Design is a branch of philosophy.
So have you ever wondered why you choose to use Human Cantered Design (HCD)? How design philosophies work in general and why they are effective?
The purpose of a design philosophy is to constrain your project’s output so that it maximises impact in one specific area over all other possible areas. It’s the same as choosing a business strategy that will focus all your efforts to get the most value out of achieving one critical goal. Goals and their KPI’s are different from project to project so choosing the right strategy or design philosophy is key.
So how do we know when HCD is the best design philosophy to use? I believe it’s when your project’s primary goal is to make a lot of money fast, and measuring how much money was made over time is the KPI. Here’s some of my reasoning:
- Commercial projects love HCD because how effective it’s been for business.
- And businesses want to perform ideally like a startup.
- And a startup’s focus is “fast growth of profit”, over all other possible goals.
- And HCD is fiercely protected because it has been exceptionally effective for achieving “fast growth of profit”. Even on social projects, the value generated is often promoted and measured most excitedly in money / economic impact.
- Human centredness is about the individual having needs that outweigh the needs of the non-human (eg the environment). This "it's all about me, my needs, selfies, personalisation, my house and my products,.." drives fast and plentiful consumption, which is the ideal condition for making money fast (if you get the user needs right). So Human Centred Design is meant to create that ideal condition. And it can help to see what HCD is not, to know how HCD works. For example, the opposite of HCD is Posthuman philosophy (which is non-competitive and treats everything as having equal value).
So if instead you want to prioritise educational value as your goal for example, I believe you would use a Posthuman philosophy for greatest impact. It is practiced by designers and architects with great success with the help Prof Karin Murris leading the way as the philosopher at the School of Education at Cape Town University. You could still use HCD as a philosophy, but you would expect to see less dramatic KPI’s in learning potential (and money).
Choosing a design philosophy is the first step to finding a solution. I find it therefore funny to hear HCD experts stress outloud, “You mustn’t try to find the solution yet, it’s too early” when they’ve unthinkingly already selected an HCD approach to begin the project.
How I've done it successfully.
The way I approach a project to ensure R&D of an innovation is best aligned with go-to-market is this:
First I recognise that any venture / startup can’t forecast into the future too far and therefore operates by attacking proximal goals – the goal closest to where you are now that you can be sure you’ll make the biggest impact. For that reason I break up the project into 2 big proximal steps:
STEP 1: Find a philosophy that works best for achieving the invention’s main goal.
STEP 2: Potentially use HCD to commercialise the invention.
Abandoning HCD is not that hard in STEP 1 if you’re leading the project and have the time. This is how I do it:
- I want to find the most suitable design philosophy, so I need to get the research question right first. To achieve that, I’ll start with a research question that I’m prepared to abandon, and use that question to collect data using common ethnographic research methods because they’ve already been proven efficient. All I want is to get my hands on data to reflect on fast. I don’t care at this stage if it’s hypocritical and counterproductive because I’m expecting to fail at some point, and that the combination of insights and that main failure will trigger an ‘aha’ moment. The failure may come in the form of a rejection like a stakeholder saying (eg in the education industry), "We don't do it like that here. We have a more effective way of working based on the fact that we believe the brain works like this: ____."
- In reflecting on the data, I then pause to identify what the real research question I should be asking myself and the team is. That new question remains elusive so to find that question, I need to identify first what is the one thing that would matter most to people when the project is complete. Is it the individual’s wellbeing, a community thriving, learning..? These are all goals.
- I then find a philosopher who appears to have the most advanced knowledge on achieving that one goal.
- That philosopher will have developed practical thinking tools I will then use. Those thinking tools are much like HCD has its own thinking tools to spot behavioural patterns and to design solutions. I’ll then extract the thinking tools from their latest and most comprehensively written work.
- In reading their book and talking to them, I’ll also understand why and how to apply the tools. I will also understand how to use the entire new philosophy as a researcher and designer, which may be a bit different to if I were an architect or philosopher.
- Bonus points if the philosopher is already working with designers and architects, because that means these creative professionals have already found ways to use the thinking tools successfully and found worthwhile KPI’s. That acts as proof I’m on the right track too.
- Knowing the right philosophical approach for the rest of STEP 1, I can begin the research properly, and gather the insights that will lead me to discover the research question I need to be asking, including how to measure success of STEP 1.
With this process I discovered Karin’s highly effective Posthuman children’s philosophy to help me research preschool communities and collaboratively envision the future preschool’s learning experiences so that we transitioned the preschool from the inside to become futuristic.
- 4 year olds routinely gained the conceptual reasoning of 7 year olds. (Strictly though, a Posthuman designer would never make such a comparison, but today’s educational system still does.)
- Children behaving aggressively gained a deep, calm focus and ability to peacefully collaborate and argue ideas together.
I used a different process to translate my own scientific discovery (rather than borrowing a philosopher’s) to create my own design philosophy necessary for designing the Magic Garden’s educational technologies to be effective. But that’s much harder and for another blog post.