human centered design

The User

I saw this on television. A young girl, maybe 5 years old, sat next to a young chimpanzee and each of them were presented with a wooden box that was equipped with a few buttons and levers. On one side of the box, there was tiny door. A female and friendly-looking instructor, demonstrated that by pressing the buttons and pulling the levers in a certain pattern, one can open their tiny door and find a piece of candy. The eager students both repeated the behaviors, pressing buttons and pulling levers just as hey had been taught, and as promised, when they opened the tiny doors, they found a yummy surprise, and they were happy.  

Next, the girl and ape were given the same box, but this version was made of clear lucite, which revealed the the candy was behind the little door the whole time. The ape, simply lifted the door and ate the candy. The little human, however, looking a bit foolish, preformed the ritual again, step by step, before accepting her prize. And again, they were happy.

A good designer is at the service of the user. In Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, the tree makes the boy happy by simply being a tree. He swings from her branches and sleeps in her shade. And they are happy. But as the boy grows, his needs change. He is the user, once so delighted by the tree’s service, he now feels entitled to the tree’s increasingly refined solutions for his increasingly complex needs. In the end, the boy takes everything from the tree. She is a stump, alone in anonymous field. The user never says thank you, or demonstrates that what the tree has given was put to effective use. The user simply takes what he feels he deserves. And perhaps the tree enabled this. Perhaps, when he came asking for her apples, her branches, and finally her trunk, perhaps she should have said no.

I imagine that one day, the little girl with the box, now a young woman, will stop being happy. Over time, repeating the ritual day in and day out, she’ll start to question the point of it all. Why do I do this? She’ll wonder with a resentful tone. What if I just took what I wanted and stopped doing what Ive been told to do. She’ll reconsider the kind instructor. What if she wasn’t just teaching the girl how to win—what is she had other objectives. What if she was just sharing her opinion? Or—and this is the most troubling thought for the girl—what if the instructor was just repeating the same bullshit that a seemingly kind woman had taught her, and that the ritual had been passed down for generations without explanation.

Could a designer exist without a user? It’s one of the key differences between designer and an artist. An artist works with no boundaries, bringing their personal vision to life without compromise. The designer thrives only a cage of boundaries. The designer solves a problem for a user and while her personal style might be indicated in the solution, it is always compromised as per the user’s preferences. It is an unfair marriage to your enemy—a type of Stockholm Syndrome—that compels you to love and serve your enemy, knowing he will never be satisfied and he will never die.

One day, the little girl with the box, now a middle-aged prominent politician, will stop doing the ritual. She’ll regret that it took so long to question the process, and that she was once so vulnerable and naive. (She knows this is an unfair accusation to charge at her 5-year-old self, but this doesn’t fully alleviate the guilt.) And she’ll stand at a microphoned podium and tell the people in plain language, We no longer need to preform the ritual. Rigorous testing has concluded that, while the ritual may have been useful to people of the past, it is no longer necessary. We know now that there are no benefits. And by not preforming the ritual, nothing bad will happen to you or loved ones.

Amidst the reporters and television crews, many audience members will applaud her discovery—a victory over ignorance. But others will feel hurt by the discovery—a pain that will quickly become anger. These others will eventually organize and achieve policy protecting a person’s right to preform the ritual. Textbooks will be pulled from schools and revised to include both pro- and anti-ritual beliefs. And the girl, now an old woman, will recognize that this was the moment she lost interest in serving the people. And though it took a long time, she had eventually learned how to resist the urge to help. 

The ocean has no choice but to follow the moon. It simply cannot stop itself from obsessively pulling towards the moon’s trajectory. The ocean doesn’t understand gravity or even that it’s tides are predictable. The ocean, messy and shapeless, only knows that it wants the moon—this simple, beautiful, and evasive white circle in the dark and lonely sky. Every night, the moon only uses the ocean as a mirror to admire it’s own beauty. And every night, and for millions of years, the ocean desperately throws kamikaze waves, love letters, into the moon’s sky. She doesn’t know, or pretends not to know, that this flawless and vicious white circle is really just a cold rock, completely unaware of her, and blindly following it’s own master.