Should the human be privileged in design processes?

human-centred design
Is this really how design should work?

Once again challenging conventional wisdom, Don Norman suggests that human-centred design is not a good idea. Norman’s wonderful essay is worth reading, so I won’t try to summarize it here except to paraphase his point in my own words: focusing on the human (presumably to the detriment if not exclusion of other important aspects of a design situation) doesn’t work because focusing on humans only ignores so many other critical aspects of a design situation, that the results can be catastrophic. (You really should read his essay yourself.)

And while I agree completely with him about not only the inappropriate nature of human-centred design (HCD), but also about the relative superiority of activity-centred design (ACD), I do have some reservations about how he presents his arguments.

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Technology, analogy, evolution, and Don Norman

an old and a new Mini.
Technology drives analogy & evolution in design.

According to Don Norman, technology comes before identification of need. That is, you can only recognize a need if you already know about the technology that can be used to address it.  It’s not a conventional idea, and it can rub some people the wrong way, but – as I’ve written before – I think he’s right.

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Science leads design just as technology does

jellyfish are pumps
Jellyfish may lead to new pump designs.

A recent article at gizmag reported on a new notion for flexible pumps based on how jellyfish work. Such pumps would be very useful for various medical uses because they could be more easily implanted in humans. This is obviously a case of the beginning of a biomimetic design.

More importantly, though, I think this is an excellent example of how science – an understanding of the natural world – can drive design just as well as technology can.

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Technology, needs, and analogy in design

T-shirt reading "life is like an analogy"
Analogies can be very useful.

I’ve been thinking about Don Norman‘s notion of technology driving needs ever since I read and wrote about it some months ago. I’m still trying to understand the implications of it, and how it fits into my own views. One thing I’ve realized is that a design is constrained by the designer’s ability to recognize analogies between needs and existent technology, and that, as an educator, I have to urge my students to remain current about available technologies and to understand them as deeply as possible, because knowledge of those technologies and their impact on people will inform their designerly acts as much as their knowledge of process and method.

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Balancing Need and Technology

invention or design?
Does need drive invention? Or is invention really a mother?

Conventional wisdom tells us that we design technological artifacts in response to perceived needs; that is, needs drive technology.  The formidable Don Norman recently wrote a web article suggesting that, contrary to convention, technology can drive needs.  Norman’s article caused quite a fuss in the design research community, in which only some agreed with his novel perspective.

I don’t see the benefit of arguing one way or the other; it’s on par with trying to decide which side of a coin came first, the head or the tail of it.  I think a better way to view it is as an infinitely looping process whereby designers adjust reality to balance our needs with respect to a number of other forces, one of which is technological change.

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