Empathy, Capitalism, and Design

Throughout reading “Design of Everyday Things”, I’ve come across many different ways to start thinking about design. Most importantly, I’ve really been able to understand how thoughtful design has the power to change the world and set the standard high for other design, with the intention of constantly improving in conjunction with the evolution of technology and research. 

For me to feel like I am fulfilling my purposes not only as a designer, but as a human, I need to be able to stand behind whatever I am doing, and know that my role does not leave a negative scar on the world. Even better, I want to use my design skills to do things that make people happy or improve their quality of life. That is why I am so excited to spend this semester focusing on researching individuals with disabilities and utilizing design methods in order to create something that will positively impact the lives of people in my community. However, with this comes the challenge of not only having the utmost empathy for the users, but also making sure that their best interest is in mind 100% of the time during the design process.  

Don Norman talks about the political significance of design, and how capitalism has had its effects on the evolution of design. If it doesn’t sell, it’s not worth the time of many people, and surely this is important to some respect. However, I think what is the key part is not exploiting the process or the users in order for monetary gain, but to utilize consumerism in the respect that creating content and products that will withstand time creates less waste and less exploitation. This is a topic that hits very close to home, and something that I keep in mind at all times. 

I think the biggest moral obligation with regards to design and consumerism, especially with regards to the research that I am doing for those with disabilities, is to not exploit the disabilities for personal gain without actually serving this group of people and truly listening to their needs. As someone without disabilities, there is line of awareness that has to be drawn to ensure that I am not offensive in my research methods, as well as in the production of my application. In a capitalist system where things are meant to fail to encourage people to constantly buy, I not only think that this is a corrupt method of thinking, but I think that it is especially inappropriate when designing for users who suffer from disabilities. Exploitation in the production of any product or service is never right, but to target a group of individuals based on issues that they face every day, it is extremely important to consider their best interest every step of the way throughout the process, and after with the maintenance of the application. 

Whether I continue my career in design in this type of field or elsewhere, it is part of my moral duty to make sure that the reasons that I am involved in my project are solid and worth pursuing, for my own personal conscience. It is important to constanly evolve the product as much as possible so that brand-loyal users will continue to utilize the product, but for the reason being that it truly improves the quality of their life. Don Norman interestingly puts “A design that people do not purchase is a failed design, no matter how great the design team might consider it.” I think that this is slightly harsh, but I understand what he is saying. If designing will be my career, something has to sustain it, but in order for me to live with it, I want to be sure that I am doing it for the right reasons. The world of design will always be changing, and the spectrums of disabilities will always need attending to, so I am excited to start this design journey in a topic that requires utmost empathy and compassion for the users I am working to serve.  

Outliers for Global Design

The design process can be approached in a multitude of ways, and while there is no one way to begin to think about how to design, there are great ways to start thinking about it. Don Norman, author of “Design of Everyday Things”, lays out ways that designers can begin the process, and the first is to think about who is the intended user. 

This semester, my group and I are going to be focusing our design efforts on working with individuals suffering from physical disabilities in order to improve the quality of their lives. This is a challenging task, especially for designers who are new to this type of process (and do not have physical disabilities), but I am confident that by having empathy for our users, and really getting to know the individuals we are studying, that we will not only come up with new ideas that will improve their lives, but also those of able-bodied humans as well. 

Don Norman talks about designing in unique situations, and how those ideas can improve the quality of life for everyone. Last week, I wrote about the issues of the design of can openers, but what I did not know was that further in my reading I would come across why the design standard of household kitchen objects are what they are. Sam Farber built his company OXO, which produces well-known, high-quality kitchen appliance products, based on research inspired by his wife who had arthritis. He designed with the intent of making tools that were usually hard for his wife to use, easier to use, and as a result, his kitchen peeler was not only designed for those who may suffer from arthritis, but also for the ease of everyone. While the peelers are more expensive (as many OXO products are), they have a solid reputation for being good quality and what Norman calls “inclusive or universal design.” The bar was set higher not only for those who may suffer from disabilities, but for products everywhere, because of the quality of their design.

What is important when designing for special interest groups, or specifically disabilities, is to keep in mind that no one wants to be singled out. It will be interesting to continue our research to find out not only what will serve our audience the best, but how our ideas can improve the lives of everyone. And not only to serve functionally, but also aesthetically, because aesthetics can also improve the functionality of design. 

Human-Centered, Observational Design

In Chapter 6 of Design of Everyday Things, Don Normal lays out four stages of the cycle of Human-Centered Design: Observation, Idea Generation, Prototyping, and Testing. In the first stage of design, Norman discusses the importance of not only observing the potential customers in their natural environment, but also keeping in mind the intended audience for the design while choosing to observe a group. Norman discusses the importance of detailed analyses of the intended group because of cultural and age differences, but goes on to touch on the marketing that will be involved to appeal to the intended demographic.  

While reading about the importance of picking the right group to do observational research for a functional design perspective, this also brought me to thinking about analyzing the intended target market for aesthetic design purposes as well. Branding and style play a huge role in marketing as well as maintaining repeat customers as well. For many visual people, functional design is only half of the role of the product itself. Additionally, paying attention to the demographics that interact with similar products can say a lot about why those people use that product in the first place, and by interpreting the problems with competition, can help the designer improve their own product.  

Norman says “different methods have different goals and produce very different results. Designers complain that the methods used by marketing don’t get at real behavior.” I would disagree with those designers who say that observing marketing strategies do not imply true behaviors, because I think what draws people to products, services, or everyday objects has a lot to do with how and why they use those products. Looking at demographic data says a lot about the users who interact with your product, and by analyzing the design trends that overlap between those demographics can give designers a good idea about how to design their products, where they should focus their advertising efforts, what purpose the design serves, and so much more.  

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