Design for dignity

A senior citizen using a tablet computer.

In 2007, Dr. Richard Buchanan published a seminal essay reflecting on the ability of design to play a meaningful role in society. In it, 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.”

It may be uncomfortable to admit, but a large part of the design industry has lost sight of the human value of great design. The term ‘UX’ can be an empty acronym used to describe any form of design input. UX design work is all-too-commonly and exclusively associated with funnels and conversions and involves little more than factory-style UI production.

What suffers in these circumstances is a sense of purpose – something emerging as a primary motivator for increasing numbers of professionals.

A McKinsey article from April 2021 reported:

Nearly two-thirds of US-based employees surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives.

What is our purpose as designers? What should our highest aspiration be? Buchanan posits that designers can directly support human dignity. One of the most basic ways we achieve this is through facilitating the easy completion of (what are often) simple tasks, letting people get on with what they would prefer to be doing with their lives.

Organisations can be shocked to learn that users don’t necessarily want to be using their product or website. They need to in order to get the outcome they require. To quote Levitt, people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.

Making tasks easier to complete is the core of a positive user experience. We commonly refer to this as good usability. But the purpose behind this is respect and support for users’ dignity.

Unconditional positive regard is a term used in psychology to denote the acceptance and support of a person no matter what they say or do. Applied in 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 the pursuit of ‘cool’ has overtaken the need to design products and services that meet basic needs. Norman went as far as this in a recent piece for Fast Company:

“New technologies tend to rely on display screens, often with tiny lettering, with touch-sensitive areas that are exceedingly difficult to hit as eye-hand coordination declines. Physical controls are by far the easiest to control–safer too, especially in safety-critical tasks such as driving a car, but they are disappearing. Why? To save a few cents in manufacturing and in a misplaced desire to be trendy.”

The inherent simplicity of touchscreen devices offers a potential lifeline for those left behind or left out of the technological advances of the last 20 years. Poorly designed apps and online services immediately waste that potential.

I have witnessed this first hand, watching as a 90+ yr old came to grips first with a PC and subsequently a tablet. I felt ashamed for the software industry as a whole, as the same person tried to adapt to a new operating system that installed itself, negating all the efforts they had made to master the previous one. Unsurprisingly, they blamed themselves.

I saw the same person struggle with the iPad version of a shopping app, only to have great success with a scaled-up iPhone app on the tablet, making the system more accessible to them.

Universal design, and the philosophy of Design for All (DfA), are bringing these core issues back to the fore. I say ‘back’, because we lost these principles somewhere along the way. We need only glance at Dieter Rams 50-year-old Principles for Good Design to see what has always mattered

The simple 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. On the contrary, it will almost certainly support it. 

The ability to consider and support human dignity — however you care to define it — should be a foundational quality for any designer. And arguably, a core purpose.

Image: Sigismund von Dobschütz CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

From agency to enterprise

Four years ago to the day, after a significant portion of my career working in agencies and consultancies, I made a shift into enterprise products. To be specific, I now work in the complex world of infrastructure automation.

It was a jarring transition, not only from UX project work in an agency to product – but to an enterprise product. 

Like many designers, I used to sit on the sidelines of enterprise UX, muttering “why is design over there so bad?

There are many differences between enterprise UX and B2C, or even much of B2B. One of the key differences is the level of tolerable complexity. 

Enterprise products are more often used by teams, not a single individual. The dream of a single user who gets up and running quickly, who is delighted by the experience, and who converts to a product evangelist is a distant one.

Working in an agency, you are hired for expertise or for an outside perspective, possibly to overcome internal politics or inertia. You contribute, your client pays you, and you move on, possibly with some great material for a case study.

There are times when I doubt what I’ve actually achieved; forgetting, of course, that some of the achievement has been to deliver work that is not easily reflected in a portfolio piece. In those times, I find this thought from Jared Spool, one of the most respected voices in the UX community, so reassuring: 

“When I talk with UX design leaders …they’re shocked (and a little disappointed) when I tell them it’s likely they won’t see any real movement for months. It could even be years before they’re close to accomplishing their objectives.”

UX Strategy is a Long Game, But Worth Every Moment

Working in the enterprise means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable with your design output. Outright ‘wins’ of old are hard to discern, and only after some time.

But this discomfort need only last as long as it takes you to realise that what matters, more than ever, is the value you have helped to deliver.

Your work is unlikely to raise gasps of “cool!” from other designers. You realise you are now in much more of a team sport, and part of something bigger. And, at this point, you have truly grown as a designer.

Your product’s biggest competitor may not be what you think

Yoghurt maker in a gift box

Several years ago, I was given a yoghurt maker as a Christmas gift.

A (nameless) relative had been quite astute, having heard me remark on at least a couple of occasions “yeah, we take yoghurt on our breakfast now…”  Maybe they had heard it too much. Having identified what appeared to be a need, they presented us with a shiny, new yoghurt maker. 

Sadly the gift went unused. The contraption remained tucked away in the corner of a cupboard until it made its way to a charity shop some months later. Not the outcome my thoughtful relative intended.

What went wrong?

It’s not that I was ungrateful. My relative was making a thoughtful gesture. They knew that this might be a source of limitless yoghurt for years to come. Maybe I would try my own recipes. Save some money on store-bought yoghurt.

My relative could not have known was that they were asking me to change my behaviour. Moving from pots of inexpensive yoghurt with the weekly shop, I would now need to:

  • Learn how to use the yoghurt maker
  • Buy individual ingredients
  • Find time to make the yoghurt
  • Find space in the kitchen or fridge for the yoghurt maker itself

 Rather than do all of that, I stashed it away.

Adoption is a challenge for all products and innovations. At the core of this is the requirement to replace incumbent routines or habits. This requires moving people away from how they currently do things and using your product instead. As far back as the sixties, Everett Rogers was addressing these concepts in his influential work Diffusion of Innovations, focusing on new products in the medical and agricultural industries. Years later, digital technology has enabled and accelerated the development of new and diverse products, all still facing the same fundamental challenges.

“Never underestimate the power of inertia” – Richard H. Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

Outcomes are the successful manifestation of behaviour change. At its simplest, a change may mean starting to do something new (physical activity, for instance) or doing more of something (perhaps managing tasks in a to-do app). A full spectrum of behaviour change was mapped out comprehensively by BJ Fogg as a part of his work in the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. The Fogg Behaviour Grid remains a seminal reference on the topic.

No matter how delightful it may look, a successful product must facilitate and inspire the behaviours that motivate its adoption, and ultimately deliver successful outcomes.

This link between adoption and desired behaviour in the product is often missed by product teams, who tend to work in a fictional future where their product is thriving. Designers in particular need to be aware of the process that a product is replacing, and which behaviours are inherent to that process. Helpful questions to ask include:

  • Which elements of the current process will be hardest to let go of
  • Is the current process handled by another product or multiple products?
  • Do the outcomes have any dependencies?
  • What behaviours do you need to alter to deliver success for your product?

It is tempting to interpret this challenge as one of on-boarding, and creating a delightful first-time run experience. It can help, of course. But doing this alone and then hoping for the best is blind faith.

No matter how delightful it may look, a successful product must facilitate and inspire the behaviours that motivate its adoption, and ultimately deliver successful outcomes.

 In her book Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change, author Amy Bucher Ph.D. spells out the need for tracking behaviours over time, including both:

  • short term measures that indicate early successes.
  • longer-term tracking confirming that behaviours have changed, indicating that the product has achieved adoption.

A new product may represent innovation in a sector or industry, but the path to change is littered with friction. This can be particularly evident in businesses where incumbent processes affect multiple departments and teams. Ripping those processes out can be painful, and take time. Innovation can be intimidating and, no matter how positive, will not always be welcomed with open arms.

Understanding this need for behaviour change, whether replacing old or creating new, is a key milestone for designers wanting to achieve ever-greater meaning with their work. As choice architects, designers hold responsibility for facilitating the behaviours they want to see articulated in interactions with the products we design. Achieving this requires a deep understanding of user motivations and what they perceive as success.

By understanding the behaviours which need to change, designers can better anticipate and address the inertia which could otherwise leave their product festering on a shelf, an unwanted gift.

Image credit: Illustration 103204057 ©Alexlmx — Dreamstime.com

Designing systems, not UI

Graphical representation of a computer displaying an alert

I’ve written a piece for the Puppet blog on the thinking behind an alerts & notifications system for a new product. I’ve had great feedback on the article, which serves to remind me that I should lift the lid a little more often on the work we’re doing.

Covey’s prioritisation matrix is referenced as part of the piece. This is, of course, a commonly known and commonly-referenced framework. Increasingly though I find myself seeking out new models and frameworks to assist decision-making. They are very much part of the toolkit. I hope the system I’ve outlined here makes it into someone else’s.

https://puppet.com/blog/designing-systems-not-just-ui-alerts-notifications/

The Humble Designer

One of the (arguably few) benefits that comes with having some gray hairs is the maturity to reflect on what you have learned over the years, and how you have learned it.

The early years of my career were not distinguished. I lacked direction and was not particularly interested in developing myself. I eventually woke up around eight years in. Those lost years often give me the uncomfortable feeling of playing catch-up all the time.

For the last 15+ years I’ve worked persistently at personal and professional development. I cringe now when I think of the younger me; the lack of interest both in my profession, and in others. It is this same sense of shame which helps me feel more qualified to answer a question I am asked increasingly often: what qualities make for a successful career in design?

For the last few years, the answers I’ve given have been, simply, humility and curiosity.

For the purposes of this piece I’ll restrict the definition of ‘design’ to the field of human-centred design. But I firmly believe these can apply to any number of disciplines.

As a junior designer, it’s easy to feel pressure to have all the answers ready and waiting. This tends to be reinforced in meetings as the question “So, what are we going to do?” comes up. Heads turn to the designer. “Well? You’re the designer – what’s the answer?!” is a question to haunt designers throughout the early years of a career. The subsequent scramble for easy answers can lead to any number of tragic outcomes.

A humble designer has the ability to say “I don’t have the answers. But I know the questions we should ask.”

Two books in recent months have left a huge impression on me: Humble Consulting and Factfulness. To my great delight, both books stressed the importance of both qualities.

‘Facfulness’ is a compelling and optimistic look at how much the world has improved during the 20th and 21st centuries, and how far humanity has developed. Very much against the current zeitgeist of everything appearing to be awful, it supplies data which undeniably shows that life is getting better for the majority of humankind. We are far from utopia, but the book stresses the importance of dealing with facts to understand the world around us.

“Most important of all, we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity. Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.”

In ‘Humble Consulting’, Edgar Schein presents humility as a strength in approaching complex challenges, and something which nurtures the kind of collaborative relationships required to achieve breakthroughs and desired outcomes. Early in the book, Schein describes three types of humility, one of which – Here-and-now Humility – “results from our being dependent from time to time on someone else in order to accomplish a task that we are committed to. This will strike some readers as academic hairsplitting, but it is the recognition of this third type of humility that is the key to humble inquiry and to the building of positive relationships.”

The humility to accept that you don’t know – and the curiosity to fill the gaps in your own knowledge – makes you not just a better designer, but a better colleague and a better professional; one more capable of working within a team to achieve shared goals.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The casual arrogance that comes with partial knowledge is ruthlessly conveyed in the early peak of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Knowing where you sit on that continuum, through a capacity for self-awareness, is essential. The best designers will know themselves to be somewhere in the dip, but working hard to ascend the other side.

I’ll listen to anyone with an opinion on the qualities of a good designer. There’s room for all kinds of approaches and skillsets. However I will say this: the absence of humility and curiosity may not deny a designer a successful career. But absence of those qualities will deny them a truly fulfilling one.