Humans are tricky. We change our minds, locations, preferences, and even our points of view. Sometimes all within one day. On a longer-term basis, we also change social structures, relationships, careers, and a plethora of other things which shape how we feel, think, and act.
This got me wondering about human-centered design. Perhaps you have thought about these questions as well:
- Is it possible to have a “finished” design when humans change so often?
- What is “good enough” or “finished” really mean with respect to design?
- Should human satisfaction really be a measure of good design?
It was 2006 and I remember how excited I was to be able to go with a team of architects and designers, for arguably one of the biggest interviews in the history of the firm. They were about to tell a story that would hopefully end in the commission of building an iconic structure for the future of the city.
During that interview, I remember feeling so passionate when the lead designer talked about “community spaces”, and details which were meant to foster a sense of belonging. Details that no one else would ever consider important. This wasn’t an ordinary building to me. Sure, it was lined with gorgeous glass and beautiful steel beams, but to me it represented an an opportunity.
I had this rush of excitement imagining how a building could create an experience for humans that would enhance their lives, foster new relationships, and become a place people could enjoy for decades to come.
The interview ended, and a few weeks later they were notified that they won the job. I had a feeling they would.
Ties To UX
That interview shaped my love of design. It shaped how I see structures. It’s no wonder that I can walk for hours through cities lined with buildings and get that same rush of excitement. I have a deep love of the design of things for humans.
User Experience (UX) design is similar to architecture. With UX, it’s about the experience of humans with products, services, and technology. It’s on a different scale than architectural design, but I feel it’s parallel because the work gives that same rush of excitement even though it’s not a building.
With architecture there is also legacy. Buildings can last for centuries, but software usually doesn’t. So the nostalgia of architectural design is hard to duplicate with UX design.
There are definitely similarities, however, and the one that stands out the most ties right back to the questions I have. When you design something be it a building or a user experience, what defines “good enough” or “finality”?
The Human Factor
I have noticed that there are a multitude of case studies done where people will “re-invent” or “re-design” certain aspects of popular software applications. I love reading through them, but then I wonder to myself, “Does this mean that everything can be re-designed over and over for a different or changing audience?”
Going back to my first statement of this story, ‘Humans are tricky’. We are fickle and we change.
So if that’s true, then when is there ever finality in design? Or should there be? What if a design has been done through excellent user research and is put out into the world only to be re-designed by someone else? What does that say about the work that went into that first iteration?
The similarity to architecture that helps me get closer to some of the answers is watching how things change within buildings. When a newly minted building is commissioned, we see that people move in and immediately begin to make changes: they request that walls be moved, painting changed, lighting shifted, etc.
This is because we all have different needs. And those needs shift. So there are little micro-design changes which occur. Perhaps, this is exactly like the design changes that occur with software, websites, etc.
As time goes on; that building really isn’t the same as it was the day it opened. It has been re-designed over and over; if not externally but internally.
Other Design Questions
The big question for me is really trying to grasp the foundations of human behavior and design. This is a very odd intersection. Human behavior, studied for centuries, is about as complex as it gets. Sure, we have our great little lists of behavioral traits, but do we really know everything?
I don’t believe so. Not by a long shot.
How many times have you wondered, “why would someone do that”, or “I had no idea that person thought that way!”?
Basing design on human satisfaction is definitely complex because it either gives great opportunity or it creates huge limitations. It gives opportunity for further refinement of design and creates limitations for those it wasn’t designed for.
I fully believe that we have to design for humans. Human centered design is the best possible way to create solutions which work the best for those that use them. When we leave out good user research, we are missing a massive opportunity. The challenge, then, is to understand that no design is final and no design is “done” and someone can come along and re-design it all over again.
We have all heard the phrase, “Change is the only constant” and I believe that this is true even in design. People within markets change. The markets themselves shift. New stories emerge. Much like buildings taken on new tenants with different ideas, so it is with our designs.
Exceptional UX Design
I don’t know what I don’t know. There may never be the perfect answer to any of the questions I have posed in this article. I can only draw similarities and get comfortable with the idea that human centered design is always evolving and needs to change along with humans.
If I design something doing all the right things, it is possible that someone else can come along and do something completely different. Was my design bad? Not at all. It was my interpretation and understanding of the goals and users. Did mine work? Yes, it sure did according to usability testing and adoption rates.
Would a new design work? Absolutely. This creates an uncomfortable feeling to many people and perhaps if it does, then design will be a tough career. Letting go of the idea that “design is final” or “I must not have done that well” is one of the keys to being a really exceptional human centered designer.
As I think of more questions I will write more stories. If you have similar thoughts, please feel free to share them. Thanks for reading.