I was recently blind for five minutes and felt as though my eyes had never been more open. I didn't have some freak accident or momentary medical issue; I was participating in a mini human-centered design challenge at an event hosted by IDEO.org and NY+Acumen to introduce basic concepts of human-centered design.
One such concept is the anthropological research or "immersion" involved in product or systems development in order to truly understand the needs and habits of your intended users. This allows designers to put themselves in the shoes of the communities they're serving. The exercise I participated in was to design a product in 10 minutes to help the blind based on our five-minute experience.
What my five-minute blindness opened my eyes to, however, was not the challenges blind people face (I cannot pretend to understand that after five minutes), but the perplexity of the concept and innovative nature of human-centered design, and frankly why the "human-centered" distinction is necessary. After all, when is design not human-centered? Why is it so radical to actually take the time and effort to understand the communities you're serving?
While the vast majority of products and services are ultimately intended for humans, we've taken humanity out of the equation. We create needs and wants by marketing gadgets we never knew we wanted, yet don't reflect our needs and habits in the basic products and services we require. Health clinics are sterile and austere, low-income housing often looks about as inviting as a prison, and most companies put you through nine circles of automated response hell to speak with an actual person regarding the product or service you purchased that is supposed to meet your needs. We've traded empathy for efficiency and become bodies, not beings -- a dollar sign, a Facebook like, a retweet and an addition to our network -- instead of what we actually are: human.
The concept that actually makes human-centered design and its many applications so remarkably different is the return of humanity and empathy. Many brands will tell you about their exceptional customer experience or customer-first approach, yet most represent the lives we're supposed to want rather than address the needs of our realities. While the most successful ad campaigns have a much needed dose of humanity, these advertisers often try to pull at our heartstrings rather than put themselves in the place of the people they're showing: the perfect family reunited over the perfect cereal, the women who suddenly feel empowered and beautiful after the right personal care product.
But before blaming mass marketing for our lack of empathy, we need to look at ourselves. A 2010 study by the University of Michigan suggested that young people are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in the 1980s, with the steepest decline between 2000 and 2010. Young people are less likely to describe themselves as "soft-hearted" or to have "tender, concerned feelings" for others. In other words, despite being increasingly connected to one another via social media and other technology, your knowledge of what your frenemy from high school is doing doesn't translate into genuine concern.
This means that we've not only become online profiles and Facebook likes to advertisers, but also to each other. The seventh degree of separation that is the Internet has made it much easier to not care because you're so rarely faced with a real person with real emotions -- but this also makes us less happy. Ample research has indicated that our feeling of isolation has increased with social media use, and separately, that happiness and fulfillment are often derived from close personal relationships.
In addition to putting humans at the center of product and systems design, we need to bring back human-centered community. The immersion process of human-centered design enables empathy, which as Reboot, the social impact design firm says, "enables the insights that drive breakthrough solutions;" but it also enables happiness, personal fulfillment and a greater sense of community. So why not put ourselves in the shoes of our friends, families and communities and bring empathy and humanity back to the center of our products, services and personal connections?