From user-centred design to human-centred design

How design can help companies begin their transition to a model that is virtuous for humans.

The beginning of the twenty-first century is a period of major change for humans, the likes of which has never been seen before. Environmental, economic, social, political and migratory crises have escalated to such an extent that they reflect systemic and planetary problems. Things seem to be getting out of control and the problems we now face are quite simply critical. If they are not rapidly resolved, the very future of our civilisation will be threatened. 

We need to put human genius into action to find solutions and reinvent our world, including our farming practices, our energy needs, and the way in which we consume and create riches, finance and regulate the economy, organise politics and educate our children. 

In short, we need to innovate. But we need to innovate on a planetary scale and fast, while taking all factors into account. The challenges to be met are huge and highly complex.  

Reinventing everything with Design Thinking and digital 

In a context where everything needs to be reinvented, digital technologies can play a major role if they are used in a pragmatic, creative and person-centred way, thanks to Design Thinking. 

Digital technology is bringing about changes that are greatly affecting society as a whole. Using the word 'revolution' in relation to digital technology is no exaggeration. The good news is that the incredible power of digital technology can be mobilised to meet our major challenges. This includes the Internet, the mobile web, connected objects, big data, artificial intelligence, conversational interfaces, augmented reality and robotics.  Of course, digital technology in itself is not the solution, as no technology is innately good or bad and no technology is sufficient on its own. Everything depends on how we use them and the interests we want to serve. It could be for the better or for the worse. 

How can Design Thinking help us come up with products and services that both use digital technology and serve the interests of the greatest number of people?  

As a rule, user-centred innovations only serve the specific interests of the target user and the company that sells the product or service.  

User-centred design does not therefore address the problems it needs to resolve in a sufficiently comprehensive way. At worst, it only resolves a symptom of the problem; at best, it only addresses the specific user problem as a whole, but almost never all of the external factors, i.e. the positive or negative impacts that the product or service has during its production, use and end-of-life. 

In other words, a significant part of the objectives that these new services should meet to serve the basic needs of all users and persons affected have been left out of the equation. As a minimum, this means providing services that do not negatively affect their health, freedom, safety and well-being. Going a step further means ensuring that services strengthen or improve these factors.

When these objectives are taken into account, many requirements have to be included. Globally, this means reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gases, and excluding pollutants and non-recyclable materials from their production and use. It also means producing without destroying soil, forests, wild environments, and marine and terrestrial fauna and flora. But also not hindering access to water, housing, education and health for all, including the most vulnerable sections of society, safeguarding gender equality, freedom of expression and religion, and giving people control over their personal data, attention and time, judgement, etc.   

We therefore need to transition to "human-centred design", which means designing products and services in the interest of people as human beings, for whom the basic conditions of well-being must be preserved. Unfortunately, at the present time, there are almost no "human-centred" products or services. 


The first human-centred smartphone 

Take the example of the smartphone – an object at the heart of the digital revolution and new uses, a now essential tool in our daily lives and a point of access to all the knowledge in the world, a galaxy of products and services, our entire network, all our data, our photos, our memories, our emotions and more, all in the palm of our hand. Our whole lives can be found in this smart and connected little device. However, the smartphone raises three major problems:

  • Built-in obsolescence, i.e. the deliberate limitation of the lifespan of devices in order to replace them more often and sell more units; 
  • The ecological and social footprint of the manufacturing process, which uses rare and highly-polluting raw materials, encourages deforestation and water shortages, while supporting corruption in the countries where they are extracted, as well as extreme working conditions;  
  • The war for attention, i.e. the addictive use of apps made possible by a design deliberately intended to fully capture the user's attention for commercial ends. This is what leads 70% of people in France to check their phones every five minutes, or 41% to do so in the middle of the night. 

So, how do we move from a user-centred to a human-centred design for our smartphones? 

A Dutch startup has been providing a convincing solution since 2015, which has not been taken up by the majority of manufacturers: the Fairphone. It is the only smartphone designed and manufactured in an ethical, ecological and fair way. 

The Fairphone is a model designed to last as long as possible, i.e. to remain reliable, functional, useful, pleasant to use and which can run current and future apps. This philosophy is based on robust and durable components, easy dismantling to be able to cheaply repair the phone, continuity in the operating system and the ecosystem of apps, and the ability to upgrade and replace components with more powerful versions, while keeping the rest. 

For the manufacturing process, the startup has organised its supply chain so as to avoid all resources with production conditions that are less than virtuous from a social, environmental and political viewpoint.  

Lastly, regarding attention, the problem is more complex, as it concerns not only the manufacturer and the publisher of the OS, but also the publishers of all independent apps that the user installs. In the absence of a sufficiently developed and powerful ethical OS in terms of the partner ecosystem, the Fairphone runs on Android. Fortunately, Android is changing: At the I/O 2018 conference in May, Google unveiled a new design for its Android OS that encourages users to truly disconnect. Other initiatives have started to change the design principles of operating systems and apps. Tristan Harris, formerly of Google and founder of the movement "Time Well Spent" fights to restore users' power over their time and attention through digital technology.

Human-centred design on a large scale requires new economic models 

Do these early initiatives in the smartphone market signal a real move towards a design that is truly centred on humans, or are they still too marginal to create the momentum needed for large-scale change? At the moment we are still far from seeing widespread practices and only the future will tell whether or not other manufacturers and app publishers will change the paradigm. 

More generally speaking, what needs to fundamentally change is the way in which human requirements are included in companies' business models. Today, prices do not reflect the real cost of producing products and services, as they do not incorporate the social cost, or the cost of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental damage. No companies pay for the deforestation in Indonesia or the collapse of sweatshops producing fast-fashion clothing in Bangladesh. Because nothing obliges them to do so. 

It is up to governments and legal systems to create a framework so that these requirements become obligations. Companies must already start to plan for the arrival of such obligations, as the impact of 'natural' upheavals, which have already begun, will force governments to take drastic measures. This is already the case for certain industries, such as the automotive industry.  

Change is already taking place within the design profession. Certain agencies, such as the legendary IDEO, a pioneer of Design Thinking, are working on numerous ethical design, circular economy , and urban farm projects, with thoughtful incorporation of digital technology. The movement is growing, including in Europe; on the 1st and 2nd of October 2018, the first ETHICS BY DESIGN conference, the main French conference dedicated to responsible and social digital design, was held in Paris. 

Do ecological and social considerations hinder innovation? No, quite the opposite. Creating a product and service offering that enables humanity to continue to live together in a sustainable natural environment is a vital necessity, but also a fantastic business opportunity for all companies, from startups to major groups.  

It is a complete change in the way we think about and assign value, by placing humans centre-stage. As humans, we are totally dependent on the planet that created us. Human-centred design is a magnificent way to successfully complete this transition.