Beyond human centred design

Thought provoking from Jesse Weaver:

Human-centered design is all about focus. It’s about observing the big picture and then zeroing in on a manageable set of insights and variables, and solving for those. By definition, this means the process pushes the designer to actively ignore many of a problem’s facets. And this kind of myopic focus doesn’t work when you’re trying to solve something systemic.

A recent study on ride-sharing apps, a category of companies heavy on user-centered design, found that ride sharing adds 2.6 vehicle miles to city traffic for every one mile of personal driving removed. Ride-sharing apps actually make traffic in cities worse.

Ride-sharing companies, like Lyft, were predicated on the idea that they could put a dent in the problem of human transportation by solving for traffic congestion, and they used human-centered design approaches to do it. How could they have gone wrong?

It’s obvious. Human transportation is not a focused problem, it is a significant systemic issue. Through a human-centered design process, ride-sharing apps landed on the insight that getting a cab, or finding a ride, was inefficient in many cities. They focused on this insight and then, as their process is designed to do, shut out the other facets of the problem.

They concluded: If we can make getting a ride more efficient, less people will drive their own cars, reducing traffic.” This is the kind of simplified, guiding statement human-centered design produces.

And guess what? Uber and Lyft succeeded in making it easier to get a ride. Human-centered design works for a consumer-facing problem like that. In the process, however, they overlooked other aspects of the transportation ecosystem.

For example, as the study found, many people use non-automobile transportation, like bikes, buses, and trains, specifically because they don’t have a car (and getting a ride is a pain). Once ride-sharing apps made it easier to get a car, people who’d previously used public transportation began to opt for car-based travel. Human-centered design’s myopic focus kept this non-auto population obscured from view during the design process. This is an example of just one of the problem facets left out of the solution.

A user-centered approach is great for figuring out how to make the experience better for Airbnb customers, or how to change the way people mop. But it cannot contain a systemic problem like human transportation. When faced with a big, hairy, multifaceted problem, our focused, iterative operating system is abysmally inadequate. Human-centered design can barely handle damage control.

And so we inch our way forward. Chipping away at one side while the other burns out of control.

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