Do Not Do Things Better, Do Better ThingsDigital & Innovation | 28th April 2017
Digital technology crept into our lives, and so deeply has it penetrated us, that it has completely redesigned the way we engage with the world and each other. In the deep oceans and the high skies, it is now as elemental in our landscape as the wind and falling rain. It’s not going to stop. Our reliance on this ubiquitous technology is arguably redesigning humans too - We've become trans-human.
Knowing the world may require us to give up trying to understand it.
Some of the most popular trends from the last decade—the proliferation of apps, the rise of the sharing economy, and the ubiquity of on-demand services—have not only brought about a greater degree of personalisation, convenience and economic growth but also questions around what kind of life we want to live in the 21st century. As this technology becomes increasingly immaterial, and we move from information delivery to the fulfilment of abstract tasks, it's time to ask if the technology we’ve created has just added more layers of confusion. We're still learning this.
But even as we search for those answers we can still approach the design of everyday technology in a way that amplifies our humanity rather than erodes it. We just need to focus on the thing that persists when all the technology is stripped away - the people.
This is the simple philosophy I wanted to explore in my book and adopt as our approach to technology design at Nexus.
Build functions that service our human needs, not the needs of a user.
Remove the clicks and taps and buttons and passwords, and instead design things that give us all the intelligence that technology provides, but are an elegant extension of us, rather than a gross augmentation to us.
We’ve spent an awfully long time plotting user journeys and planning customers journeys, when in reality every human is on a journey we know nothing about.
What I've discovered by approaching design in a more philosophical way, is that there are a lot of factors in interface creation that are in fact fictions and things we’ve been too dogmatic about as leaders in this field. Functions we've always used, like the username and passwords, buttons and navigation patterns that came about because we started an industry by digitising paper products and offline experiences. By modifying something that existed without technology, rather than creating the best version of something new.
In reality, we're not digitising behaviour;
We're behaving in a digital world.
Because of these beginnings, we see a lot of patchwork and whole walls of plastering on top of the legacy features and functions we thought were the answer to the problems we’ve been trying to solve. The functions re-enter the cycle like a soul entering a new body to learn lessons it didn’t in its past life and travel through the system yet again. Instead of leaping forward, they exist on that lower fractal, spinning in a vortex. I’ve watched it happen again and again. And again, we build a better version of the thing, rather than a new version of something better.
But how will focusing on humans not functionality help to solve this problem? To answer that you have to start using the question "why" more; For example, why make people’s lives easier? And define that word easier. Why should convenience and ease replace human experience? Should we use technology to fix the problem and make the world more frictionless on behalf of people, or should we use technology as the tool we give to the masses to help them fix their own problems?
Thinking more human-being is going to be a difficult mindset for some designers to adopt, because it’s so ingrained into our industry to approach humans as users, consumers and customers. In general psychology, there is a principle called the availability bias, which basically means we perceive something to be more important the more we are subjected to it and made aware of it. The tendency to overvalue what is—and undervalue what could be—forms the basis of much of our ethics. A lot of the time, the judgments we make, and why we make them, come not from critical thought or personal experience, but from the mere existence of that something in the first place. As a result, things that already get a lot of attention tend to stay popular and often seem to serve as the perfect point of entry - best practice.
I believe it’s time for us to question those biases and realign. To problem solve in a different way. It may seem obvious but the apparatus we are born with, to read an article like this, or to appreciate the wonders around us are everything we really need as tools to solve and evolve.
Empiricism emphasises this. It teaches us that the role of evidence drawn through the senses is the thing to form knowledge. That the senses are themselves the holy grails we search for through our ideologies. In science and scripture we've hunted for answers, when in reality the answers are all in-built, we all just need to learn how to switch on the nose, ears, eyes, fingers etc, and once the switches are active, the live brain can receive more information because we are then plugged into the environment around us. The more holistic knowledge we have, the more points of reference we have, which will build the platform for more understanding.
That’s what design is or at least should be: the bridge between us and our senses.
I imagine some of you will be agreeing with this sentiment (and some disagreeing), but you've probably sat in meetings and felt rather alone—unable to philosophise and talk about things like this, things that are not to say… the natural corollary. But don't give up. Keep pushing the concept that we don’t have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why.
Human interaction with anything, be it digital or physical, requires us to look deeply at the challenge and ask the question; ‘Is this universal or merely novel?’ In other words, we need to align ourselves more closely with balance in the digital things we make with respect of their effects on us, and our relationship with them. To even begin to go there, we must first accept that we have not brought real human elements into the discussion like we could and should have.
In this sense we have failed in a large way and this is something we must admit first, before we can begin again, and explore territory we have tried so tactfully to ignore. It’s OK to be more curious and it’s OK to be more philosophical. Be perpetually at that schism, acknowledging that our skills are still in the stages of infancy and we have much to learn and unlearn. I’ve been a professional for twenty years now and I still know very little.
There are only really four stages of learning:
We - the technologists and designers - are still at stage one, you know - when we experience going for new things with no handle on how we are doing them wrong. It’s the most interesting and enjoyable stage too. It’s OK not to know. It’s OK to try but not know if something will work or not, to keep exploring and keep searching.
Each day in our industry, we’re breaching new frontiers in science and technology, but for all the knowledge we have gathered, we’ve been surprisingly bad at handling the simple yet fundamental questions of what truly fulfils these human needs of ours. How do you want someone to feel vs. what you want someone to do? Instead, we tend to fall back on a simplistic, mechanical understanding of our desires and measure this and design to accommodate it. As with all things, brilliant ideas need to evolve and move on and I can't help feeling that because we’ve hung on so tightly and so strictly to the graphical user interface, it’s led to the creation of erroneous touch-points and a continuous optimisation and massaging of something that was great, as a means to an end… but in itself should never have been considered the end.
We've created an awful lot of glass touch-points for our lives.
But don’t fret and don’t fear. We’re on the brink of some of the most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century and they will not only occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human. When we start with the human needs and not the functional fixation.
As a passionate observer of cultural, economic and technology trends, I’m excited about the feeling that we’re now at a critical turning point and if we can commit to a human focused approach towards designing our future with technology, and by starting first to understand what it means to be human and approaching this organically, holistically, and amplifying our best qualities, and not just playing into our base chemical demands and building more apps that nobody needs—then a bright and powerful future is there for us to claim.
We just need to align, return to balance—zero point—and all we reach for will manifest as fast as the noise comes when we click our fingers. It is as all of the philosophers have taught, where all psychology has returned to, and all art forms have been the creations for. We need to design in the pursuit of one thing that underpins all the fundamental questions we have ever asked and it can be summarised in just two words: ‘know thyself’.
Pete Trainor is a digital designer, author, accidental polymath, mental health campaigner and founder of Nexus in London. He talks all over the world on creative & social technologies & the physiological & psychological effects on their audiences. His recently published, bestselling, book 'Hippo - Human Focused Digital' takes a philosophical look at technology and design and challenges us to look inwardly at the self when designing future experiences. Pete regularly appears in UK national and international press as an analyst on digital media, creative industries, emergent technologies, and tech markets. Pete also chairs the Ai Think Tank for The British Interactive Media Association, lobbying government and industry on data and privacy issues. He has a very simple mantra: Don't do things better, do better things.
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Pete Trainor was invited by Hi INTERACTIVE to write this article.
Read our article about how In Order to Design Experiences, You Need To Live Experiences.