Designing for Dignity

June 26, 2015

User experience professionals are vocal about the benefits of a user–focused approach, the need to remember that users are people, and the importance of dealing in human–centred design. Rationale tends to link the outcomes of a user-centred methodology with conversions and completions, funnels and fulfilment. It is less common however that we hear of the human value of great design.

In 2007, Dr. Richard Buchanan published a seminal essay reflecting on the ability of design to play a greater role in society. In the essay, he wrote:

“Human-centered design is fundamentally an affirmation of human dignity. It is an ongoing search for what can be done to support and strengthen the dignity of human beings as they act out their lives in varied social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances.”

With those words, all stakeholder, designer and developer egos should collectively and rightly crumble.

Simple support for human dignity doesn’t make it into the marketing discussion. It’s unlikely to be talked about during the brainstorming sessions; it almost certainly won’t make it into the design brief, and the technical specification won’t address it either. So where do we fit in designing for dignity and the basic ability for people to achieve their goals and get on with their lives?

Respect for people’s time by rights means allowing them to complete what should be simple tasks, and letting them get on with what they really want to do; something which is unlikely to include continuing to use your app or website. Linking design with usability is a vital step. But that further step, of linking usability to dignity and respect, is under represented.

Unconditional positive regard is a term used in psychology relating to the acceptance and support of a person no matter what they say or do. Applied to the world of UX, we might say ‘there is no such thing as user error’. Design luminary Don Norman puts it this way:

What we call ‘human error’ is a human action that … flags a deficit in our technology. It should not be thought of as an error.”

And yet it is technology that so often lets humans down. It often appears that our desire for impact and ‘cool’ has overtaken the need to design products and services that meet basic needs.

As an example, I’ve witnessed first hand a 90+ yr old come to grips first with a PC and subsequently a tablet. I’ve been left feeling ashamed for the software industry as a whole, as the same person tried to adapt to a new operating system that installed itself, after they had only managed to come to terms with the previous one. I have seen them struggle with the iPad version of a shopping app only to be forced to running the scaled–up iPhone app on the tablet to make the system accessible to them. Unsurprisingly, they blame themselves.

The inherent simplicity of touchscreen devices offers a potential lifeline for those who have been left behind, or left out of the internet revolution of the last 20 years. Badly-designed apps and online services immediately waste that potential.

The goal that people should be able to use what we design with ease, free from stress or friction, is not mutually exclusive from the business objectives of most projects. Absent from too many project briefs, the principle of designing for dignity should be a prerequisite; a foundational element in any design discussion.

This post first appeared on the Fathom_ blog.

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    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX Director, designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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