems

Cognitive science and usability engineering expert Don Norman identified the need to evolve away from user-centered design to human-centered design and  people-centered design, so designers develop a more humanized view of their responsibilities to the people they design for. But we say “person” rather than “human” when we discuss the people we want to help. And we focus on them as communities, not individuals.

Venn diagram that shows the scope and relationship between the different expressions: At the broadest level is 21st century design. Humanity-centered design is a subset of 21st century design. One level narrower, human-centered design is a subset of humanity-centered design. The smallest scope is that of people-centered design, which is a subset of human-centered design.

© Daniel Skrok, Kasturika and Interaction Design Foundation, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Humanity-centered design represents the ultimate challenge for designers to help people improve their lives. Where “human-centered” puts a face to a user, “humanity-centered” expands this view far beyond: to the societal level of world populations who face hordes of highly complex and interrelated issues that are most often tangled up in large, sophisticated, “human-caused” systems. That’s why we as designers use 21st century design, to analyze wicked problems and complex socio-technical systems. From there, we try to accommodate the needs of the groups we want to help. Without this, we’d be left in the same old trap of designing only what we think will work. And these areas especially distort our views as designers:

  • Monoculture – Designers who live in Western (including Western-influenced) societies inhabit a reality where everyone learns from the same books and universities and attends the same conferences. Consequently, everyone tends to think the same way: a dangerous thing. Like crops in nature, there’s a better chance of surviving a disaster if we diversify. But it’s challenging to overcome Western biases, stop designing ill-conceived, patronizing “solutions” that fail toxically, and listen to other cultures and their ways of seeing their world.

  • The world’s economic systems – Pioneering economist Adam Smith had seen how greedy individuals could twist the invisible hand of the market. And too much of the economic system continues to be exploited by the rich and wealthy for gain. So, the gulf continues to widen in terms of the availability of resources between the very rich and the very poor.

  • The world’s political systems – They’re also damaged, with the interests of the powerful often blocking the way to addressing global problems.

  • The internet – With fake news and legions of distorted opinions flooding cyberspace, the real picture of the state of our world and its many systems is increasingly hard to understand.

Humanity-centered design is the answer Norman proposes to change many things, including the economic model, so we can learn from other traditions and serve the ultimate end: to make the world a better place.

The four principles of human-centered design are: People-Centered, Solve the Right Problem, Everything is a System, and Small & Simple Interventions. 

© Daniel Skrok and Interaction Design Foundation, CC-BY-SA 3.0

How to Use Humanity-Centered Design to Make a Better World

You can apply the principles of human-centered design to any complex problem in the world, be it related to politics, economics, education or any of a host of others (e.g., from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals):

  • Adopt a people-centered approach. Live among the people you want to help, to understand the true nature of the issues they face, their way of seeing these, and any ideas or attempts they’ve made concerning a solution. For example, you might find that islanders in a Far-East nation have severe pollution problems and their fishing industry is dying. Later, you find most pollutants are actually plastics shipped from abroad to be recycled but the designated centers can’t process these plastic “mountains”. Much plastic escapes into the environment, often blowing into the sea.

  • Solve the right problem. Dig deep and examine cause-and-effect chains carefully. There are often very complex links. In our example, a program to remove the plastic from the islanders’ seafront would be treating symptoms. The problem runs deeper. Try the 5 Whys approach to uncover root causes.

  • Everything is a system. Working back through a cause-and-effect chain, you’ll find other forces at work. In our example, there’s an agreement between countries. How would you address that? Which experts could help reduce the overflow of recyclable plastic going abroad? Is recycling not a good thing, after all? As we can see, it’s complex; it’s a system. So, do a systems analysis to find the connections, knock-on effects, etc.

  • Do small, simple interventions to tackle the most important problem. See what works and what brings you closer to a sustainable solution. Tweak it when the results seem promising and keep learning from the feedback. In our example, this could involve the purposing of plastic containers into bricks to make low-income housing. Meanwhile, governments could appreciate that recycling isn’t as straightforward as most people assume. Perhaps the exporter country could encourage manufacturers to use less plastic, find alternative packaging, etc.

Overall, humanity-centered design is an opportunity to move away from designing small, simple things to designing systems; political systems that can effect real change, real solutions to big problems affecting our planet and the precious life it sustains.

View of the earth from space.

© Pixabay, CC0

Learn More about Humanity-Centered Design

Take our 21st Century Design course:

Read this powerful piece for fascinating insights into humanity-centered design:

Here’s one art director’s thought-provoking take on humanity-centered design:

Literature on Humanity-Centered Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Humanity-Centered Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Humanity-Centered Design

Take a deep dive into Humanity-Centered Design with our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide .

User experience, or UX, has been a buzzword since about 2005, and according to tech research firm Gartner, the focus on digital experience is no longer limited to digital-born companies anymore. Chances are, you’ve heard of the term, or even have it on your portfolio. But, like most of us, there’s also a good chance that you sometimes feel unsure of what the term “user experience” actually covers.

[User experience] is used by people to say, Im a user experience designer, I design websites, or I design apps. [] and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app, or who knows what. No! Its everythingits the way you experience the world, its the way you experience your life, its the way you experience the service. Or, yeah, an app or a computer system. But its a system thats everything.

Don Norman, pioneer and inventor of the term user experience”, in an interview with NNGroup

As indicated by Don Norman, User Experience is an umbrella term that covers a number of different areas. When you work with user experience, it’s crucial to have a good understanding of what those areas are so that you know what tools are available to you.

Throughout this course, you will gain a thorough understanding of the various design principles that come together to create a user’s experience when using a product or service. As you proceed, you’ll learn the value user experience design brings to a project, and what areas you must consider when you want to design great user experiences. Because user experience is an evolving term, we can’t give you a definition of ‘user experience’ to end all discussions, but we will provide you with a solid understanding of the different aspects of user experience, so it becomes clear in your mind what is involved in creating great UX designs.

If you are new to the Interaction Design Foundation, this course is a great place to start because it brings together materials from many of our other courses. This provides you with both an excellent introduction to user experience and with a preview of the courses we have to offer to help you develop your future career. After each lesson, we will introduce you to the courses you can take if a specific topic has caught your attention. That way, you’ll find it easy to continue your learning journey.