Human centered design has been around for a long time. It’s established in many product development or design processes and regarded as an effective way to understand a user’s needs. The ‘human’ focus means it’s a great tool to problem solve and find opportunities in people’s end to end experience. We’re now hearing more about the term ‘human centered’. However this time it’s focused squarely on technology and it’s related products e.g. social media, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, etc. It’s often presented slightly differently e.g. human centered technology, human centered AI, or ‘humane tech’.
At the end of the day the call to action is the same for anything labelled ‘human’.
‘Human centered’ needs to consider ALL the human impacts in technology we productize for humans.
It sounds obvious but in the quest to go fast and lean, the longer term effects are only just being called out. Self reflection in the industry is an overdue correction.
Human centered technology is broader than human centered design
A great deal of attention is on technology being so pervasive and invasive in our lives. Whilst it has brought about incredible innovation and efficiencies, it has not come without issues. Artificial intelligence is used to show predictions, make decisions, and automate actions. It’s becoming more consequential as the products that apply it start to succumb to bias. For example, Electric vehicles, bitcoin mining and NFTs are just examples of new technology that consumes huge amounts of energy and ultimately contribute to climate change. There is strong evidence to suggest social networks and social media are affecting mental health and negatively contributing to misinformation.
These are a few of the human impacts we are discovering and they go beyond a user’s needs in a design process. They cut across a huge range of factors that affect us as humans. From our physical health, to mental health, to society and our environment practically everything. It should probably be called ‘world friendly tech’ but doesn’t sound so urgent, especially to us humans. We are better focusing on the impact to ourselves if we want action (we tend to react more that way!).
While we use a similar phrase ‘human centered design’ vs ‘human centered technology’, the two are different.
The first is a great process to make better products and the second is more like essential principles that could define our future lives.
Human and humanities
The word human appears in so many initiatives that aim to highlight and create improvements to technology. It makes sense that ‘human’ is applied when so many changes we want to see are connected to the humanities. Philosophy, sociology, psychology and more need to be considered as we go about building technology that touches every part of our lives. The philosophy aspect is required for the moral and ethical implications. The sociology, to understand how our society is affected beyond individual users. The psychology helps us figure out why us humans behave the way we do with technology.
The stakes are higher
If we failed to apply human centered design in the past, the worst that would happen as a consequence is releasing an ineffective product. This might result in a user experience that didn’t factor in the needs of the customer well enough or usage didn’t meet expectations. This time, failing to apply a human centered approach is much more important. This time it could involve machines inadvertently making significantly impactful mistakes. For example, discriminating against certain sections of society (facial recon example), robots testing our privacy boundaries (robot dog) or social networks affecting elections. These are all real consequences of applying technology available today without taking into account human centered thinking.
There is an urgency to start modifying product development, design, engineering and business processes to reflect this new need. In simple terms, this firstly means recognizing during the development process that there could be an issue that negatively impacts humans. Secondly, finding a solution, alternative, safeguard or warning for the impact.
What’s happening now
Like any new movement that starts to take hold, first there are lots of initiatives that are all aimed at awareness. That’s what we are seeing now with discussions, organizations, documentaries, and groups of like minded, concerned people recognizing there is a problem. Next, comes the solution. How it manifests is yet unknown. We know from past experience that early manifestations of new technology usually come with unhealthy side effects. Eventually, when awareness reaches a high enough threshold, the solutions arise.
These solutions could be in the form of organizational changes that allow for ethics teams and advisors to infiltrate the processes. Maybe it’s the installation of consultancies, advisors, and guides to help support change. For sure, we’ll need customers or users to be aware of the potential issues and choose to pick a humane option.
Just like clean, green, organic and healthy alternatives, tech will be no different. It may also come with cost and feature tradeoffs.
We’re just at the beginning stage but we should be optimistic that we’re heading in the right direction.