User-centered design is outdated

At least, if you keep on using it in isolation, but I’ll get to that. It is, however, not any less important than before. User-centered design used to be enough to come up with the best solution for users and the company. Now we have to think more comprehensively. Systemic Design is the way to go now.

The problem of user-centered design

User-centered design is the buzzword when it comes to developing or enhancing new products or services. It puts the users’ needs at the center of product development. The aim is to guarantee that products solve actual problems users might have and meet their needs. As a nice side effect, this ups your chances that your product is actually being sold and used. It should be a no-brainer that generating sales is in the interest of any company – so it’s a win-win situation.

It really is that simple: make people happy, so many of them will give you their hard-earned money. I’m really sorry, but this simple concept is not enough anymore. In fact, it never was. Although it helped build great products and services, it shows more than ever that the concept is lacking something.

Products and services don’t exist in an isolated space. They almost always have an impact on our society and the environment. They have the power to influence and shape entire societies. In some cases they even have an enormous impact on our environment – and most times, not in a good way.

We have to reframe user-centered design. We have to think about more than just creating a product that is meaningful and as usable as possible for our target customer. The reason? Well, what may be good for one person may harm others. You have to consider the impact a product might have on people outside the target customer group. On top of that, it is also necessary to consider the effects this might cause on the environment. So, for example, a product needs rare chemicals during production that have to be mined. The mining process itself causes environmental destruction and health issues for the miners. So, in the end, the product is very well suited for the target customers. But it causes environmental destruction and health issues for other people. This is something we have to consider when designing products.

While this is pretty much an in-your-face example, other effects are less easy to notice when starting off with a new product idea. Take Facebook’s “Like”-Button. This tiny feature had a huge negative impact on society as a whole. That’s exactly why we as designers have to do better. Read more about Likes on social media here if you need a refresher: The psychology of being ‘liked’ on social media.

I don’t want to go any deeper into the problems of user-centered design here. Cennydd Bowles has already written a great article about it. I recommend you go and read his article here right now: Why user-centered design struggles with ethics.

A systemic design approach

The Design Council also published an enhanced version of the Double Diamond approach earlier this year: “The Systemic Design Framework“. They, too, found that it is no longer enough to develop a product that is as good as possible for your target customers. Rather, the new approach seeks to think about the planet, its people, and sociocultural structures to provide a design process that no longer exists in isolation.

Elements of the systemic design framework. The phases of the original Double Diamond process now renamed to explore, reframe, create and catalyse.

Yes, to be honest, this new approach is not as easy to comprehend as the Double Diamond approach. Fact is, the different systems interacting with each other and the environment is not that simple and thus requires new characteristics, which systemic designers must bring to the table:

  • System Thinker
  • Leader and Storyteller
  • Designer and Maker
  • Connector and Convener
The four characteristics of systemic designers.

Of course, those characteristics don’t need to be held by one person alone. Nevertheless, it’s something we have to consider when setting up design teams. But I’m just scratching the surface about what all of that means. So, to get the whole picture, go read the official article from the Design Council that I linked to above.

So no more user-centered design?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t create products with your users in mind. User-centered design is still very much a crucial part of product design. But it’s even more important to stop using it in isolation. We have to think much more broadly when developing products and services. It’s necessary to include additional factors that your product might have an impact on. An SUV, for example, might never have been developed or priced very differently if the impact it has on the environment and society had been considered from the start

Just think about it.