Photo by Gradienta on Unsplash
In July 2017 I was facilitating a workshop in a sports centre in Merthyr Tydfil. An uncharacteristic heatwave had arrived in the area, and a flurry of wilting post-it notes floated down from the walls, while I worried about the overheated group’s ability to remain focussed. Yet, as I retrieved the notes from the floor, anxious that the workshop might be falling apart, the participants were deep in conversation about the ways in which debt advice services could be redesigned to better serve them and their community. A relief indeed, as that was our goal.
Ideas were generated faster than we could scribble them down. For example, how relocating services from job centres to supermarkets would make them more accessible, and the way that subtle differences in framing and delivering advice could increase engagement. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t seem to find the prospect of joining a ‘debt peer support group’ a particularly appealing proposition. They wanted to build a community forum where people shared experiences, tips and local bargains. Despite my sense of apprehension, I had to conclude that the workshop had gone well.
This was the final stage in over a year’s worth of research across debt advice services and within communities. I had listened as people talked about their money problems, and had witnessed debt advisors struggling to work through what were usually complex and challenging personal circumstances. After all, debt is affected by multiple factors, making it an extremely complex issue to resolve. However, through my research, I had seen how relatively simple design fixes make a huge difference to the ways that services could be accessed and experienced.
At this point, I wasn’t conscious of working on the early stages of a ‘service design’ project, or that I was taking a ‘human-centred’ approach. I was simply doing what I had learned as a graduate of Gender and Anthropology, guided by my personal interests and empathy.
DISCOVERING HUMAN-CENTRED DESIGN
So, when I discovered this thing called human-centred design (‘HCD’), I was intrigued. My intuitive practice had a name, a philosophy, and a set of tools which were recognised and used by networks of deeply passionate people. I felt I had something to contribute. I believed in the basic principle that great design should solve problems, but that to understand those problems you have to focus on the needs, contexts, attitudes and behaviours of those people and communities that you were designing services for and, importantly, with. Empathy lies at the heart of this approach, along with treating people with dignity and respect. It is vital to try to understand the feelings that inform actions, and to reflect peoples’ perspectives as accurately as possible. I became particularly attracted to approaches which drew on the work of human geographers, and also the lessons from community development projects – both adopted inclusive, participatory approaches, actively involving people and communities in the research and design process.
But as time went on, and interest in ‘HCD’ spread across the commercial world, I began to feel a sense
of disconnect. Large corporations were embracing a version of ‘HCD’ to use in order to identify isolated ‘user’ problems, and to build ‘frictionless’ products. As the practice became increasingly marketized, it seemed as if for some, branding and tools were valued far more highly than principles.
Colleagues shared my frustration at having to prioritise the development of shiny new tools and templates in order to compete with other research and innovation agencies. We spent more time discussing the process than the intended outcomes, so it’s hardly surprising that we faced challenges in communicating what we saw as the essential value of our HCD approach.
TO BOLDLY GO BEYOND HUMAN-CENTRED DESIGN?
In recent years, a debate has unfolded as to whether we need to move beyond human-centred design. Those seeking a better framework argue that while centering the human perspective can foster more humane design outcomes, it also perpetuates myopic navel-gazing. Their concern is that the individualised way we’ve been designing products and services is not reliably or consistently scalable in the face of global challenges and shocks.
After all, some of the greatest challenges threatening our society and planet are systemic – the climate crisis, poverty, inequality – the list goes on. There is no singular cause of or solution to these complex and interconnected ‘wicked problems.’ And while in Merthyr we might have hit upon some design fixes which could make a huge difference to peoples’ experiences of advice services, we weren’t going to be able to address the root causes of the growing debt crisis.
BACK TO BASICS
Despite its limitations, I still believe there is much to be gleaned from the foundational principles of human-centred design.
My consultancy work involves helping clients to understand emerging technologies and the future trends which are likely to impact and disrupt their industries – for example, AI, cryptocurrency, and the metaverse. I am fortunate to be in a position to explore topics such as how AI could help predict and prevent global pandemics, and the opportunities and challenges associated with harvesting people’s data.
As I navigate this new terrain, I remain clear about the core research and design principles that first attracted me to human-centred design. In leveraging new technologies to design solutions to global problems, we absolutely can and should do so in a way which cultivates and demonstrates empathy, dignity and respect for individuals, communities and our planet at large.
Behaviour / neuroscience