Tech for Humans, Part 1: The Paradox of Human-Centered Design

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“Ideate.” “Prototype.” “Iterate.” “Empathize.” These words have become mainstays in the modern tech product team’s vocabulary, thanks in part to human-centered design.

Human-centered design is an approach to product design that is based on building empathy with the people who will be using the product. The assumption is that, by understanding the needs, preferences, and desires of the end user, the product team can build a product that customers will find both useful and easy to use. Within this mindset, great products are those that integrate seamlessly into the user’s life and help them to accomplish tasks more efficiently.

A subtle but significant shift occurred within the space of the last paragraph. Although we began with the noble, high-minded goal of empathizing with human needs, we ended with the baldly economic goal of boosting efficiency by enhancing convenience. This shift helps to explain why so many tech products today seem to operate on the premise that greater efficiency always equals greater wellbeing ― even though science and personal experience clearly tell us that this is untrue.

This brings us to the great paradox of human-centered design as it is practiced today: it often results in products that are just plain bad for humans. This is the natural consequence of a prevailing mindset that reduces human beings to patterns of digital interactions and economic behaviors. The resulting products deliver convenience at the cost of privacy, connectivity at the cost of intimacy, and efficiency at the cost of emotional wellbeing.

Such products represent a failure to appreciate the complex web of relationships, identities, experiences, and values that define human experience. To succeed in the technology marketplace of tomorrow, companies will need to build products that appreciate the human complexity of their users. They’ll need to put the “human” in human centered design.

Tech’s human-centered future

We’re at the dawn of a new era for consumer technology, an era in which people are beginning to demand that products treat them like human beings and not like economic units. The companies leading this new wave describe their products not as “convenient” but as “respectful.” They use words like “unobtrusive,” “humane,” “privacy,” and “thoughtful.”

This transition was heralded by people like Tristan Harris and other Silicon Valley rogues who began  speaking out against the products they helped design. Today, organizations like the Center for Humane Technology and All Tech is Human exist to spark conversations about how technology products can better serve humanity’s interests (disclosure: I serve as an Advisor at All Tech is Human). The growing popularity of companies like Light, Purism, Brave, and Duck Duck Go demonstrate that genuine demand exists for products that respect their users’ time, attention, privacy, and values.

Over the next decade, mainstream technology companies will either embrace the shift towards true human-centered products, or see an exodus of customers who realize the benefits of ditching products that don’t respect them.

The good news for any company practicing some form of human-centered design today is that they already have many of the tools they need to make this change. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll explore three ways that tech companies can adapt their human centered design process to build products that appreciate more fully the humanity of their customers.