We’re hearing it more and more – ‘let’s make things more human’. We kind of know what that means but it’s not often clear enough to translate into a set of requirements. Being human is an aspiration to make something kinder or sympathetic and less robotic. The word ‘human’ itself evokes the feeling of empathy, kindness, and maybe a sense of imperfection as we recognize all too well that we have flaws. It’s more analogue and less digital. It’s closer to the way we are; complex, nuanced and a bit difficult to put into one single box.
Maybe it’s naive to think adding a human centered approach will make a big and positive difference. After all, humans can be many things – good or bad. As well as the good, we know humans can be selfish, greedy, and destructive, in real life and online. In fact where anonymity is readily available online, it can get especially negative very quickly. Just browse the comments on Reddit, Twitter or Youtube.
How do we add in the good things about being human?
Faced with all that complexity around what is ‘human’, we must choose the most appropriate human centered requirements for our list.
To start with we need a better understanding of humans from all different angles. We won’t find it in a single field like psychology or philosophy. There is a new type of ‘human science’ which spans across fields and it needs to be studied together so we can build a better picture of ourselves holistically. The biology, chemistry, neuroscience, physics, technology, psychology and philosophy of humans need to be considered so maybe then we can connect the dots and find some new ones.
There are topics that are starting to span across these fields already – quantum, consciousness, AI, creative thinking, among other concepts. But there are not enough multidisciplinary opportunities for research, at least not that I have seen but I’m secretly hope it is happening out there.
As I have seen it’s more common to have siloed expertise and in many cases this is absolutely justified. Sometimes we need complete focus on one subject to obtain the answers we need. But as we discover the overlaps, the shared patterns that resurface across our blueprint of human nature, we could find new answers to the question of what it is to be human. This can happen a lot faster when experts from different fields and different backgrounds tackle the same problem.
I’m reminded of the book ‘The Most Human Human’ by Brian Christian from 2011. It’s about the author’s experience attending the annual Turing test where his quest was to prove he was more human than a computer. The more we think about the intelligence of computers, the more we compare them to ourselves. As we go deeper into the business of building human like machines, we inevitably have more questions about ourselves. We need to figure out what we’re really like so we can imitate those same things in machines. Ideally amplifying the good and negating the bad.
We need to pinpoint the best of us and super charge it
We have some examples where it’s happening but we need so much more
CHT (Center for Humane Technology) published a set of principles for human centered design and these are moving us in the right direction. We could be doing a lot more to start the knowledge gathering earlier in the process and throughout the lifecycle of product development and research.
Here’s my suggestion for actions we could take to drive more knowledge about being human:
- Education – Future generations could come equipped with knowledge outside of their specific domain e.g. engineering students who know philosophy, psychological students who know technology, etc. Adding a human angle of study to as many subjects as possible will encourage students to think outside of the technical details and consider human impacts.
- Product management, developers, everyone in the business of building products should be encouraged to learn ‘human science’ i.e. the basics of psychology, philosophy (ethics), neuroscience, etc.
- Corporate level directive – As someone who has spent over 20 years in corporate life, I know that the most effective way to make change is making sure you have change makers at the top. A new C level position charged with instilling human considerations or at the very least C level support of an initiative to do that.
- Research – Cross functional research teams supported with funding, access to the right people and publicity.
- Online knowledge networks – Right now we have nicely divided topics whenever we sign up to networks or communities. You can indicate your interests as you tick the boxes for technology, marketing, product management, science, etc. Why not create ‘human’ as a field in itself? This could attract the thinkers from different fields who seek to discover more about humans. That could include how we think, how we work together, our conscious minds, and how we experience with other people.
The desire to make things human centered has always been and will remain
It’s stuck around because it works. When we make things human, we make them better. Sometimes, we lose our way and let the desire for other things lead the way – popularity, profit, laziness, many things send us down a non human path. Today, when the stakes are high like the upcoming impact of AI or Social Media influence, we need to stop and check. Are we designing in the right direction? While it’s easy to say we need to be human, we have a lot to work out as we define what it is and how we can then make it so.