What do we mean by design?
“Design” often provokes thoughts of web page layouts, posters for bands, or the latest iPhone. However, design exists in our lives far more than we are aware of. Every time that you eat with a fork, you are experiencing design. When you turn on a stove and you accidentally turn on the wrong burner, you have experienced design.
When specifically looking at interactive designs, we are constantly experiencing both well-made and poorly made designs. Don Norman, the father of Human-Centric Design (HCD), loves to point out a universal experience of poor interactive design. Have you ever attempted to go through a door only to find that you pushed when the door required you to pull? Or perhaps the opposite? Or even worse, you attempted to push on the incorrect side of the door? All of these experiences are designed. Someone determined how the door should look, function and whether it was a more traditional experience or something more unique.
Don Norman, in The Design of Everyday Things, talks about the two characteristics of good design.
Norman notes, “Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discovery and understanding. Discovery: Is it possible to even figure out what actions are possible and where and how to perform them? Understanding: What does it all mean? How is the product supposed to be used? What do all the different control and settings mean?”
In the case of the door, sometimes there is no handle or push plate, which makes it difficult to discover how to perform the action (opening the door). And this is something as simple as a door opening. You can imagine how much more complex the design process of a smartphone, car, or remote control can be, to name a few.
Not your Fault
Norman subscribes to the idea that when something doesn’t work, it is not usually user-error. Instead, it is poor design. Good design should always flow out of psychology and how humans operate. Going back to the example of turning on the incorrect stove burner, it could be easy for the engineer to state that you, as the end-user, have a bad memory or don’t understand controls. However, as humans, we work off of mental maps, so it is no surprise that when a 2×2 grid of burners has 1×4 controls, it is difficult to remember which control goes with which quadrant.
Instead, Norman puts all the onus on the designer. As simple as it may sound, many designers never consider how the end-user will actually use the product. Norman states that as a bad designer, “You are designing for people the way you would like them to be, not for the way they really are.” In other words, you are hoping the end-user conforms to the way you see the world rather than designing for how they actually live their lives.
How does a designer get in the mind of the intended audience? They must practice empathy. A short pamphlet by the Interaction Design Foundation sees empathy as the initial step in designing. Before defining the problem, ideation, prototyping, and testing, the designer must understand the actual issue that the target user is experiencing so that they can find an adequate solution.
Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant wrote a more contemporary book called User Friendly: How the hidden rules of designs are changing the way we live, work, and play. In their book, they retell the story of Henry Dreyfuss as an example of empathetic design.
Dreyfuss moved from New York to Sioux City, Iowa, to help a theater owner who was having trouble getting people to come to the traveling shows and movies. Dreyfuss was a Broadway set-designer prodigy and was ready to solve the problem. As the story goes, “When Dreyfuss first arrived at the theater in Sioux City, he lowered prices, ran triple features, and gave away free food — still, none of it worked.” Dreyfuss didn’t understand why this premier location wasn’t doing well. Shortly after all of his efforts failed, Dreyfuss did the thing he should have started with. Dreyfuss eavesdropped on customers in the theater to understand what the users of the theater wanted directly from the customer.
What he overheard shocked him. He heard someone express their concern for getting the fancy carpet messy from their dirty shoes. Dreyfuss was used to posh New York clientele, but he wasn’t in the Big Apple anymore; he was with farmers and workers. The issue wasn’t that the theater wasn’t nice enough. Rather, it was alienating to the common man.
In a shocking turn of events, Dreyfuss ripped out and replaced the fancy carpet with rubber mats. It didn’t take long for the theater to be filled.
Kuang expands, “By understanding someone else’s life — abashed, prideful, confused, curious — you could make their lives better. By understanding how he or she thought, you could reach past the obvious problem and into the problem that they couldn’t quite articulate, the one that they might not even think to solve.”
Dreyfuss is an amazing example of going outside his own thoughts, ideas, and beliefs to putting himself in the other person’s shoes — almost literally. By being better listeners than talkers, by shutting down assumptions, and by even actively participating in the end-user experience, it is possible to design something better. Kaung sees empathy in the best light stating, “…empathy, next to language, and opposable thumbs may be the most powerful tool… it allows us to not be bound by our personal experience. It allows us not to be limited by our stories.”
If empathy is one of the key aspects of design, Christians should be at a distinct advantage. The Biblical narrative is full of empathy. In fact, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the greatest act of empathy the world has ever known. God, who had no need to care for humans, out of his goodness and kindness, saw humans in their dire state. Philippians 2:6-8 says about Jesus:
“Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross.”
The Divine did walk in human shoes, experiencing all that humanity experienced. Jesus was even tempted in every way humanly possible, as Hebrews 4:15 says. As Christians, our Leader is the One who we must follow. Just as Jesus laid down his life for people around him, we are called to do the same. This is true in the seemingly bigger aspects of lives (moving away to tell those who have not heard about Jesus) as well as the smaller ways (designing a website that is usable).
As Christians, we are to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” which requires empathy. We must understand what love looks like to our neighbors if we are to love them. As designers, this means that the products that we create should always have a love of our neighbor as the first and foremost principle of design.
Romans 12:15 asks followers to “rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.” If a design is causing pain, we should fix it. If we can use a design to be more inclusive, to aid the poor and ailing, we should pursue that. Whether designing a website that can also be used by the visually impaired or designing a dishwasher that can be used by the general public as well as those in wheelchairs, we must always think outside of ourselves and our comfort to the comfort of others.
As Christians live their call out in the world, whatever they are doing, they should seek to bring God’s Kingdom to their work.
Thankfully, we are not required to muster our own empathy. By Jesus ascending into Heaven, his followers are promised a gift, according to John 16. The Spirit of God dwells in each believer, and He is there to help do the will of God. That means when Christian goes into their design job at work, God is with them to help them empathize and create great designs.
Many designers can empathize, regardless of their creed. We, as believers, should know that we have access to a supernatural empathy that comes from an all-knowing God. This should cause Christian designers to be on the forefront of providing the best designs because we have unique access to God’s Spirit. A designer should always look to God for the source of understanding and should access God’s love to understand people and the issues they are facing and bring love, peace, and joy wherever they go.
As Christians live their call out in the world, whatever they are doing, they should seek to bring God’s Kingdom to their work. This could be designing a church website that is easy to use and fosters discipleship. This could be designing a better airbag so that more people are protected from crashes. Or this could be as simple as designing a door that just works.