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curb and sidewalk

Who defines the “human” in human-centered design?

  • 12 November 2021 / By Jared Johnson

Search for “human-centered design” online and you’ll find countless sources aiming to define exactly what it is and what it isn’t. You’ll find webinars that demonstrate how clever UX design strategies can increase customer engagement. Blogs will direct you to whitepapers that explain how to put data at the heart of design decisions, and why you should design your design process so that UX research, prototyping and implementation all live in a well-designed framework for design.

For those keeping score at home, the hits for “human-centered design” are not exactly countless. Results tally around 414 million and most of them tend to focus on the “design” part of the equation. Shouldn’t we spend as much time defining the “human” in human-centered design?

That’s what I kept asking myself after listening to a recent episode of Look Both Ways, Kin + Carta’s podcast hosted by my colleague Scott Hermes. The episode explores Walt Disney’s unrealized vision of EPCOT as an experimental prototype city and the impact it could have had on urban planning around the world. The whole story is fascinating and absolutely worth a listen.

The second half of the episode features an interview with Brenna Berman, Founder & CEO of CityTech, a Chicago-based non-profit focused on making cities happier, healthier, and more productive. Brenna also served for 6 years as Chief Information Officer for the City of Chicago.

So how do we define the “human” in “human-centered design?” Scott’s conversation with Brenna offers some useful ways to think about the problem. Here were a few ideas that stood out to me: 

Some things can’t be planned

Planned cities have always presented interesting use cases for urban developers and designers. Building a city from scratch is a rare opportunity. What’s not to love about the chance to prove how seamless a solution could be if designed to every conceivable detail?

You can beautifully plan infrastructure. I don’t think you can plan humanity. And that’s what cities are.

Brenna Berman - CityTech Founder & CEO

Brenna talks about how planned cities in Korea and other countries failed in large part because planners took an overly logical approach. Cities like Sudogwon were designed to prioritize pedestrians and lush green spaces, trash was managed through an automated environmentally friendly process, mixed-use development of residential, commercial and public space made ideal use of every square inch of land. Paradise right? As Brenna explains, the city struggled to get people to move there. 

What types of features were missing? Things like blues music clubs; a cultural staple of cities like Seoul, but not something likely to show up in a list of what residents “need.” The most loved parts of a city aren’t necessarily the most logical. They’re shaped by what people actually do, not what planners think they’ll do.

Brenna sums up the problem well: “You can beautifully plan infrastructure. I don’t think you can plan humanity. And that’s what cities are.”

Digital products and experiences are no different. As tempting as it is to think we can account for every detail of how users will interact with a product, we simply can’t. And it’s a fact that’s easy to forget. When we fail to let real people participate in the design process, we forget that when it comes to human nature, being irrational, often unpredictable, and emotion-driven creatures is a feature, not a bug. 

Diverse inputs = better outputs 

Defining the “human” in “human-centered design” also means asking “Which humans?” 

True human-centered design should reflect the vast range of answers to that question. 

Which means the perspectives that guide any human-centered design process should be as diverse as the people who will be affected by it. And diversity in user research is just the beginning. The people leading a design process should reflect the same mix of genders, identities, races, religions, and abilities of the people it will affect. The best way to reduce bias and maximize inclusivity is to start with the right inputs.

Human-centered design comes down to doing design and technology with residents and not to them

Brenna Berman - CityTech Founder & CEO

Accessible design enhances everyone’s experience

When an experience is designed for people with disabilities, it becomes better for all users. 

In her interview with Scott, Brenna says the technologies she’s most excited about are the ones that create access for people. Whether it’s tracking air quality for children with asthma or navigation systems for people with seeing or hearing impairments, allowing everyone to experience a city is something we should all prioritize. 

Designing for accessibility is important not only because they would be able to access all the places in the city that I can, but also because I'll be able to interact with them. I'm more likely to meet them out at the park or the bar...And that's going to make my experience that much more rich, because the bar of accessing the resources of Chicago is going to be lower.

Brenna Berman - CityTech Founder & CEO

A great example of this in practice is what’s called The Curb-Cut Effect. A curb cut is where the curb of a sidewalk is gradually lowered to the level of the street. In the US, curb cuts were first introduced in the 1970s to make it easier for people using a wheelchair to get around. But as they caught on around the country, it became clear that they improved the experience for anyone using the sidewalk. People pushing strollers, construction crews wheeling equipment, cyclists, skateboarders, even runners all experienced the benefit of curb cuts. A study of pedestrians in Sarasota, Florida even found that when given the option, 9 out of 10 “unencumbered pedestrians” went out of their way to use a curb cut. 

The same idea rings true with digital products. For example designing for people with colorblindness in mind, you’re forced to rely on visual cues other than color to aid in navigation, which actually improves any user’s experience. 

Bottom line: the wider range of people we design for, the better everyone’s experience will be. 

Listen to Episode 2 of the Look Both Ways podcast, The original EPCOT & human-centered cities, using the player below or subscribe in Spotify or Apple Podcast

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