It’s Not Personal. It’s Just Design.

We are taught as designers that we should not ask the user what they want because, in the words of Henry Ford, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they’d have said faster horses.” I love that quote and to me it sums up the value of a designer. A designer has the ability to understand and thinking creatively and critically about patterns and find new and innovative solutions that will turn into things that shape our lives. Things like the internet and the smartphone have completely changed the way we interact with each other, make money, spend money, etc. and designers are in part responsible for these incremental innovations.

This what I like to call the “Hero Flow” of being a designer. It’s what happens when things go perfectly. You get a bit of luck and traction from your concept and your pieces line up oh so nicely that you end up being able to turn water into wine and dirt into gold. It’s what we are taught we should aspire towards and it’s what we are taught to think about when approaching an area of focus.

At AC4D we learn to always be thinking about innovation and how to forge new paths and products in order to enrich users lives for the better. As social entrepreneurs we have to think about how those designs can scale. This presents a quandary.

What happens when the user says, “I want cleaner water?” Well, we are taught that it is our job to keep searching and synthesizing to see if clean water is actually their real need. It might be that they do need clean water but it stems from a larger issue of marginalization from their government. We might need to fix something else or it is possible the clean water problem will continue happening over time. This may be true, but then again shouldn’t we just go get them clean water first and worrying about the large systemic issue once this basic human necessity has been fulfilled?

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I get torn on this because, on the one hand I think there is far greater value to doing something to actionably and quickly help people, rather than trying to come up with the next great scalable design solution. However, it seems like we forget that we are designing for humans that are just like us and don’t need us to think about everything for them. Sometimes humans don’t need a thoughtful design. Sometimes they just need a simple solution so they can go on living. 

I’m not saying the Henry Ford way of designing things is wrong, because it is good to keep digging and finding new innovations. That’s how our economy and our society grows and progresses. It is just a shame that far too often designers get caught up in colonizing new users to do things their ways and learn brand new ideas, when this type of complex design often unwanted by the users and seeded in corruption from anterior motives.

When does synthesizing behavior and designing concepts stop being about the user and start being about the designs themselves? When a designer starts relying too much on their “design mind” and not enough on the actual humans the design is for. Research is just one part of the design process and after months of creating concepts and testing ideas and insights it can be easy to go with the design that pleases your superiors or strokes your visual design ego. You can rationalize and connect the dots back to the research you did if you have to and put on flashy powerpoint presentations that looks good in a room full of executives but in the end the users don’t benefit and nothing changes except your status as a top designer. It’s a vicious circle that the business world perpetuates far too often.

If we want to remain effective in businesses more designers need to get in the habit of designing the experience for our users rather than a solution or product. George Aye notes that his studio shares this ideal and says, “We’ve shifted from design solution to designing engagements.” Designing the engagement that user has is something that requires ongoing thought and care at every step in the process. It requires including the users as often as we can into our designs, not just during our research phase. Remember that we are creating things that affect human lives (hopefully for the better), and even when designers do nothing that is actually affecting the user’s lives, but in a negative way.

Example Scenario #1:

If a doctor learns about a dark spot in a patient’s x-ray and they don’t tell you because they think it will upset them. it’s a breach in trust, but essentially not illegal or going against any lawful duty the doctor has in our society. The doctor has the power to do with that information as he or she sees fit. That is their prerogative because they are the qualified professional. The arrangement is that, since the patient knows very little about these things, they willingly give their power to the doctor. In many cases it in more beneficial that way. We like having those that are more knowledgeable make the hard decisions for us. However, because that is the relationship that our culture has deemed the most fitting and the most appropriate, it’s caused doctors to lose sight of what is best for the patient long term.

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Example Scenario #2:

If a designer spends time with participants doing in-depth and empathy building research but ends up dropping the project half way through, half-assing the work that’s being done, or losing sight down the line, they breach that same established trust. It’s the same scenario as with the doctor because what we have here is a imbalance of power, however in both cases the imbalance is done willingly because (and this is the key) it’s easier that way.

It’s Unethical, but It’s Just How Things Are

The problem is that this is how our society actually works. Going back to last weeks readings, we are selfish beings. We can only physically and mentally deal with things that affect us directly or indirectly. As soon as things start to go outside our blinders we lose focus and fall back into things we know that pertain to us. This is a problem because, as Richard Buchanan says that a designer’s ethics are tied to an array of decisions like character and value, personal integrity, integrity of the design, and ultimate goals for your design, and when we start to lose focus we can lose the integrity of ourselves and our designs. Aside from the glaring issue that this is just poor behavior on our part, it is affecting the people that really need solutions to these big wicked problems and fast.

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An Alternative Solution


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The alternative is that we level the power and create solutions together with equal say and equal authority. Sounds easy? If it were easy then we would be doing it. No, this way takes time, effort, patience, and collaboration from the user as well as the designer. Doctors and Designer have power over users because they went to school for years and became highly proficient in their fields. In order to weigh-in affectively the users would need a similar amount of knowledge, or the designers and doctors would have to spend more time with individuals routinely and learn methods to convey data and the logic behind decisions in a way that creates shared meaning. That’s not the way businesses run or how most of our society works. Businesses are efficient and think in multiples. They ask, “How can we provide the most value for the least cost in the quickest way?” In our capitalistic society competition increases the need for quick results, and things like understanding and true empathy for users falls short.

So, do we give up? No, we start by asking ourselves what can we fix quickly and effectively. We can fix ourselves. We can take it upon ourselves as designers to stand up to design engagements and experiences rather than one off products and solutions that look good on our portfolio. We can bring the users in more and more at any opportunity and stand up for this method in the face of business executives. If we focus on doing things to actually help people in a real way, rather than designing things that do it for us then we’ll change our professional and hopefully our society will follow suit.