Design Won’t Save the World
Human-centered design is great for mops and phones, but it won’t solve society’s biggest problems
“Design can change the world.”
When I was in design school, this statement filled me with incredible energy and pride. I felt it in my core. How could I not? Over the last few decades, design — and design thinking — has ascended to the point of being routinely viewed as one of the differentiators for companies and products.
Behind this ascension lies design’s anointed operating system: human-centered design.
The fundamental idea behind human-centered design is that, to find the best solution, designers need to develop an empathetic understanding of the people they are designing for.
Designers do this through user interviews, contextual observations (watching users go about their business in their “normal” life), and a number of other tools that help designers put themselves in users’ shoes. Once you can paint an empathetic picture of a user’s needs, the next step in the process is to identify a few key insights and use those to create a solution.
One famous example is the development of the Swiffer mop. Designers, tasked with improving the process of housecleaning, observed customers cleaning their homes. A key insight was that time was critical. Cleaning often cut into time for other activities, and any time savings would be a boon. Mopping was identified as an especially time-consuming part of cleaning, with multiple steps and multiple pieces of equipment, not to mention waiting for the floor to dry. So designers created a “dry mop” (the Swiffer) that simplified the process and saved time. It was a huge commercial success.
And the process works. Countless products and services that drive our daily lives were either born from this process or dramatically improved by it. Smartphones and many of their apps, social media services like Instagram and Twitter. The darlings of the sharing economy — Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. Not to mention a litany of physical products.
The way the world works and the way we work in it are fundamentally different today than they were even a decade ago. In large part…