Published on 15 January 2020
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Bias by design – is human-centred design too human?

Human-centred design (HCD) has become a buzzword  in policy-making – but how is it defined and how did it originate? Most importantly, what are its flaws?  Nishan Varatharajan opens a new series of blogs on how HCD could evolve to create better policy

In The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), anthropologist Clifford Geertz observes how certain ideas burst onto the intellectual landscape with extraordinary force. ‘They resolve so many fundamental problems at once,’ he remarks, ‘that they seem also to promise that they will resolve all fundamental problems.’ Active and opportunistic minds turn at once to exploiting the grande idée, hailing its conceptual framework as a fresh centre-point around which a comprehensive system of analysis can be built.  The principle of natural selection, the notion of unconscious motivation, the second law of thermodynamics — the popularity of such ideas tends to draw in other disciplines, who soon begin to fire silver bullets in every direction, for every purpose. Excessive derivation and generalisation is unchecked, notes Geertz, as individuals extend an idea to its limits, withholding their assumptions, for the time being, about where these limits lie.

                How widespread this pattern is, I am not sure. However, it certainly seems to describe the unbridled enthusiasm for human-centred design in the twenty-first century. Indeed, over the last two decades the human-centred design framework — which emphasises innovation through empathy with the embodied everyday experiences of end-users — has spread from a handful of design studios on the San Francisco peninsula to the boardrooms of businesses, government departments and non-profit organisations around the world.[1] The basic insight of HCD is deceptively simple. Whether you are designing a product, service, policy, programme or public space, says HCD, the best point of departure for your creative process is not the product or policy itself but the people for whom you are designing. Therefore the beginning, middle and end of your design process should include HCD tools (e.g. semi-structured interviews, in situ user observation, camera and diary studies, ‘bodystorming,’ prototype testing and so on) so that you can understand your end-user by interrogating their needs, desires, histories, problems, and limitations. The HCD practitioner cries out: ‘Don’t start with ideas, start with people!’

                Through the early 2000s, this human-first approach proved a revelation in big business. Procter & Gamble harnessed HCD to successfully reposition the ‘Olay’ brand, Air BnB used HCD to bounce back from the brink of bankruptcy and Prada called upon HCD to radically reimagine their flagship stores as cultural hubs. These victories soon led the Harvard Business Review to describe HCD as ‘the best tool’ available for businesses looking to improve customer engagement. In 2016 Forbes went further, claiming that, in fact, HCD’s ‘universal application offers infinite promise.’ By this point, IBM had already invested more than $100-million in becoming a ‘design-centric corporation’ — training over 10,000 employees in HCD methodology and producing over 100 new products using HCD. Universities began applying HCD to redesign entire core curriculums, while religious groups used HCD to redesign their faith for millennials — the design framework has even been applied as a form of self-care in and of itself.

The enthusiastic stretching of this idea beyond its original limits remains largely unchecked. Which brings us to our current predicament. For, in lockstep with the private sector, the public and social sectors have now begun to fund ‘public interest design’, ‘transformative design’, ’design philanthropy’, ’impact design’ and a whole range of creative approaches to social-problem-solving which employ the ethnographic and ergonomic techniques of the HCD methodology. Under the umbrella of ‘HCD for good’, these various design movements share the belief that ‘all problems, even the seemingly intractable ones like poverty, gender equality, and clean water, are solvable’ within the HCD framework. Policymakers and non-profit leaders have applied HCD to social problems as varied and as complex as climate change, child protection, healthcare, homelessness, the housing of vulnerable adults and refugee policy. Indeed, user-centred principles are at the heart of the NHSX, while the Government Digital Service runs courses on HCD which are booked out year round. Credit where it’s due, HCD’s popularity has revitalised a focus on participatory, collaborative design in public life. The value of this contribution cannot be discounted, especially when one considers that disadvantaged social groups have historically been excluded from the design processes that affect them the most.

            However, there are blindspots in the extensive application of HCD. For one, practitioners of ‘HCD for good’ face various ethical and analytical considerations which were irrelevant or non-existent in the commercial contexts from which HCD first emerged. Equally,  HCD tends to overemphasise aspects of user experience which are perhaps less relevant to solving complex, ill-structured social problems (or only relevant in service delivery).

Despite this, HCD has managed to migrate from market to ministry while remaining largely untouched as a framework. This has allowed HCD to smuggle in a number of values, practices and restraints which limit its analysis to an overly narrow conception of the causal histories of social problems. The particular concern I will be exploring in this blog series is how this pattern leads HCD to produce curated and sanitised ‘symptomatic stories’ which ignore, distort or erase the systemic context which generates and sustains most social problems. The big idea is that human-centred design is, in the end, too human-centred to facilitate holistic representations of the broader economic, political, institutional and cultural conditions which generate social problems. This suggests that HCD itself is methodologically skewed towards producing superficial design solutions for social change (solutions which may even generate unexpected drawbacks or perverse results).

            As a design consultant working in social innovation, I have personally witnessed the power of stakeholder participation and know the top-down vices of epistemic arrogance, laziness and closed-mindedness which HCD offsets. In this series I aim to explore how the public sector can recognise the design flaws in their newfound design methodology, integrating the best tools of HCD within the analytical framework of systems thinking and show why such an evolution is necessary.

[1] The term ‘Human-Centred Design’ intersects with a range of design approaches including but not limited to co-design, user-centred design, design thinking, service design, user experience design, empathetic design and participatory design. Many of these ideas have a long history. Throughout this series I will use the acronym ‘HCD’ to refer to the core ideas of the contemporary design movement as it draws on these predecessors.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Nishan Varatharajan

Nishan Varatharajan is a London-based researcher and consultant. In collaboration with Penny Mealy, Nishan’s work at the Bennett Institute focuses on the project ‘Practical Wisdom in a Complex World’. His...

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