The utopian future that many human centred designers in the UX world imagine is based in ideology, not empathy

An ethnographer perspective on the world of human-centred design

This year I took myself along to the UX Australia conference for the very first time (UX is an acronym for User Experience). Admittedly, I was curious about this UX phenomenon, a phenomenon that in recent years has increasingly taken budget away from the areas of marketing research and brand strategy, my stock and trade, and funneled it into the area of Human-centred Design.

Design apparently is everywhere and in everything from the laptop that I am typing this computer on, to how an electoral system is devised and how we go about purchasing a used car online. Without design we would have no form, no structure, no communication and nothing would useful, easy or, indeed, meaningful. In fact, designers renovated the very first cave that people chose to live in and without them we would still be sitting in the trees munching bad fruit.

Now, I’m also an ethnographer – a researcher that specialises in immersing himself in different real world contexts and employing observation mixed with informal interviewing techniques to understand what that real world context means to the participants whom inhabit it. So, my goal at #UXAustalia2017 was simple – I wanted to understand the world of UXers and what it means to be a UXer in 2017.

The first observation I make is of the people attending the conference. Refreshingly, there were no suits. There were a predominance of 25-40 year olds, both men and women (very few over the age of 40 and virtually nobody over the age of 50). There were many amazing beards and haircuts: well groomed. People looked good, but not conspicuous in anyway. If fashion statements were being made they were subtle and suggestive rather than in your face.

As I began to mingle and to small talk I realised that all of these people were tertiary educated. They spoke well. In fact, they spoke eruditely about seemingly everything, but not in a pretentious way and not with any kind of arrogance. This is different to the research and marketing conferences that I have been to where one-upmanship occurs with respect to one’s intellect and level of experience. In addition, virtually everyone seemed to be talking about fixing real world problems, whereas marketers and market researchers tend to talk about successful campaigns that happened in the past.

I’d heard about UXer’s obsession with drawing doodles on postage notes and sticking them on walls in huge volumes. There was plenty of that on display and there was even a competition to draw how people will travel to work in 20 years time. The winner was someone who drew a picture of a switch. The on and off was replaced with work and home. Very clever indeed!

On reflection, I can see how the wall of postage notes, now synonymous with human-centred designers, is very much core to their identity. In the past, we thought of design as a finished product. What human-centred designers are trying to show us with the wall of postage notes that is ever expanding, is that good design is a process that we need to value as much as the finished product. It starts from lo-fi and moves to hi-fi gradually. It starts from one vantage point and evolves to include many. It starts from a limited understanding of the user and finishes with deep empathy and understanding, which is reflected in the design.

The public wall of postage notes illustrates the full process of human-centred design. What makes it particularly powerful is that it is inclusive for many stakeholders by its very transparency. It is also highly accessible. Whether you are the CEO or the office cleaner that just happens to walk by, everyone is encouraged to contribute his or her own 10 cents worth onto the wall. Just hand them a postage note and pen!

And then I began to attend the many presentations. And, I listened very closely. And, I observed the audiences reaction to what was being said and presented.

There were some great speeches, notably one by an autistic designer from PWC who absolutely crushed our stereotypes of autistic people and how to treat them in life and in the workplace. I loved a session by two cartoonists who talked about their time immersed in an Insurance company as outsiders trying to get a grip on the service design aspect of people making claims. Two women from the Bureau of Meteorology also entertained us with their effort to renovate the BOM website to make it more human-centred as a user experience. In the process, they shone a light up to how bureaucratic cultures often dictate design forms and user interface (UI) experiences, not the people who use them.

There were plenty of people talking about chatter bots, about conversational design and about designing for artificial intelligence (AI). I was starting to get the picture – designers were not just people who made things beautiful, these people are creating our future hyper-reality and all our future relationships in hyper-reality.

Interestingly, every second presentation talked about the starting point of any design process being empathy – with the end user, not just as a user, but also as a multi-faceted human being. There was a lot of talk about personas and the customer journeys. We need to understand the end user in totality – who they are, how they live, what they live for across every channel and touch-point involving the product, service or experience that we are designing for.

At this point something in me started to pinch. The UXers were all talking about research and ethnography research at that. Many of them were using survey tools in the very presentations that they were giving to gauge audience perspectives in real time. No wonder our research budgets have been shrinking and no wonder their budgets have been growing. Then, as I progressed through more of the presentations, it became completely evident that RESEARCH is a now a HUGE component for every serious human-centred designer. But the real punch in the gut was yet to come.

Now this well-presented, well-spoken designer gets up and begins to showcase a fantastic design project that will, no doubt, revolutionise how we try and buy used cars in the future. He talks through all the ingredients that made this design project a success – empathy with the end user and their contexts; definition of the goal and purpose of the design; ideating and co-creating with many stakeholders; prototyping and iterating all aspect of the design with the end user; and, finally, testing the success of the final prototypes in the real world.

Yet, despite the success of the project, something still wrangled this young designer. He wanted them (the client) to pay his design agency even more. He was annoyed that the client did not entrust his team with control of the branding and the marketing too. Apparently that was farmed out to someone else, presumably an ad agency.

What this suggested to me is where some human-centred designers are looking to next, which is to control the marketing and branding message, as well as the design process. They no longer see a distinction. Is this a new cultural hegemony asserting itself where UXers are now controlling the message on the basis that they know what is best for markets because they are human-centred and the rest of us are not – we are business-centred?

Big deal you say, but this was just the tip of the iceberg. You see, suddenly every speaker seemed to be talking about Good design. Not good as in it works really well and people like it, but good as in good versus evil design; design that saves the world, versus design that makes the world less equal, less fair, less ethical and may even hurt people. Design is no longer about form only – design is a political force!

When a designer started talking about ethics my ears really started to prick up. You see, in the Australian Market and Social Research Society (of which I am a member) we have a code of conduct and ethics. It is very important to researchers because we deal with people all the time. We often deal with vulnerable people and we often do things like film them and tell their stories. So, having an objective industry-wide ethical framework is important to us and always has been. It allows researchers something to fall back on if they encounter problems during their fieldwork.

But up until now, as far as I am aware, the UX industry in Australia does not have such a thing. They haven’t needed to because up until now they have been designers, not human-centred designers. Now that they are doing research as well as design, it appears that suddenly they are interested in ethics.

The problem is, and I really don’t want to pick on this guy in particular (whom did make the effort to attend an ethics course at a highly acclaimed institution), is that the ethical frameworks for most designers appear to be sourced from working out what they subjectively think is right or wrong, not in relation to an external protocol, such as the one that the AMSRS has for its members. To quote the designer presenting about ethics and responsibility in design – “Most kids know what is right and wrong, so we should too”. Well, if you have ever read “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, you will know that this simply is not right. If right and wrong is left to each and every individual then right and wrong will vary considerably.

There is an even deeper problem with the idea that designers need to design for Good and not Evil, quite apart from someone’s Good turning out to be someone else’s Evil. Let us assume that human-centred designers close the loop and control all aspects of the design and marketing process. What we get is effectively the same as allowing a religious group to take control of government. There, I said it. Human-centred design is becoming a religion for some, perhaps many. It is ideologically driven at its core, if taken to its ends degree. It is a new form of Design Socialism. One designer at the conference said it very clearly – Capitalism is the problem and so we need to design against it.

And when the final keynote speaker encouraged designers to quit their jobs in rebellion against the fascist capitalist hegemony that had caused Hillary Clinton to lose the US election to Donald Trump, the deal was pretty much sealed. He proceeded to talk about weaponising design to fight Fascism front-on. He also showed (repeatedly) the famous footage of the right wing “fascist” leader in the US, Richard Spencer, being struck over the head, to considerable applause and laughter. This was a gratuitous call to arms to a group of largely 25-40 year old designers, most of whom probably could not afford to buy a house or apartment in Sydney or Melbourne, yet possessed enormous cultural capital thanks to their education and skills set. And that’s where their power lies, not in the capital that they possess or do not, but in the things that they design. So, should we be worried?

I came away from the conference alarmed, not alert. It wasn’t just that UXers want my budget to do things that I was best at – research. It is the threat that in the future all design and marketing will be controlled by a moral elite, by people who think they know what is best for all of us and, henceforth, will design for our collective salvation. In this dystopia (their utopia) we have limited choice. We have Coke and we have Coke No Sugar. There is Good, or there is Evil. There is just what is healthy for us and what is clearly bad. It is black and white. It is a world without desires, aspiration or individual status.

In this world, there is no marketing, no market research, and, no capitalism. In this world, I change my job title from market researcher to design researcher, from someone who learns about how to fire up our individual desires, to someone who learns how to keep desires restrained and in their place. My goal becomes understanding how to create resolution for the soul through product, service and experience design. In this world, we see the shift back to Socialism as a form. Perhaps it is inevitable and perhaps it is time that I road this wave too, if nothing else other than to keep bread on the table for my family as my own kind – the marketer, gradually becomes extinct?

And perhaps it is time? Perhaps the majority have had enough of capitalism and all its competition? Perhaps we are sick and tired of keeping up with the Jones’? Perhaps Gen Y, the generation to miss out on affordable housing, education and everything else, is the generation to lead us away from our fickle human temptations and egos that have lead to so much inequality and injustice, to a more restrained, responsible and civil society?

But I do wonder, with closer examination, whether ego is actually the problem at the core of the human-centred design movement and the idea that Design should dominate all aspects of production and consumption – that Designers should control all meaning in our world. And, perhaps, this is also why we ought think long and hard about whether or not research is something that remains independent to the design process, or not.

Nick Agafonoff

Director of Lived Experience at The Practice and Real Ethnography