“Yet what greater defeat could we suffer than to
come to resemble the forces we oppose in their
disrespect for human dignity?”
— Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Activity-based design is very singular as it considers one viewpoint of tackling a design problem. When you use activity-based design approaches, you must establish a deep understanding of how said activities will be performed.
For example, if you were designing something to hold your morning cup of Joe, activity-centered approaches would consider how/what activities involve drinking coffee and design accordingly.
Prior to COVID, I generally sipped my coffee on-the-go. If I were to design a coffee-holding contraption specifically to be used as a to-go mug, I would consider the following:
Will this keep my coffee hot? Will it keep it cold?
“The individual is a moving target. Design for the individual of today, and the design will be wrong tomorrow.”
A simple strategy would be to add a handle to the drinking contraption, another could be to use heat-resistant materials to prevent the exterior from overheating (or being too cold). To answer the variety of questions above, the coffee to-go cup that I should design is one that can be taken on-the-go, keeps your coffee hot or cold via insulation (which also keeps your hands from getting too hot or cold), has an adjustable mouth hole so consumers won’t ruin their shirts, has a closable lid to impede spillage, and can fit comfortably in a car or recliner cup-holder.
On the other side of the spectrum, Human-centered design (HCD) attempts to consider all human dignity and human rights. It sees all humans as valid and equal in terms of importance, and is holistic in design choices as an attempt to improve society. HCD approaches attempt to make sure design choices will not interfere with any human’s dignity and that the design furthers our world culture without impeding on social, environmental, economic, or psychological implications.
To continue the coffee cup example, a HCD would account for the accessibility, sustainability, and social implications surrounding the coffee mug. Perhaps they’d create a reusable to-go mug with sustainable materials that isn’t too expensive so that the vast majority of humans are able to afford it and find it in stores or online. The designer could even look into the production process during conception to make sure that there is an ethical factory with fair wages and working conditions where the mug could be created. By using HCD approaches, designers are ensuring human
Some designers argue that activity-centered design should prevail, and even go as far as to call HCD approaches “harmful.” In his article Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful, Donald Norman argues that HCD principles are paradoxical because they do not make products any less confusing. He cites activity-centered design as the reason for why the automobile and other everyday objects (ie. kitchen utensils) are so effective in society.
Norman also states that a limitation of HCD is that it is concerned with an individual person: “the individual is a moving target. Design for the individual of today, and the design will be wrong tomorrow” (Norman, 16).
I don’t disagree with Norman’s perspective. I do, however, think that his perspective is limited and does not consider how human-centered and activity-centered design are innately interconnected, or how HCD differs from user-centered design.
A designer who uses activity-centered approaches must create a rhetorical user — consciously or subconsciously — who will be completing the activity. Most designers, I would assume, automatically assume the role of the rhetorical user, using their frame of mind to (again, consciously or subconsciously) project their own experiences with the activity to design with activity-centered principles. In other words, designers use their own experiences and knowledge to dictate how a project should be tackled. This relates to HCD because the designer is considering, on a small scale, the dignity of the rhetorical user.
PhD Researcher in Privacy, Design, and Ethics Davide M. Parrili states that though designing with a narrow focus in mind is a threat in HCD, these approaches are not a limitation of HCD, but rather a limitation of designers: “Creatives need to understand exactly for whom they are designing and must be as inclusive as possible. HCD gives the tools to make it possible” (We still need human-centered design, Parrilli).
Now for the confusing part. You may have noticed that user-centered design is not used synonymously with human-centered design in this essay. That because is these approaches do not consider the same implications during the design process.
When we reduce “human-centered design” to “user-centered design” it strips users of their humanity by focusing solely on humans as consumers.
In doing so, user-centered designs fail to affirm human dignity, thus disregarding how the work directly impacts human rights on the spectrum of social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances.
Richard Buchanan’s article, Human Dignity and Human Rights: Thoughts on the Principles of Human-Centered Design, he notes that the most ethical design choices are ones that respect the dignity of all humans by alluding to Robben Island in South Africa: “[Robben Island] is a symbol of the wrongful use of design to shape a country in a system that denied the essential dignity of all human beings.”
The fact of the matter is, most designers don’t take human dignity into account during the design process. Instead, many efforts are dedicated to mass communication or subliminal messaging through promotional materials in advertising and marketing.
Senior Principal UX Designer at Puppet Rick Morno states that human dignity isn’t discussed in marketing, brainstorming sessions, design briefs, or technical specifications (Monro, Designing for dignity).
The renewal of the 1964 First Things First manifesto, aka the 2000 First Things First manifesto, said it best: “Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing, and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond, and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse” (AIGA Journal, 2000).
In an interview with Eye Magazine, the originator of the First Things First manifesto (1964) Ken Garland, pointed out that the manifesto isn’t anti-advertising; it’s about consumerism. In a capitalist society, we base economic value around consumerism. Garland explains, “the manifesto was meant to be an alert to the fact that monies, which were pouring into visual communications of all sorts, seemed to be going down the wrong channels” (“Reputations: Ken Garland,” Eye no. 66 vol. 17, 2007).
Consumerism is what harms society — not HCD design approaches.