Human-Centered Design Dies at Launch

Bad things happen as we stop solving people problems and start solving business problems

Jesse Weaver
Modus
Published in
9 min readJul 31, 2019

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Photo: Juj Winn/Getty Images

AAsk a designer who the most important stakeholder in their design process is and they will dutifully answer “the user.” It’s been drilled into us that our job is to represent the people who will use our products. We “empathize” with them and put their needs in the center of our decision-making process.

On paper, this sounds great, and many organizations wear the badge of human-centered design with pride. But when you take a step back and start to consider all the negative consequences that are created by these very same organizations, it becomes clear that something is amiss.

How could a process predicated on empathizing with people result in things like rampant data manipulation and exploitation, addictive features that hijack human psychology, systemic abuse, disenfranchisement, and predatory dark patterns? The answer is that it can’t. This can only mean one thing: We aren’t actually practicing human-centered design. And, unfortunately, the more established your company, the truer this statement is. As companies scale up, as they all strive to do, their priorities and incentives become less and less aligned with the people using their products.

The dehumanization of design

Taking an idea from concept to business means moving through a series of gates. In the Silicon Valley model the gates look something like this:

  1. Develop an initial product concept and launch a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
  2. Iterate on MVP to reach product/market fit.
  3. Scale up.
  4. Cash out.

Driven by venture capital money, the goal is to cross these gates as quickly as possible. They’ve even coined a phrase for it: “blitzscaling.”

The problem is that as a company moves through each gate, the organization and its underlying incentives fall farther out of alignment with the needs of the people using the product and align more and more with the needs of the business. While an org may preach human-centered design, this growing imbalance of incentives and priorities runs counter to the…

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