Designing for the Human Element


We often talk about “the human element”.

Sometimes, we view it positively. Friendliness. Compassion. Enthusiasm. Adaptability. Creativity.

But often, the human element is considered a negative influence. Errors. Whims. Risks. Tiredness. Confusion. Biased. Bored. Unpredictable.

And so, we find ourselves talking about building systems that “remove the human element” to increase reliability, improve safety, enhance speed, and reduce errors.


These are good goals. There are, indeed, many tasks to which computers or machines are far better suited than humans.

But … if we only ever talk about “removing the human element”, one day we may succeed at achieving that goal. We might wake up to find ourselves in a sterile world of cold machines. Every quantity measured, every metric optimised, every relationship shared, every experience liked, every review accurate & thorough, every interaction managed.

I do not anticipate many smiles in such a world. Not much laughter. Little joy.


Instead, why not increase the human element. Let us pour more humanity into our tools, our systems, our machines. Let us make things that lead to increased humanity.

Undoubtedly, this will require us to shift some tasks to computers. Good! We humans are overburdened in the information age, and machines are designed to do things that we do poorly. Cognitive resources are scarce and precious. Design decisions that alleviate these burdens are valuable. They free up a certain amount of “human element” …

So, perhaps, we should consider this in our designs. When “removing the human element”, look for ways to re-inject it in a more meaningful area. Help us to spend our newly available reserve of human element on things that really matter.

I wonder what that would look like?

Posted in ux

Webstock 2014 – A Poetic Reflection

On the shore of Windy City,
within a theatre grand and proud,
we gathered.

Caffeine-laden, seated there,
notebooks readied, pens to hand,
we waited.

And here we learned, and listened, and noted:
Theremin’s Thing, Celebrity-as-mythos,
Apocalypse rehearsals.

Fearful futures displayed, and hope.

Gaps in the aethersphere,
in which are found magic;
dangerous and wild and wonderful.

The path of ease was offered, rejected, quit,
spurned for its high cost.
The damage it wreaks, and has wrought.

Perhaps at this point, you feel that
poetic structure has failed me.

That’s the point.

Webstock is, on paper, a conference.
There is a form – speakers and talks,
in a schedule.

The form is a lamppost. It provides utility,
yes. Familiar & predictable, it binds
our attention.

Yet, the purpose is not the lamppost:
It is the light.

Webstock shone brightly.

And now, so must we.

Alex Hillman – What can Coworking teach us about the Future of Work? (#betterworktour 2013)


  • Where do communities come from? All too often, we see fully formed things, and forget that they haven’t always been this way.
  • The heart is people, not space – “There can be no collaboration without collaborators.”
  • Trust is the most valuable natural resource for communities
  • Optimism is a fuel that drives; it changes the scale of your perspectice, goals, and actions
  • Choice makes an enormous difference. If everyone has chosen to participate, it’s a totally different ball game
  • People don’t care about the things they share, unless they care about the people they share them with
  • Culture must be shown, not told; owned, not assigned.
  • Sharing a worldview & common purpose is super critical.
  • Worldview is polarising – it is a powerful (and useful) filter for the people who want to join your community.
  • A community which is merely a well people come to drink from, is a depleting resource, and an unhealthy community.
  • The bigger/fancier/more polished the space, the harder it is to see the culture, the people, and the community.
  • Look past the place … see the people.
  • Sometimes, friction is good, e.g. an empty coffee pot (rather than refilled by staff) prompts people to talk to others to learn to make coffee. Thus both building a new connection to the community, and beginning to contribute to it in a new way.
  • Empowering community members: “We should do <x>” “That sounds great! What do you need to be able to do it?”
  • Indyhall’s design principles (for desk layout etc…)
    • Make it hard for poeple to sit by themselves
    • Increase the odds that people will sit next to new people
    • These are intended to “accelerate serendipity”
  • Convert the change-resistant to be your evangeslists. Help them see the value that they personally have gained from the changes.
  • “If it’s important to you, here’s an opportunity to get involved & use your interest/passion to help everyone.”
  • The connections & relationships between people are the most important thing for a thriving community.

On Falling from Horses, and wallowing in the Mud

I have fallen from my horse.

And here in the mud, I’ve learned something strange:

It is not the bruises that bother me, nor the scrapes & scratches.

It’s the embarassment, that I’ve failed – and it feels like everyone can see.

It’s the lost opportunity – my horse has run on without me, and my own two legs will never carry me fast enough to catch up to it.

And it’s the fear – that maybe everyone else will think I belong in the mud, that I never deserved a horse in the first place.

Looking ahead, I see everyone else riding confidently off into the sunset, and am convinced that they are all secretly laughing at me. That I alone have fallen into the mud, and will never again rejoin the company of riders.


Mud blind us. It paralyses us with fear, guilt, embarassment, loss, and isolation. It turns our own faculties against us, deceiving us until we begin to wonder if we deserve to be trapped here in the mud-puddle for all of time.

And so we worry.

“If I stand back up again – if I try to catch my horse, or saddle a new one – I’ll only end up falling back into the cold slimy mud.”

It sounds so reasonable, so sensible, so very mature & clever & careful.

But when you’re reasoning from the mud-puddle, there’s only one truth that matters.

You’ve got to get back on your horse.

Clay Johnson – Industrialised Ignorance (Webstock 2013)


Industrialised Ignorance

Transcription and further thoughts:

  • We all know Pop Culture … but we know very little about what is troubling our own communities.
  • How then are we supposed to improve them!
  • We created huge companies to make popular food for us. (Pizza tastes better than Broccoli)
  • Likewise, we created huge companies to make popular information for us (Opinion tastes better than News)\
  • We value feeling like we’re right (and being told that we are right) over being informed.
  • Ignorance is not just a lack of information, but also due to our exposure to affirmatory information.
  • Consider putting yourself on an Information Diet …
  • … and realise that your information choices have social consequences.
  • Every click, every view, of content on the net biases future content creation.
  • Because information is provided to us as a money-making venture, providers will solve the equation for maximum profit, via maximum popularity.
  • Keys to a positive Information Diet
  1. Be aware of what you consume
  2. Pay attention to local things
  3. Be a producer
  • By starting your day with creation, instead of consumption, you set the tone for your day as one of action, not mere reaction.
  • Work on stuff that matters.

Webstock 2013

Yuss! It’s one of my favourite times of year – the annual Webstock design conference in Wellington, NZ.

I’m working on sketchnoting at the moment, so I’ll be posting up my feeble attempts, as well transcribing my notes into bullet points to make them more readable.

Make That Decision

… you know the one I’m talking about.

The one the swirls behind your eyelids when you’re trying to sleep.

The one that changes your mood completely when you think about it as you munch on breakfast.

The one that you fret about, and worry you might choose wrong.

Don’t be reckless. Sit down, do the research, talk to the people your care about. Work out the costs, understand the risks, know whyyou need to choose.

And then, decide.

Maybe you choose one way, maybe the other. But life is too short to leave important choices languishing forever on the backburner of indecision.

Don’t let it hold you captive anymore.


Make that decision.


Footnote: As I was drafting this, Seth Godin’s latest blog post landed in my email. If you’ve a decision you need to make, he has some very good advice, right here.

Rescue your design discussions with UX principles

This meeting has been going for hours.

It’s nearly lunchtime.

You’re starving.

And still no-one is able to come to a decision on your new designs.

“I think we should use a darker blue.”

“Wow, those rounded corners really improve the user experience, don’t they!”

“I really think that this flow needs to be more intuitive to the user.”


What’s in our UX future?

All too often, when we present a design to others, the discussion seems to get out of control.

Each person has their own, strongly held opinions on what the solution should look like – and sometimes it seems that everyone is trying to solve different problems, too!

This is where UX principles come in.

A UX principle is simply an answer to the question “What will our product be like?”

It doesn’t delve into how you’ll build the product.

But it helps you choose between different ‘how’s.

Valuable discussions

As you create a set of UX principles, they can foster discussions about the priorities inside a project, “We value this aspect of our UX, over this other one.”

They serve as a vehicle for building shared understanding, for gaining agreement that “yes, this is what we’re trying to achieve” – especially if you create them working together with the other members of the project.

And, best of all, they can help you end that nightmare meeting.

“Well, we all agreed that it was really important that ‘The next step must always be obvious to the user.’ Which of these design decisions gets us closest to that goal?”


(and lunch!)

If you’re interested in learning more about UX principles and how to build them, I highly recommend Jared Spool’s excellent article on creating great principles here.

Posted in ux