Electric woks or eating together? Time for human-centred designers to care about the community

Mick Ward is sick of people trying to sell him electric woks. As chief officer leading transformation and innovation for social care in Leeds, he sees a never-ending procession of providers claiming to solve enduring human problems with expensive, complicated, isolated, digital solutions.

Mick believes we’d do better to start with people and their communities, with their strengths and how they can work together to make things better for themselves. Communities like Seacroft in east Leeds, where the LS14 Trust asked a simple question: “What would happen if we spent a whole year eating together as a community?”

“You can have the healthiest greens on your plate, but if you eat in isolation every day this might not always be good for your long-term wellbeing.” – LS14 Trust video

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to be on a Leeds Digital Festival panel with Mick, Howard Bradley from the LS14 Trust, and Roz Davies from the Good Things Foundation. The event was organised by Victoria Betton from m-Habitat, who has also written up her impressions of the event.

On the agenda, I was there to be the “digital” voice in the conversation as a counterpoint to Mick and Howard’s advocacy of asset-based community development (ABCD). But I also accepted the slot on the panel to listen and learn, because I’ve long had a hunch that ABCD contains much that could improve my practice.

While we digital designers talk a good talk about focusing on people, I can’t help thinking our processes are still too often tilted in favour of electric wok solutions, and too rarely towards things like eating together.

In my contribution to the event, I offered what I hope was a critical description of the principles of a human-centred design process, as set out in the international standard ISO 9241-210:2010. I talked about the good things we always try to maintain:

  1. an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments
  2. users involved throughout design and development
  3. design driven by user-centred evaluation
  4. a process that is iterative
  5. addressing the whole user experience
  6. multidisciplinary skills and perspectives

There need not be a gulf between human-centred design and ABCD, but often, by sins of omission, there is.

The problems start with the deficit-based way we often talk about “user needs.”

Inherently, a user need is a deficit, a thing a user lacks, a gap that we service providers claim to fill with our special expertise. Human nature makes it so easy for us to slip into electric wok thinking: this person is hungry; we make electric woks; what they need is an electric wok.

When the user protests that she never eats stir fry, many of our community double down on this deficit-thinking, by asserting that “people don’t know what they need.” The Henry Ford quote about a faster horse is trotted out, or something about how Apple don’t do user research (He never said it; they do.)

Human-centred design theory emphasises that we don’t take people’s stated desires at face value. We say no to that market research staple, the focus group. Instead, we uncover latent needs using ergonomic and ethnographic observations of actual behaviour (“Saturday, 1:27am: Participant orders takeaway chicken chow mein.”)

Rushed or done badly, such approaches render the research participant little more than a lab rat. The experimental subject’s only stake in the transaction is a shopping voucher to thank them for an hour of bemusement that they’ll never get back.

Empathy is essential in any human-centred design process. The trouble is, we often get it muddled up with sympathy.

When we see someone in pain, or with problems, or less fortunate than ourselves, our instinct is to help them. That’s a brilliant human thing. It’s mark of a civilised society that we have a safety net, no questions asked, to pick up a person when they’re knocked off their bike or floored by acute illness.

Cartoon man on stretcher
Still from ‘Your Very Good Health’ – Central Office of Information, 1948

Once the initial crisis has passed, however, sympathy must give way to a fuller understanding of the person and their capacity to recover. True empathy means feeling their hopes for the future, the things that make them resilient, knowing which activity they’ll enjoy the most to rebuild wasted muscles.

The factors that make someone strong are so personal and so varied that they are often forgotten in the focus on what’s commonly wrong. And in the name of equality, “not everyone has capacity” becomes a reason to ignore the assets of those who do. It’s then only a short step from fixing the problem to fixing the person, applying the faulty logic that if we are well, then making them more like us will make them well too. True empathy takes people as they are, not as we wish them to be.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but human-centred design has become, by default, individualistic.

There is a rich heritage of more social strains of service design and participatory design. In recent years, these have been drowned out by digital user experiences, where the context of use is invariably a person alone at a computer or on their personal mobile device.

Reacting against the phoney seance of the focus group, we prefer one-to-one usability sessions and depth interviews. To drive out ambiguity, we write user stories in the singular: “As a user, I want to… so that…”.

When we over-rely on these methods, we miss the plethora of relationships beyond the individual user and service provider. When we think about inclusion and accessibility, we fail even to ask users whether they consider it more “independent” to complete a task alone with assistance from a service provider, or by sharing it with a family member or friend.

Finally, as a questioner at the event pointed out, the language around this stuff has always been problematic.

We borrow the words of marketing “activation” as if people were machines waiting to be switched on. I work in a portfolio dedicated to “empowering people”, but who are we to give power in the first place? How about “stop disempowering people!”

In what direction will the new partnership of the professions and the 'consumers' work to carry out their purpose of meeting the medical needs of the people adequately, everywhere?
Extract from 1948 booklet ‘The New National Health Service’

I take consolation from the fact that a 1948 leaflet on the new National Health Service places the word ‘consumers’ of healthcare in scare quotes, as if our founders knew the word was unsatisfactory, and that sooner of later someone would come along with a better term. 70 years later, we’re still working on that.

I ended my discussion by posing two related questions:

  1. How might we move beyond purely transactional models of provider and consumer to more fluid configurations of actors, in which all contribute to and take from the service according to their needs, wants and abilities?
  2. How might we (especially those of us charged with making digital services at national scale) recognise that service is co-created and co-produced in communities, and provide platforms for those communities to discover, express and meet their own needs?

We can stick to our principles of human-centred design, but we need to broaden their interpretation.

ABCD reminds us to consider user assets at least as much as user needs.

User research should include everyone as equals, helping them to beneficially articulate things they do know at some level, but have not yet consciously considered. Only then can they become active participants in the co-design of solutions that suit them.

Asset mapping is a common research activity in the ABCD world, but Mick from the council is very clear: the asset maps aren’t for him, they’re for the community, to realise what they already have. And when they’re made in a participatory way, the assets they surface are very different from the usual libraries and sports centres that turn up on maps made by the service providers.

I was recently challenged about user needs in a learning context, where people literally “don’t know what they don’t know”. Yet learners do know many other things that are highly relevant to the design of their learning, such as what they know already, how they will fit learning into their everyday lives, and what they hope to achieve with their new knowledge and skills.

The whole user experience is situated at least as much in places and communities as in individuals, devices and service providers.

Beyond the place-based work of community development, there are some promising developments in the digital world.

The always insightful Cassie Robinson at Doteveryone is thinking with Citizens Advice about collective action:

Collective action is a strand of work we’re committing more time to over the coming months at Doteveryone, discovering other opportunities and contexts where collective action can play a role in scrutiny, accountability and influencing change. As part of this work we are also looking to civil society organisations to take a role in empowering the public and their audiences to take collective action in directing the impacts of technology on our lives.

Projects by If’s new report with the Open Data Institute considers some of the many instances when organisations deal with data about multiple people:

Services that allow data portability need to consider social relationships to ensure they are respectful of people’s rights. It’s also important that services don’t make assumptions about how groups make decisions about moving data: instead, they need to allow people the time, space and awareness to work things out for themselves.

Users must be involved throughout design and development in more than one way:

  • as participants in user research specified by the Government Digital Service
  • as senior stakeholders such as patient leaders in some NHS organisations
  • as fully fledged members of a multidisciplinary team, for example by bringing experts by experience onto Care Quality Commission inspections.

While many organisations employ people in one of these modes, very few yet combine all three. This means false conflicts are set up. User researchers complain that consultations are conducted with “proxy users” instead of the actual people who will use a service. The most committed service users, with much to contribute, can be told their experience disqualifies them because “they know too much”. In truth, we need them all!

If we want fewer electric woks in our future, we’d better stay open to unexpected outcomes.

Howard described compellingly how the LS14 Trust works to “hold spaces” where people can explore and create at their own pace – “laptop in one hand, cup of tea in the other”. They start conversations on people’s own terms, asking “what do you want to change?”

As a question from Victoria highlighted, we must always be aware of power imbalances in these spaces. People will be inhibited from contributing fully if they feel they should say what the most powerful people in the room want to hear, or if, on the basis of their past experiences, they don’t believe their participation will really change anything.

And Mick shared a set of questions that ABCD practitioners use to check the impact of their interventions:

  • What will be enhanced?
  • What will be restored?
  • What will be replaced?
  • What might this mutate into?

A great set of questions to ask when designing almost anything.

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mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

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