Human-centered design starts with the words we use


Earlier this year, as part of a Q&A session, one of the world’s most famous usability experts bluntly pronounced that the challenge of human-centered design is that “most people are stupid.” He was trying to communicate that you cannot expect the average individual to have the knowledge or experience to immediately make sense of a complex user experience. Although the message he was aiming to communicate is valid, the words he used to convey it should be deeply troubling for anyone who values human-centered design.

The foundation of human-centered design is respect for the people you are designing for. That’s why we place empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of another – at the center of the design process. Ensuring that respect for users goes far beyond simply talking about “building empathy.” True respect and empathy begin with how we think and talk about users – especially when they are not present.

In sociolinguistics, the concept of “framing” describes how the words we choose to use to describe the world around us structure our thinking, values, and conversations about the world. Beyond being impolite, referring to people as “stupid” frames one’s relationship with end users in an adversarial way. It sets up a conflict between us (the experts) and them (the “stupid” users). That type of framing is completely antithetical to good human-centered design.

To be clear, end users are not, and should never be thought of or referred to as, stupid. If someone has issues using an unfamiliar or overly complex interface, the problem lies with the interface design (and therefore “us,” the interfaces creators) rather than the user. That’s why human-centered design focuses on developing interfaces and experiences from the perspective of the end user.

The example at the beginning of this blog is an extreme case. Unfortunately, it’s not an isolated one. Many times in the past, I’ve heard industry professionals talk about the need to “dumb down” complex designs or how “users lie” during interviews. Again, the individuals in question were attempting to communicate important messages – we should strive to simplify the complex and recognize that what people say they do during research sessions doesn’t always match their actual behaviors. However, the words they chose to frame those messages reinforced that sense of us versus them. “Dumb down” places the fault with the user (rather than our designs) and “lie” implies that interviewees intend to deceive us. Intentionally or not, these statements make end users the adversary of good design rather than the focus.

We strive to use language that positively frames our relationship with end users across everything we do – from research and insights to user experience design to user interface development. Users are never stupid, but they often initially lack experience. Complex designs need to be simplified, not dumbed down. And users don’t lie, but they do sometimes misremember. And we encourage our clients to follow this approach to language, as ultimately, it’s their end users that we’re talking about. The better we can help them frame those relationships, the more positive those relationships will become.

Originally posted on by Matt Burnius

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Posted in Customer Engagement, Great Creative that Sells

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