Published April 12th, 2017
by Steven Clark

Thanks to Twitter/LinkedIn I’ll never need to attend a conference again. I can read 50% of the slides on my timeline, parroted by the kind of people who apparently consider things like “focus on user outcomes” a mind-blowing, revelatory piece of advice. Massive investment in UX from huge orgs and tech companies and its continued status as “the thing we blog about to sound smart” means no one can shut up about humans and/or users and how important it is to consider them during the design process. I can’t understand why people would pay money to attend events and have this constantly reiterated to them, unless a day out of the office away from their coworkers is just that appealing.

As we’ve mentioned in the past, the kind of people shouting about this obvious truth-cum-pseudo-philosophy are often those who’ve never met a user they’re designing for, let alone run a test with one. Pointing out that users are human or claiming that you “design for humans” has been adopted as the new industry password you give to middle managers who don’t know any better to allow them to make bad decisions (e.g. hiring you).

Designing for humans 101

Also, while it’s rarer, I’ve seen some make the related case – sometimes indirectly – that good design can actually influence sales instead of just making them straightforward or possible. While an increased focus on users will hopefully improve the usability of many apps and websites – even if it might make them uglier – surely good design doesn’t create leads or sales, it only facilitates them. This attitude robs users of their autonomy (as if a bigger button or nice banner alone converts) and adds value to design where there often is none. I mean you can build the most functional, streamlined web or app “experience” in the world but it has no value without visitors or an audience.

Despite what the limp-dicked Jared Spools of the world might tell you, design is still a balancing act. If I’m supposed to believe that everyone who influences the design is a designer, how do I reconcile that with my presumably data driven objective to cater to users and their goals? Company executives feedback on wireframes with “where’s the colour?” and will complain you’re not using the brand guidelines – which were created for print – enough in your web visuals. A marketing team will ask you to splash annoying ads on a site and interrupt users while they’re browsing with a passive aggressive newsletter signup. Spool’s sole contribution to modern design discourse seems to be convincing those that usually inhibit and complexify the design process that their input is entirely valuable. Which ignores the reality somewhat in favour of sucking executive dick to procure more paid speaking opportunities. If everyone is a designer, and designers are responsible for putting human/user outcomes first, then any suggestions that are outwardly detrimental to website usability should be automatically excluded, right? Nope.

The irony of this “there’s a human behind every device” style bullshit is the dehumanising effect the internet has on people. This is something wholly facilitated by design. Take Facebook Live, Facebook’s mostly irritating livestream service, on which the battle for Aleppo was broadcast last year to a rapturous wave of angry, shocked and tear faces. A decade ago, if you surveyed 1,000 people and asked them to choose one of six emotive reaction faces to footage of the Iraq war, you’d probably be arrested.

Does this footage make you feel A. happy or B. responsible for the deaths of thousands

Advertising has long been devoid of any or all humanity, if it ever had any to begin with. This is a deficiency apparently noted by the many brands who have hired Gogglebox stars to shill their products – assuming they represent the British public – forgetting that even starring in an advert or appearing on television somewhat alienates them to begin with. In a piss poor attempt to relate to us modern dissenting humans, Pepsi recently attempted to depict the blandest and most redundant political protest ever devised, where hundreds of people take to the streets brandishing “Join the Conversation” signs. Through the crowd, a tarted-up Kendall Jenner wipes off her expensive celebrity makeup – making her one of us, however briefly – and grabs an ice cold can of Pepsi, only to hand it over to a police officer earning the approval of the crowd. An intended message of heartfelt solidarity that resulted in well-deserved backlash. Turns out trying to sell Pepsi while trivialising legitimate gripes that people feel strongly enough to protest about, and valourising a militarised police force, doesn’t go down quite as smoothly as an ice cold can of sugar water.

And it’s not just designers and ad creatives who are helping to cultivate our nightmare dystopian future, devoid of humanity. Developers are hard at work attempting to create sophisticated AI and automated systems spurned on by business interests with little regard for the human cost these things will likely have. This is a future that a disturbing number of people are excited and optimistic about – typically those who assume the whole “machines stealing jobs” thing stops at their specific career choice and industry. It’s weird to me that while our design talking point of the moment is all about selling to users/humans through design catered perfectly to their needs, there’s an entire contingent of people dedicated to removing millions of them from the market.

No job is safe

I feel like every one of my blogs ends this way. I go on and on about the latest buzzwords and their inherent hypocrisy and/or redundancy before concluding that designers are full of shit. I’m not sure what we were doing before we started “designing for humans” and “focusing on user outcomes” but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t much different than it is now, perhaps just less pretentious with marginally worse interfaces.

This emphasis on humans and their needs gets funnier the more the internet, advertising and technological advancement continue to be devoid of the things that make us human – intimacy, understanding and compassion. That said, if we are all just a bunch of shit-talking hypocrites, then that’s as good a measure as any to prove we’re still human. Despite our best efforts.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Habanero Digital blog meaning certain parts are probably weirdly self referential or talk about ongoing feuds that probably exist almost exclusively in the mind of the author.

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by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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