Saturday, March 30, 2013

Marking the Shift: Making Things People Want, Not Making People Want Things

I'm one of those slightly twisted persons who think about the things behind other things, like thinking about how people think about change. That's handy for design territory, of course, but more than utility, there's something about it that leads my mind off into the fields, wandering blissfully. Fortunately, there's always plenty of raw material and I get to indulge in this often. One thing that fascinates me is how people try to frame or explain what they see as new or different, ascribing characteristics that fit their take on or help their resistance to it. But what I really enjoy is the grappling with the change and the meaning and impact of and reasons for the change in an honest, open way, acknowledging discomfort, unwieldiness, and the unknown. Most of us are not confident about that sort of struggle, so we avoid it, despite the richness of life it contains and the resilience it teaches us.

Three recent articles, and a talk and meet-up with one of the authors, spoke to me about change in the air that I've also been noticing. Two of them are connected, but have different focal points that make one stronger than the other relative to the change they discuss. The other is a wonderful example of the struggle that should be part of big changes. I'll highlight these and offer a few of my thoughts about them.

The context is the shift from how we design to make products and services more attractive to people to designing products and services that people want and need. Though we've talked about people-centered design for years, the practice of the former is still company-centered in reality.

John Maeda highlights this in a piece that I missed somehow when it came out last fall. He wrote to ask If Design's No Longer the Killer Differentiator, What Is?, stating along the way that "what people are looking for now is a way to reconnect with their values: to ground how they can, will, and should live in the world."

This is an important statement about a vital idea and one we designers would do well to keep forefront at all times. But I find John's framing a bit off, because I think people always are, and always have been trying to connect to what they value. So, his assertion is perfectly valid, except the word "now" is a bit of a red herring. Thinking about the right thing, but with a bent toward feeling like it's new when it isn't.

What really seems to be happening is that we are becoming more acutely aware of the subtle business-centrism we've maintained even as we designed under the proclamation that "People are what matters!" There's a tremendous difference between making people want products and making products that people want. It's not that what people truly want has changed, it's that we're finally realizing we're not helping them get it.

Of course it's true that many people got caught up in what they were being offered and lured into, but mainly by empty promises falsely representing greater or deeper meaning. We are starting to understand that we can help them see their way beyond that because the human passion for true meaning and beauty are ancient and ageless. So when John writes, "Art speaks to us as humans, not as “human capital.” Art shows us that human beings still matter in a world where money talks the loudest, where computers know everything about us, and where robots fabricate our next meal and also our ride there," he is tapping into something that goes much further back than the Occupy movement and the appearance of MakerFaire.

I do think he very correctly pulls us into the effort to focus more clearly on things of value, even charging it with a sense of responsibility. It is important for all of us to ask "how do we have more of these successes? ... Just how do we make – not just find – the next generation of artists who will propel us and reveal the way forward?"

Jim Jacoby might answer that they are not for us to find, but for us to realize that we are them. We can become those artists, both of product and people, as we make and teach.

In Dissing Disintermediation, Jim argues that "we need to rebalance ourselves in the context of layered systems. and the american (sic) differentiation in global markets can be the celebration of craftsmen once again...they should be meaningfully designing at multiple layers in a complex system. and we should be actively involved in the dialectic with them." A conversation has begun that does something else I'm very fond of, that shows how together the single and the multiple, the simple and complex are bound in a real way to move and shape the world around us. The systems that exist and are constantly in motion can be realized, engaged, and consciously and conscientiously reshaped. Part of the change is in the widespread realization that what is really going on around us is bigger, more connected, and more subject to our influence than we have been aware of.

Understanding and practicing good design gave us an entry into both the realization and the opportunity to act on it. The past 20 - 30 years of tremendous growth in the craft and its role in business is an important change, one that has taken a great deal of fight and perseverance. But point of the current shift is that we are only part way down the path of learning how to design and how to use it truly well.

Bruce Nussbaum reinforces that in his article, So You’ve Discovered the Importance of Good Design. Don’t Make These Mistakes, the goal of which appears to be to shake up the comfort levels, laurel-resting, status quo-maintaining we might be doing now that design is seen as a factor in recent successes. He accuses the design practice, and businesses embracing it, of tying themselves to a past we need to move beyond. The push is to acknowledge that enabling and engaging with meaning and value is not just about incorporating about designers and design practices into business. I agree, but this is something that mature designers working at deeper and broader levels have known. Case in point, he hammers on the practice of user experience design as coming from "a design culture...where passive consumers “experience” something provided by someone else." The front line of designers know that experience is emergent and collaborative and we designers simply try to optimize the chance of conditions in which good things happen.

Bruce underscores our need to go deeper on growing "creative intelligence," similar to emotional and intellectual intelligences, "to move away from the outdated relics of design and towards creative competence." Personally, the three are one to me. The idea of divided or compartmentalized intelligences, a la right / left brain, no longer seems helpful, and is possibly stigmatizing and constraining.

I recently had the privilege of listening to Bruce speak and chatting with him afterward. It was a great treat and the depth and color he gave to the topic was enlightening, powerful, and motivating. He's a very gracious conversationalist, too. I am in agreement with his mission of growing creative abilities, especially in high-functioning groups, I simply think it is the next part of a journey, not a replacement for something that was necessarily faulty or mistaken.

It's an amazing and wonderful path we're on. I get the sense that the social, economic, and technological changes underway are leading to another societal shift and am very hopeful that we can do well with it. We designers and makers have big charges, responsibilities to make good and make well.

With that, I'll close with another quote from Jim: "so, get back to work, but think about what you're building… what you’re doing… that you’re not a hacker, or info-worker, writer, designer, or programmer but a ‘maker.’ you're a craftsman in your own right. the dialectic you can create between yourself and the world around you is the craft you are charged with every day. you exist in the context of a layer in this system ... now it’s simply a matter of becoming conscious to it.

we’re waking up to the creation of the world around us."