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User Centred Design is dead, long live sustainable value!

User Centred Design actually evolves, embracing a concept of sustainable, lasting value that benefits multiple stakeholders and contexts. Here's how we address the issue at Sketchin.

Sarah Corti
Chief Design Officer

31.10.23 - 7 mins read

Today, we face many pressing challenges, including climate change, pandemics, conflicts, economic turmoil, and migrations. At the same time, the nature and complexity of the projects we undertake are ever-expanding. With products and services becoming increasingly integrated into the fabric of our lives, it becomes imperative for us designers to expand our vision. The traditionally User-Centred Design approach (see footnote 1) must evolve, embracing a concept of value that is truly sustainable over time for everyone and in every context. This means anticipating the repercussions of our design decisions and considering external elements beyond our direct control.

Our goal is to approach design from a more holistic perspective, considering not only the individual but also the surrounding environment, interpersonal relationships, and the communities involved. Moving beyond User-Centred Design, we aim to strike a balance between technology, policies, and individuals, ensuring that innovation meets real needs rather than imposing them.

Making informed decisions when designing products, services, and experiences is difficult. Still, there are many great thinkers and resources to learn from: frameworks, guidelines, and tools to at least reflect on what we aim to build.

Don Norman, for instance, in Design for a Better World, introduces the concept of Human-Centred Design and offers an examination of where we've gone wrong as designers and a straightforward recipe to make things right. He suggests a new way of thinking, recognizing our role in a complex global system where even simple behaviours impact the world. He proposes a recalibration of what we consider essential in life, knowing that it might take 20-30 years before the impact of the change becomes perceivable, as people first need to learn to think differently. The economy and macro-systems must be ready to embrace it.

Design must change from being unintentionally destructive to being intentionally constructive - don norman

For nearly thirty years, User-Centred Design has been the standard in the design and development of both physical and digital products. Designing with a User-Centred perspective has meant, and still means, focusing not only on a company's business objectives but also on human needs, user capabilities, and behaviours. This approach still brings benefits, but today, it is no longer enough.

In the current context, what benefits a single user might negatively affect many others or the environment. We believe it is essential to extend our vision beyond the immediate needs of the direct users of a product or service. The scope of impact design goes beyond mere direct usage, influencing even those not directly involved and might do so in the future. The goal is not to predict every detail of the future but to stimulate reflection and dialogue on currently visible future trajectories and their potential consequences.

Take, for example, the case of SPID, the public digital identity system in Italy. Who would have ever imagined that a pandemic could catalyse its spread? And who would have predicted that, in 2020, it would be the over-75 age group that would generate an unexpected growth of users, bringing with it a multitude of service providers eager to join this ecosystem? During the pandemic, SPID became essential to access support measures and interact with Public Administrations, ensuring fundamental services in a critical period.

Why should business move beyond User-Centred Design? 

We live in a V.U.C.A. era, an acronym that describes a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. This implies that design decisions don't act in silos; they can have effects in areas that are not directly related or unexpected. By integrating the V.U.C.A. mindset into the design, we aim to broaden our perspective, adopt a critical and flexible approach to the future, and be ready to challenge preconceptions and explore scenarios, even those less intuitive.

From a cold business perspective, an approach that considers and strives for design outcomes that look at the long term translates to solid and lasting investment opportunities. Broadening the subject, looking beyond user centricity not only opens up potential long-term projects but also offers the chance to diversify and expand a company's market opportunities. Beyond User-Centred Design means integrating new elements into the equation, identifying not limitations but new possibilities and new areas to develop the brand's values and experience. Asking ourselves what might happen and to whom it will happen means we can also design for a broader audience and generate lasting value that also invests in users we hadn't foreseen today.

Design is a living and evolving practice, continually influenced by what happens in the world. But as society, technology, and the environment evolve rapidly, we designers continue to rely on the same tools created at the dawn of our discipline's practice, perhaps still asking too few questions or challenges to recognize if they are still current and suitable for the job.

In this sense, Beyond User-Centred Design pushes designers to pose new challenges that go beyond a "restyling" and instead aim to innovate people's lives profoundly, proposing solutions that already consider tomorrow, the planet, and that are also attentive to those who cannot or will not want to use them.

To achieve all of this, it is necessary to:

  • Analyse and contextualise the design within a broader system #systemicthinking #systemmapping
  • Analyse and learn to identify all the actors, human and non-human, that make up the system in which one is designing #pluriversaldesign
  • Evolve design tools and practices #dotdesignprocess
  • Identify the direct and indirect impacts and long-term consequences that the design can entail #foresight
  • Be able to imagine and describe possible futures #speculativedesign
  • Explore valuable collaborations and partnerships that can contribute to the creation of sustainable innovation #businessdesign

A sustainability-based approach is preferable because it benefits both value and economics. In a Beyond User-Centred Design approach, the value for companies, the value for users, and the value for society are considered equally, creating an ecosystem that offers long-term opportunities for all.

Approach, Tools, and Techniques Beyond User-Centric Perspective

At Sketchin, we aim to design products/services/innovation strategies around a new way of interpreting value creation that is sustainable for all stakeholders involved. To do so, we must anticipate the impacts of our design decisions and all the external factors we cannot control.

We see individuals not just as singular entities but as complex beings defined by their environment, relationships, customs, social groups they belong to (or don’t), and the historical time they live in. This way, we can mediate between technology, policies, and the public, ensuring that innovation aligns with and serves humanity's needs.

Given what has been said, it's essential to ask how long a project can last and how to maximise its duration. Drawing from years of experience and applying the approaches above, Sketchin has developed DOT (Design Over Time): a new working framework that promotes critical thinking in both strategic and design phases, allowing the release of products, services, and experiences that provide recognised value beyond the short term.

To advance design discipline in this direction, we are developing new tools and techniques to anticipate the impacts of our designs. These tools span the entire design process, from discovery and research to idea development, solution implementation, and product launch.

Here's what we do:

1. Understand who will use and be affected by our design:

We identify all stakeholders, their systemic connections, relationships, and implications. This allows us to gain a more advanced and inclusive understanding of the context we operate within.

2. Envision the future:

For enduring results, it's vital to understand the characteristics of the future. Through trend analysis, data reports, and foresight techniques, we form a vision of plausible futures, enabling us to design lasting experiences.

3. Systemise information:

We structure the project across parallel streams. While exploring the long term, we can quickly prototype solutions and collect feedback for the short term. This not only lets us evolve the project and strategy but also meets short to medium-term business needs.

4. Support sustainable choices:

Through scouting, benchmarking, and testing, we guide the choice towards the most effective technological solution, considering impact, scalability, and long-term projection.

Five Practical Tips

In daily practice, DOT represents our attempt to actualize such a challenging mindset. Through this process, we aim to:

  • Act consciously by exploring and understanding possible futures.
  • Zoom in and out to consider all stakeholders and the ecosystem where the product/service lifecycle fits.
  • Provide tools and practices that address complexity.
  • Adapt to the specificities of the subject and context.
  • Mediate between what's right and what's demanded, balancing ideal and real needs and value.

Innovation requires foresight, the ability to interpret the present, and the courage to embrace challenges that project the final result in the long term. Surpassing the concept of User-centricity is key for us to ensure innovation, shared value, and, above all, longevity.

1 If you're not familiar with the design world, User-Centred Design (UCD) is a design methodology fundamentally believing that to design truly applicable solutions for people, designers must develop an empathetic understanding of their needs. These needs may be unconscious to the user and often require designers to have incredible observation skills, ask the right questions, and conduct appropriate tests.

Connect with us

Drop us a line if you want to know how to consider non only users in your project or in the design activities.