Tech for Humans, Part 2: Designing a Human-Centered Future

YouTheData.com is delighted to feature a two-part guest post by Andrew Sears. Andrew is passionate about emerging technologies and the future we’re building with them. He’s driven innovation at companies like IBM, IDEO, and Genesis Mining with a focus on AI, cloud, and blockchain products. He serves as an Advisor at All Tech is Human and will complete his MBA at Duke University in 2020. You can keep up with his work at andrew-sears.com.

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In Part 1 of this series, we explored the paradox of human-centered design as it is commonly practiced today: well-intentioned product teams start with the goal of empathizing deeply with humanneeds and desires, only to end up with a product that is just plain bad for humans.

In many cases, this outcome represents a failure to appreciate the complex web of values, commitments, and needs that define human experience. By understanding their users in reductively economic terms, teams build products that deliver convenience and efficiency at the cost of privacy, intimacy, and emotional wellbeing. But times are changing. The growing popularity of companies like Light, Purism, Brave, and Duck Duck Go signifies a shift in consumer preferences towards tech products that respect their users’ time, attention, privacy, and values.

Product teams now face both a social and an economic imperative to think more critically about the products they put into the world. To change their outcomes, they should start by changing their processes. Fortunately, existing design methodologies can be adapted and augmented to build products that appreciate more fully the human complexity of their users. Here are three changes that product teams should make to put the “human” in human centered design:

  1. Broaden their understanding of stakeholders

One tool commonly used by product teams today is the stakeholder map, which seeks to identify the full range of parties who have an interest in the product. A stakeholder map for the smartphone, for example, might include retailers, wireless carriers, and manufacturers in addition to the end users.

But teams often focus too narrowly on economic stakeholders and fail to account for parties that may have a personal stake in the life of the end user. For example, my wife has a significant and ongoing interest in how the designs of my smartphone and its mobile applications shape my digital habits. She likes Do Not Disturb and video calling, but isn’t a fan of swipe-up-to-refresh and push notifications — features that are designed specifically to keep my attention fixed on my screen.

Once my wife and I realized that attention-harvesting apps and features were robbing us of time we’d rather spend with each other, we declared all-out war on our smartphones. We deleted all social media apps, disabled nearly all push notifications, and deleted our mobile browsers. And we aren’t alone: I’ve had countless conversations with people whose children, friends, and partners have urged them to take similar measures. This is the counterculture movement of the social media age, but you won’t read about it on social media sites.

If your business strategy pits your product against the people its users care about most, it’s time to rethink your business strategy. Product teams can avoid battles like this by broadening their definition of “stakeholders” to include not just people buying, selling, and using their product, but people who are affected by the externalities their product creates.

2.    Humanize their user personas

Product teams typically create a vivid image of a prototypical user and seek to build their product around that user’s needs. Unfortunately, such user profiles often read more like the technical specifications of a machine than a nuanced snapshot of a human. Attributes like age, job title, and economic objective are listed faithfully while broader values, aspirations, and commitments are ignored. On the occasions when such human characteristics are present, they are too-often included as a formality and ignored when critical product decisions are being made.  

The impulse here is understandable. Time and resource constraints push product teams to quickly zero-in on the user attributes that they consider relevant to the product or feature they’re building. The trouble comes when teams implicitly assume that the broader values, aspirations, and commitments of their users are not relevant to the long-term success of the product.

The market is increasingly proving that such considerations are critically relevant. Swipe-up-to-refresh might be great for “user engagement” and ad revenue, but it only takes so long for people to realise that mindlessly browsing social media makes them miserable. To build products that last, you can’t stop at building Facebook. You have to be able to preempt the #deletefacebook movement. This starts with cultivating a broader understanding of – and respect for – the humanity of your customers, even if it means sacrificing some efficiency in the short-term.

When writing user personas, product teams should try to genuinely understand and empathize with what makes their users tick. What do they believe about happiness and how to achieve it? How do they understand their relationship to technology generally? Do they love their favorite products for the convenience and efficiency that they afford, or are they drawn by other, less-expected benefits like wonder or spontaneity? The answers to questions like these might be the keys to creating long-term fans and increasing customer lifetime value.

3.    Consider the social and ethical implications of their product

The story of a popular tech product inadvertently causing ethical or social mayhem has become tragically familiar. Automated hiring tools that discriminate against minorities, online news platforms that trap their users in echo chambers, and social media platforms that are leveraged to influence foreign elections — these are just a few of the most well-known examples.  

With technology growing more powerful by the day, we have to do better than this. While not all unintended consequences can be foreseen or prevented, there are many practical tools that product teams can implement today to make sure that ethical and social considerations are baked into the product design process. This list of tools by Design Ethically is a great place to start.

One of the best tools I’ve seen is the Ethics Canvas, a riff on the business model canvas that is already popular with teams versed in agile or human-centered design. The Ethics Canvas allows teams to map out the individuals and groups that will be affected by their product. Consideration is given to the worldviews, behaviors, and relationships of affected parties and to the product’s potential negative social consequences.

Tools like these can easily be incorporated into many teams’ existing product design processes. By taking ownership of their product’s social and ethical dimensions, product teams may avoid, say, building a tool that will allow an authoritarian political party to prevent its citizens from searching “human rights” online.

Technology products are becoming more integrated with our lives every day. And if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that these products are increasingly shaping the behaviors, relationships, and systems that make up the world around us. Let’s make sure we’re building a world that we actually want to live in. Putting the “human” in human centered design is a good place to start.

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