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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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: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/design-for-the-21st-century

Read this powerful piece for fascinating insights into humanity-centered design: https://uxdesign.cc/how-design-contributes-to-toxic-individualism-and-what-can-be-done-about-it-4933b47b15cc

Here’s one art director’s thought-provoking take on humanity-centered design: https://medium.com/@fdonelli/its-time-for-a-humanity-centered-design-59f9fa551d8e

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 Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman .

In this course, taught by your instructor, Don Norman, you’ll learn how designers can improve the world, how you can apply human-centered design to solve complex global challenges, and what 21st century skills you’ll need to make a difference in the world. Each lesson will build upon another to expand your knowledge of human-centered design and provide you with practical skills to make a difference in the world.

“The challenge is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce positive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is successful, and that customers love. It can be done.”

— Don Norman

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