Designers need to value design

People sticking post it notes on a wall

I’m worried about something.

There is an increased excitement about human centred design and design thinking, which some people think is good and some think is bad. They are both right, as often both sides of such arguments are. Though that’s not what I’m worried about. What I am worried about is the rapid proliferation of short and sharp how-to-be-a-human-centred-designer-in-just-two-hours courses that are popping up around the place.

In fact, I just ran one to fulfil a client’s request. This made me consider whether we are truly valuing our practice. And I think perhaps we aren’t. Here are some ridiculous comparisons:

  • Imagine a civil engineer teaching you the basics of building a bridge and then encouraging you to have courage and build one (remember to iterate).
  • Imagine an architect giving you the how-to’s of home design in two hours and suggesting you go and design your own… wait a minute… I just realised we probably all think we can design our own homes.

My point is, we should be careful with how we frame these sessions. I am not suggesting we shouldn’t do them, because I think there are very important messages in these sessions that absolutely do benefit everyone, and you don’t need to be qualified in Human-Centred Design (HCD) to get them. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

What I worry about is setting the expectation that people can become human centred designers in a couple of hours. It is not realistic to suggest that in such a short time, they will know how to run observational research, analyse then synthesise qualitative data, extract relevant findings, then insights, translate those insights into meaningful and valuable products/services or systems, create the appropriate prototypes at the appropriate phases of design, use the right method for testing these prototypes and then boil it all down into the delivery of a new experience for people in this world. It’s not fair on the student and it is a poor representation of the practice.

Instead we should say something like this:

“HCD has been around for ages, since the middle of the 20th century. It has taken many forms and has evolved over these decades from multiple disciplines to be a practice that is rich, robust and reliable. Today we are going to experience what it feels like to create something from the perspective of the person you are designing for. This is the critical component to being human centred in your work. In fact, you don’t have to be designing something to be human centred. You can be human centred in everything that you do. Just by asking this question, “How is what I’m doing right now, going to be received by the person who’ll be interacting with it?” you’re taking a human centred mindset.

The other important thing is that we shouldn’t assume we know what people want. We can’t help but know what we know, and that will always mess with our decisions that shape our work, unless we actually spend some time talking with the people we are designing for. Let their reality inform what you are creating, not your own.”

Those two points, being human centred and not assuming we know what other people want, are two fundamental principles that are relevant to everyone creating anything. This is how I decided to frame the session, rather than an introduction to the process of HCD. It went down really well.

Perhaps we can make our short, sharp, fun HCD 101 sprint workshops about these things, instead of teaching the process. I think this will have a more meaningful impact, than the empty proliferation of methodology.