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Human-Centered Design and Social Responsibility

By: Austin Baker – Senior Product Designer

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses

This is a quote attributed to Henry Ford, probably falsely, but if you work in business long enough you’ll hear it thrown around as a reason to design with intuition and to avoid talking to users.

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It sounds clever at first, but the real lesson behind it is that users are great at helping identify the problems they experience rather than providing solutions. This is the core of human-centered design. For a while now, human-centered design has been a fundamental methodology for the creation of new products. Whether they are digital or physical, putting people at the center of the design process is invaluable when trying to design for your audience.

The Web is intended to work for all people, regardless of hardware, software, language, location, or ability. A fully accessible website means it will accommodate people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability. Unfortunately, in practice, human-centered design leans very heavily on a more general “user.” This practice often fails to properly disaggregate users by gender, race, ability, etc. This results in products that fail to properly account for the needs of large groups of users, leaving some to feel marginalized, left out, and ignored.

Socially responsible design is an attitude that emphasizes the needs and experiences of all users and prioritizes those needs over concerns of convenience or aesthetics. In essence, a truer form of human-centered design.


Exclusive Design Has Real Consequences

A common argument is that there is no difference in the user interaction of a male user over a female user. What we’ve found is that unless you are looking, you won’t know. There are several real examples of situations where failures to “look” have resulted in real consequences.

For example, vehicles have historically been designed using dummies that share male physiology. These dummies get scaled down to represent women, resulting in a 47% greater likelihood of women being seriously injured in an accident. We currently live in a world that is designed for men. These examples can be seen everywhere – shelves that are too high for the average woman, office temperatures kept colder to accommodate the male metabolic rate, smartphones that fit perfectly in one male hand while women have to use two – the list goes on. These are just a few examples of the gender data gap, but the problems don’t stop out in the real world.

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Online, another example of overlooking human-centered design are the websites for the 2020 presidential candidates. None of the candidate’s websites are fully accessible, meaning the 12 million Americans with impaired vision cannot get candidate information from the source. Despite candidates saying they want to advocate for disability rights, the lack of accessibility on their websites could prevent voters from engaging with them. This could be because the dawn of the Internet came well after the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Besides the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), there are no regulations that clearly describe what private businesses need to do to also have their websites be ADA compliant.

Design with Responsibility

Designing socially responsible products starts with intention. You can’t accidentally create inclusive products. You have to first start with understanding who all of your users are. As data is captured it must be disaggregated. You can break down your users in as many ways as possible. Ideally by gender, sex, physical abilities, mental abilities, country of origin, etc. It doesn’t matter what your user breakdowns look like, capturing them is what’s important.

Socially responsible design isn’t hard, it just takes more thought, foresight, and a little time. There are no hard and fast solutions to designing inclusively, but here are a few good ways to start.

 

Ask Questions

Connect with users and ask questions beforehand you start. People appreciate being included and love being listened to. After all, your products and websites are intended to serve them.

Practice Empathy

For online products, get a screen-reader and try to navigate your own site. Try changing the colors to mimic a pallet for the color blind.

Design for the Extreme

Don’t design for the minimum viability, but design for the extreme. By creating a product that works for someone with a disability, you will naturally encompass those who don’t.

Test and Observe

Bring in as many types of people as you can for user testing. Ask them to accomplish tasks and observe. Don’t talk. Try to record every little thing they do and analyze the data. Many people are used to being excluded and might not vocalize their problems.

 

Every person comes from a unique background with their own unique experiences and insights. By making sure that we are designing with social responsibility, we are ensuring that the world we build has a place for everyone. Need help with your human-centered design? Give us a call to see how we can help.

Written by Austin Baker – Senior Product Designer

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