Saturday, October 30, 2010

Beyond Consumer Centered Design

This video is based on a paper that I'm working on for the AAA conference in November. In it I encourage designers to think beyond the needs of consumers claiming that doing so will yield more interesting and innovative products, services, and systems. Let me know what you think.

PS. Thanks to Hilary Austen for helping me find the courage to embrace complexity in an artful way. Pick up her new book from U of Toronto press Artistry Unleashed (review coming soon)


FELLA: Hey, don't you know that Human Centered Design is all the rage? Every body's doing it.

LADY: That sounds interesting. What is Human Centered Design, exactly?

FELLA: It's a design process that borrows methods from anthropology so that designers can empathize with consumers.

LADY: So, in the end, designers give consumers more of what they really want?

FELLA: O yeh. Isn't it great?

LADY: Well, I'm not so sure. I thought that I read some where that hyper consumerism is kind of a problem. The article said that a lot of the stuff we buy in the west causes environmental, social, and economic problems in other parts of the world.

FELLA: O gee. I guess so. But what can we designers do about that.  Isn't consumerism a force that's beyond our control?

LADY: Well, let's think about this for a minute. What if, 0and this is just a thought experiment, what if we designers could extend our empathy beyond consumers. Could we extend our empathy to all people along the value chain of a product?

FELLA: Gosh.  That's sounds daunting. But I'll run with it for now. So, who would we be looking at?

LADY: Let's start at the beginning. I guess we'd look at the people mining the natural resources that make our products.

FELLA: Sure. Then we'd look at the people who work in the factories that manufacture products. And the people who live near those factories 0(ever see Erin Bronkovich?)

LADY: Right. Then there are the people that drive our products around in trucks and there are people that sell the products to us.

FELLA: This is getting overwhelming.

LADY: I know. But I think we agree it's important. So let's stick it out. No one said it would be easy.

FELLA: Right on, right on. So, here we are looking at the consumer. From the point-of-sale, through the use of the product, and the eventual disposal of the product.

LADY: Right. I heard somewhere that 90 percent of the products we buy in the west are disposed of within six months of purchase.

FELLA: I heard that too. It seems like Human Centered Design could address this problem. so let's keep plugging away.0 Who do we look at next, once the product is disposed of? Is that the end?

LADY: Well, no. A lot of the products that we "throw away" are actually shipped off to other countries so that people can take them apart and extract metal for resale.

FELLA: That sounds like recycling which is a good thing, right?

LADY: Sigh. Yeh, but there are a lot of toxins in these products. So the people that are taking them apart are exposing themselves and their families to really bad toxins.

FELLA: Um. I'm starting to hate design. Maybe I should just do what my parents wanted me to do and go to med school.

LADY: Ha. I guess you could but if design is the problem, then perhaps design can be the solution too. We have to begin by asking the right questions.

FELLA: You are right. And then we redefine some terms. Like Human Centered Design. Focusing on consumers only seems too easy.

LADY: Too easy indeed. From now on, we designers need to empathize with people all along the value chain of a product, service, or system. It might take ten years or so to get this right, but I'm up for the challenge. You in?

FELLA: Totally. Let's keep the conversation going. Be sure to post a comment below or send a tweet to our pal @xanthm on twitter. She's really good about sharing your feedback. Peace.

LADY: Peace.


  1. Love it!!! This is a great challenge. I wonder what tools could be developed to help designers do this.

  2. the *sigh* really made it.

    Great way to present the conversation. I like the shift away from the consumer, to a more inclusive view. And I bet that most consumers would empathize with the other participants of the system if they knew who was behind the curtain.


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