it's a relationship


When Human Centered Design isn’t a silver bullet

June 2, 2014

“How could you get anything wrong if you design with humans at the center?”

In short Human Centered Design (HCD) succeeds when things are observable, knowable, tangible and measurable. For the times those criteria are not present we need an alternative to HCD.

Humans have a remarkable amount of difference one to the next, but HCD works because humans also share many, many similarities. As an example, while there are exceptions most humans have hands with the same affordances; five fingers, a known range of dexterity and an average measure of strength. They can also be observed in action, in a linear cause and effect way. Oxo and IDEO use HCD to design great things—kitchen appliances, tools, accessories—because their practice focuses so sharply on the intersection of the thing being designed and the person using it.

However, many design challenges don’t possess such straightforward parameters. Organizations and cultures are examples of complex systems that expose limitations of the HCD approach. The problems facing cultures, organizations and movements are all driven by non-linear relationships, change materially over time and whose values evolve, often changing the problem being solved. If the design challenge requires collective behavior change for success a Community Centered Design (CCD) approach is more fitting.

Tostan’s community empowerment model is a strong example of working with a community to create a culture-positive social change. Female Genital Mutilation can be framed as a personal issue affecting only women and girls. But by focusing on raising the dignity of everyone in the community Tostan avoided the alienation that can accompany individualized approaches to women’s and girls’ empowerment. HCD can over emphasize the preferences of individual actors rather than strive to understand collective behavior and the nuances of how the collective interacts with each other, the relationships among a group.

Activities such as employee and customer engagement, social movement building and membership cultivation require methods that first consider the collective behavior among the group. This is then paired with seeking to understand the interrelated systems and then tested with individuals who are community members.

Be it a push for more innovation within an organization, a cultural shift in a community, or the formation of a movement it’s moving the community forward together that creates the most enduring changes to collective behavior. While there is a great deal of nuance involved, human centered design is best used to identify a single actor’s relationship to an object rather than a collection of relationships to the whole.

Below are a few circumstances and questions that can help tease out if Community Centered Design is favored to address your challenge:
– I need my staff to generate better ideas. What are my options?
– People don’t care about our cause like they used to. What can I do?
– Customers aren’t returning. How can I keep them coming back?
– Our membership is declining. What could we change?
– Our grantees aren’t acting in concert. How do I orient and support them?

As you consider these questions you may find you’re designing for collective behavior change and you may find a Community Centered Design methodology more effective. Learn more about the approach here.

When Human Centered Design isn’t a silver bullet

Robert Q. Benedict


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