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

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

Gamification: an opinionated suggestion

Would you like an achievement …

I want my user to enjoy using my product.

And what better way to do that, than to make it like a game? After all, everyone likes games, don’t they!

So when you sign up for my product … 10 points! Achievement unlocked!!

When you edit your profile page … 50 points!!! Woohoo!!!! Feel the fun!!!!!!!

When you’ve closed off 50 whatsits … 2000 points!!!!!!! How incredible!!!!!!!!!!

Or not.


… or to achieve something?

I don’t play games to be told I’m awesome, although that can be nice. Even though games are fictional arenas, I play games to be awesome.

I don’t use a particular product for the sole purpose of being good at using that product. I use that product to get things done.

As Kathy Sierra says,

“Users don’t care who helps them – they just want to be awesome.”

When a product tells me I’m awesome, that doesn’t mean all that much to me.

But if a products helps me to be better at what I’m trying to achieve … that’s a whole different story.


A fork in the road

Option A: Build a product which celebrates trivial interactions, and pressures your users to share them.

Option B: Build a product which lets your user achieve awesome things & feel great doing it – so much so that they can’t help but tell everyone about it.

Which one would you want to use?


(Edit: I was introduced to these ideas by Kathy Sierra in her fantastic talk at Webstock 2012 – that talk totally reshaped the way I think about UX.)

How to unstab a football with UX

Periodically, I come across the idea that, “experience cannot be designed.”

I’ve always been conflicted when thinking about this question.

Sure, you cannot perfectly predict human behaviour & reactions. But design can make a phenomenal difference in how people react.

My thoughts suddenly snapped into clarity today, when Steve Baty tweeted

“The notion of designing for an experience is not one of control. It’s about having an [emphasis] intent. This isn’t some power/ego trip. ” – @docbaty (original tweet)

To paraphrase:

  • You can’t make people enjoy playing football …
  • But you most certainly can remove the giant spikes from the ball.

Can a User Experience be Designed?


Set out to delight your customers, not control them. To understand & support what they are trying to achieve, not push them to conform to your design.

And remember to unstab your football.


Posted in ux

Better writing?

I think it is safe to say, we all want to communicate better.

I previously considered myself a good, if wordy, communicator, especially when writing emails, letters and other documents.

However I now suspect I had unconcsiously adopted a style of writing that valuedbeing impressive over being effective.

I have recently encountered new ideas about written communication from:

These led me to a startling revelation – I was not considering my reader when I wrote.


I had been writing with only what I wanted in mind. This isn’t terrible, of course – communication isn’t effective if it doesn’t achieve what you wanted. But your reader is a vital partner in achieving your goals. If they do not understand, or do not read, what you wrote – they cannot help you.

So I have been trying to learn how to make my writing easier to read, and easier to understand. However, I want to take this thinking a step further. Where it is possible, I want to make my writing enjoyable to read & understand.

After all, a reader chooses to spending some of their time & mental effort (both limited & precious resources), in the hope of extracting some value from your writing. I suggest that if your reader receives more value, for less time & effort, they aremore likely to respond positively to your communication.

With all this in mind, I have made several changes to the way I write:

  • I try to prioritise three characteristics in my writing: brevityclarity, andhighlighting what matters.
  • And when I write, I think, “what part of this does my reader care about?

I am new at this, but I think these ideas are already helping me to communicate better.

What about you? What other ideas do you have about how to communicate more effectively? I’m really interested in learning from you!


(Originally posted at: