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Humanistic Principles

January 21, 2020
Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Principles are a bit like a moral and ethical cheat-sheet—a shorthand for making decisions in complex circumstances. They help us simplify how we think through situations, serving as a lens to direct our focus to important considerations. Our set of principles came about as a response to frequently asked questions about what "humanistic", human-centered, and user-centered design was – and what all that meant in practice. 

All of these were excellent questions, so we decided to do some research. We enumerated definitions for as many of the different flavors of design and design thinking as we could find, and analyzed the results. Surprisingly, we found that Human-Centered Design is not very well defined (even by IDEO, who popularized the term). There are also a considerable number of conflicting and differing definitions, which isn’t incredibly useful for applying them in practice. It was clear this would require quite a bit of untangling. 

Even though we found many gaps in these definitions, we also found significant overlap, which at least gave us some structure to work with. After many discussions and debates, we were able to synthesize a result which we're confident addresses these "definition" gaps and incorporates their widely shared characteristics. 

The principles below represent hundreds of hours of research to synthesize and consolidate the majority of contemporary user, human, and systems centered design perspectives into a set of useful principles. They cover an extensive set of situations, circumstances, contexts, and scales. In the coming weeks, we will be adding more depth and detail to each of them, including links to readings and resources and tactics or tools for applying them in your daily design practice. 

Have some comments or thoughts about them? We would love to hear from you—including conversations and critical feedback that can help to improve our principles.


Humanistic Design should…

Be informed by human contexts.

Good design always starts with people. This is achieved through deep immersion into various human contexts like culture, business, technology, and the web of systems that underpin our world. Embracing people as complex, contradictory beings builds empathy, furnishes unique and diverse perspectives, and illuminates the underlying meanings behind behaviours.

Fulfill real human needs & values.

People are more than abstract personas or segments, each with their own unique needs and values that vary depending on context. To find the right problems to solve, the challenges and opportunities that real people encounter in their daily lives must be carefully understood. Learning people’s true wants, needs, and values will uncover Product-Human Fit on the path to Product-Market Fit.

Leverage how people think and feel

If you want to know what someone really thinks or feels, one of the worst things you can do is ask them. Finding guidance from the social sciences and other related fields can provide deeper explanations towards the nature of human cognition and emotion. A nuanced understanding of these motivations and attitudes is core to creating experiences for the right mindsets.

Leverage how people communicate and perceive.

Often times, people say one thing and mean another. Decoding these dynamics requires insight from disparate fields like semiotics, anthropology, and cognitive science. The mechanics behind human communication and perception are key to arriving at solutions that are clear, relevant, and stand out in a noisy world.

Leverage how people act individually or in groups

There are numerous internal and external forces that influence human behaviour. Social anthropology, psychology, and behavioural economics can provide insight into how these forces drive individuals & groups. Untangling these complex dynamics and relationships allows for solutions that are mindful of how they might affect people's actions - and vice versa. 

Enhance human ability and address its limitations

Humans are good at some things and bad at others. To account for this, it's wise to reference the fields of ergonomics and cognitive psychology to uncover the unique boundaries of human capability. This allows for solutions that are inclusive, accessible, and augment our abilities to be better while mitigating our shortcomings.

Be good for humans and the environment

We live in a complex world, where decisions can have unintended downstream effects on people and the ecosystems they inhabit. Designed solutions should always consider the wider systems were a part of, and never harm humans or the world around us - either on purpose or by accident.