Rethinking Human Centered Design

A global pandemic, broad-based awareness of systemic racism and psychological harm, and economic and emotional strains on work and family life, are just some of the many challenges people all over the world have faced since early 2020. How we think of time, travel, relationships, and productivity has changed. Humanity has changed. It seems like a good time to revisit our models for many things, including Human Centered Design.

People use Human Centered Design for all kinds of innovation, primarily in commercial products and services, and increasingly in education, non-profits, and social impact projects. Its goal is to make things more useful, usable, or desirable for people. The approach is sometimes also used by people to “design” their lives – the opportunities, possibilities, and pathways to achievements or meaning.

Current models favor linearity, despite an always stated intent on iteration. Current models also favor process over practice, despite highly specialized teams of experts in craft who are hired to take on these creative jobs. Part of the problem is that these models require a significant overlay of instruction to convey the nuances required for thoughtful design. Another consideration is that “Human” often excludes Black, Indigenous, and People of Color experiences in its approach and assumptions.

How might we update Human Centered Design to be easier to understand, more appropriate for the context of our world, and equitable?

Compassion and Joy, Belonging and Relief.

For too long we’ve been living with a flawed perception of “finite resources.” Our global economy depends on the idea of scarcity, as does our social structure. We over-consume these resources for the benefit of few. Things grow in price because they are increasingly rare, more difficult to mine, more difficult to grow; plants and animals lose habitat, and in the worst cases, go extinct. The lives of large populations of brown and black people hang in the balance of their ability to produce services, goods, and experiences for the mostly white top of this scarcity food chain. We need to move to a mindset of abundance. Collectively we have more than we need and could invent solutions for the benefit and prosperity of all. If we can go to the Moon, to Mars, we can do anything we want and need. A new model for Human Centered Design could lead us this way.

The primary emotional outputs of a scarcity mindset are attachment and envy. These are “poisonous” and “toxic” emotions, according to Buddhist traditions. The antidotes for attachment and envy, their “boundless positives,” are compassion and joy. This idea comes from a variant of ancient Buddhist models, introduced to a room full of designers in 2016 by Hans Krueger.

Compassion, care for the benefit of others, provides motivation to let go of our attachments. And joy, feeling pleasure and contentedness, removes the need to want anything more. Any update to Human Centered Design must feature compassion and joy if it aims to move beyond scarcity, and lead to abundance.

Why compassion and not empathy? Compassion is a cognitive understanding of how people are feeling, and also leaves some emotional energy to “do something about it.” Compassion is a more active form of empathy. Neurologically, empathy activates self-awareness and pain in the brain. Compassion is connected to learning, decision making, and rewards. In a study comparing those trained in empathy and those trained in compassion, the compassion group “ended up feeling kinder and more eager to help others than those in the empathy group.” (Psychology Today, 2017).

After Compassion and before Joy, lies belonging:

“Diversity is a fact (the numbers are what they are), inclusion is a choice (you decide whether to include someone or not), but belonging is a feeling that can be enforced by a culture that you can purposefully create.”

The gradual awakening of systemic racism has many Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) teams and efforts focused on belonging. Belonging is the bare minimum for an equitable world. We must all belong, or belong somewhere, especially around the watering hole of resources.  And when people belong, a vail is lifted, a mask, a costume, the constant need to code-switch and to be someone else. All of that burdon of hiding parts of oneself is heavy. Imagine the weight of armor, and then imagine it disappear, and imagine the relief.

Equitable solutions ensure that people truly belong. We feel severe consequences for not belonging. 

Once we belong, we feel a sense of relief. We exhale. “Grinding keeps us in a cycle of trauma. Rest can disrupt this cycle.” (The Nap Ministry)

And it is in that space of relief, of quiet, we are open to take in the miracle of Joy.

As we design our possibilities, opportunities, and ultimately solutions, let’s travel through these filters: Compassion, Belonging, and Relief, and toward Joy.

Part Two will look at the Four Elements: Choose, Make, Rest, & Reflect