What’s next? Beyond the limits of human-centered design
In the age of customer centricity, human-centered design has evolved as the guiding principle in new product development. The concept comprises developing solutions by involving the consumers’ perspective in all steps of the design process. The customer is always right – and thus given center stage in developing new products or services. Understanding the environment, the usage context and needs of the people you are designing for is essential for creating a valuable product. However, the value of a product beyond its mere scope of utilisation is often neglected in the design process.
A product or service has to be useful and functional in the first place in order to be successful. For instance, as a means of translating between the consumer and technology. But human-centered design solely applied to gain an economic advantage strives for solutions that may satisfy users, yet mostly lack incorporating any cultural, societal or environmental issues. Despite an increasing awareness of those aspects, up-to-date, this scenario still holds true for a vast majority of new product designs.
The human-centeredness in design is tenuous in tackling contemporary societal and environmental problems – it may have even contributed to them. When asking “at what costs?”, various perspectives should be included in designing solutions instead of focusing on costs of production only. Human-centered design also fails in pushing the boundaries in terms of resources or materials being used. For the most part, products are tailored to demands based on present-day solutions only. As a consequence, we are designing ourselves into a bubble of complacency instead of coming up with valuable and truly innovative solutions.
In order to address those issues, a new design paradigm is needed. This requires a fundamentally different way of looking at behaviours, materials, as well as consumption patterns, rethinking the way humans communicate or cohabit. The following concepts are intended to give impulses for a paradigm change in new product development including examples for harmonising individual needs and collective interests while pursuing economic goals.
The idea of incorporating various perspectives in product design is not new. In his groundbreaking book from 1971 “Design for the Real World“, Victor Papanek already advocates for inclusion, social equity and sustainability when designing new objects. A more recent alternative approach to design, suitable for addressing moral and societal issues is speculative design. Within this framework, design is considered as a means of thinking about a current idea in a future scenario. “What if?” questions form the basis for discussions about desirable outcomes in the future. Instead of merely looking at possibilities of technology or material, in speculative design it is thought about which implications they entail and how they may change our habits or environments. Companies such as IKEA (with their research lab Space 10) have already adopted speculative design techniques, trying to understand how future environments will shape behaviour and consumption patterns. The approach is also applicable for anticipating negative implications of new products or services. For instance, it might have revealed in advance how the business model of AirBnb causes problems for local housing markets and especially for residents with low income.
The primary objective of speculative design is to give thought-provoking impulses and to stimulate discussions, not to provide concrete, directly convertible solutions. However, the concept is useful for addressing the major challenges of our time and can be integrated into early stages of product design. In her essay “Xenodesignerly Ways of Knowing (2019), Johanna Schmeer even extends this concept. She suggests fusing speculative design with xeno-approaches (techniques of alienation and other-ing as productive ways to think about the unknown) and introduces the notion of xenodesign. Schmeer argues that the evaluation of how the future should look like is subjective and should not be limited to the human perspective in order to come up with original and radically new ideas. The concept seeks to reposition the human perspective as one among many and aims at including a variety of perspectives into the design process. The key considerations are: who or what should be given agency in design? For which reasons? However, the concept is limited in accounting for potential social imbalances or systemic consequences of a design, as these aspects are only captured implicitly.
The illustrated concepts do not constitute systematic or hands-on design approaches. Nevertheless, they can be embedded within design practices as theoretical frameworks and trigger innovative solutions in moving from abstract and highly fictional concepts to concrete, feasible and marketable products.
As an example for a rather practical concept, circular design has been proven to be an effective approach to tackle environmental issues by design. It promotes the idea of closing material loops in a way that is economically attractive, encouraging to detach wealth from resource usage. It builds on human-centered design practices but with the aim of achieving a mutually beneficial relationship between ecologic and economic goals. Circular design looks beyond a single product lifecycle for a single user to reduce negative environmental impact in often highly creative ways. From the beginning, an object is designed in a way that no waste is being produced. Everything is regenerative. Circular design is not a start-up fantasy and already reaching mainstream levels. Just recently, sporting goods manufacturer Adidas introduced its Futurecraft Loop performance running shoes made out of 100% recyclable materials which can be returned to the company, where the shoes will be ground up and reproduced.
Getting such a project off the ground is an immense organisational and collective effort. In various projects, the savvy company experienced the challenges of transforming good intentions into new products or services. Next to using the right toolset, the process usually requires internal guidelines such as mission/vision statements and facilitating organisational structures. It is vital to the success of product/service development to focus on the needs of the various stakeholders early in the design process and to establish interdisciplinary collaboration. In this context, designers have to negotiate various interests of several stakeholders in their daily work and therefore need managerial advocacy.
Companies need to understand that design is more than giving form and function. Creating a valuable solution (product/service) to a problem entails recognising its interdependencies and considering its implications accordingly. Thus, the current human-centered design process needs to be adjusted towards a value-driven approach which extends the framework by taking into account various perspectives and levels of added value.
The theory, examples and guidelines introduced are intended to stimulate a critical discussion of the human-centered design approach and to raise awareness for cultural, societal and environmental needs to be covered by product design. Thoughtfully designed products can contribute to societal value on various levels. Ultimately, the outcome for the company developing the product is not too bad either – true innovation.