It sounds like one of the most obvious statements to make when it comes to the role of design — it must fit the purpose. It should engage, inspire, and educate. It should drive change, prompt new ways of thinking, and make life simpler. In short, it should fulfill the brief, no matter how that brief takes shape. And to do that — to resonate with the audience for which a concept, project, product, process, or service was intended — it needs to be human-centered.

Overlooking the fundamental principle of design

Many organizations still overlook this fundamental principle of design. Some tech firms engineer software based on the aspirations of developers or the realms of what is possible, for instance, rather than making savvy use of code to drive the change that is really required. Brands launch ad campaigns without understanding the pain point or opportunity the creative needs to ‘hit’. Services become overly complex because steps are added in piecemeal format, without the organization ever taking a fresh look to ensure the process satisfies what it initially set out to achieve. There are even, sadly, some designers who continue to focus on what looks good, aesthetically, in their portfolio, instead of what will truly help the client.

Surely, design should never be for design’s sake.

Of course, it’s possible for design to spark a need that people didn’t even realize they had — it can create desire or drive demand, for example. But to ensure truly effective design, it must be human-centered. And this requires us to see the world through a different lens.

Sometimes, human-centered priorities fall by the wayside because habits and traditions skew both designers’ and users’ thinking. ‘The way things have always been done’ takes precedent, and we fall into a trap of simply evolving the core concept rather than ever re-evaluating its present-day suitability.

Simplification of service design

For example, take a trip to see a general practitioner (GP), because service design is so commonly overlooked in media commentary. For decades, a patient with a suspected infection would suffer at home for a period of time, call the surgery, discuss possible appointment times and confirm the visit, travel to the GP for consultation, and perhaps even return a second time if tests were required to validate the diagnosis. A prescription would then be written out and a trip to the pharmacist would be required to collect the medication, for the treatment to begin.

Think about the time and resources needed for the patient, surgery, and pharmacy to handle this process — not to mention the potential difficulties associated with the trip if the patient is vulnerable, immobile, or infectious. Hasn’t there long been a better way?

Virtually overnight, however — because of the current healthcare climate — telephone appointments, remote diagnoses, and medicines-to-home deliveries have become the norm. We’re even reading about traditional visits to the GP being replaced by video consultations, as standard, to prevent the wastage of resources and better protect the wellbeing of everyone involved if unnecessary travel and physical contact can be avoided.

This process won’t be suitable for all health conditions, of course, but this is where further user-centred considerations will come in, moving forward. However, this example highlights, in principle, the benefits that can be achieved, the speed at which a long-tried-and-tested service can be overhauled, and the agility with which even a staggeringly vast organization can work, when we reassess what it means to get ‘from A to B’.

There are countless examples of external pressures forcing such change, not least because of the current health landscape. What were once considered barriers to people working from home — technology, culture, and even basic levels of trust — have now been overcome, and the masses are proving it can be a success. Remote-working strategies won’t be without their trials and tribulations, it must be noted. There may be productivity dips, connectivity issues, and even morale concerns. But again, there’s no reason why this new workplace design cannot be tested, reflected upon, iterated, and enhanced, so that it becomes a successful ‘new normal’.

Communicate, don’t presume

Herein lies another important point. We cannot assume people understand what every element of process design means, or why every product feature exists. Design is sometimes open to misinterpretation and relying on presumptions is risky.

Employees new to remote working won’t necessarily know how to achieve a work-life balance when the line starts to become blurred, for example. They will need support to navigate this new experience, and employer communication will prove key to aiding this.

Shoppers being asked to observe a 2m distance sounds straightforward enough, but that’s because we simply assume everyone knows what 2m looks like. Many do not, so savvy supermarkets have been quick to react by introducing visual tools, such as floor and wayfinding graphics, to support this new way of shopping. There’s more design work to be done, however, because 2m distancing, in some stores, is practically impossible due to aisle spacing or the overall footprint of the shop itself. Entire store layouts may, therefore, have to be overhauled before long. But everything is now being reviewed and re-evaluated, to make things better for the consumer.

Will this make for a better retail experience? Yes, perhaps so.
Would any of these ‘traditions’ have been halted if an external factor had not forced us to look at these scenarios through a new lens? Not likely.

There is a sobering backdrop to so many examples of fantastic design at present. But as designers, we need challenges to solve, and a human-centered focus should be the way we do it.

Cover image source: Joshua Rawson-Harris