Brands Must Move To Humanity-Centered Design

Chris WrenMarch 1, 20184 min

Artefact’s Rob Girling and Emilia Palaveeva wrote a piece in Fast Company exploring the crisis facing the design industry’s reigning paradigm: Human-centered design. Make no mistake, human-centered design has given new life to brands and products. Apple from iPod to iPhone is probably the best example but there are certainly others. By placing individuals at the center, focusing on empathy and understanding what users value and the experiences they crave, we’ve been gifted some truly glorious innovations.

But Girling and Palaveeva also point out, “With recognition, comes responsibility. If followed blindly and left unchecked, this cult of designing for the individual can have disastrous long-term consequences. A platform designed to connect becomes an addictive echo chamber with historic consequences (Facebook); … a way to experience a new destination like a local, squeezes lower income residents out of affordable housing (Airbnb).”

Facebook and Airbnb are examples of stunning achievements in innovation wherein the consequences of what they created were impossible to imagine. So much of the innovation (especially in tech) revolves around a philosophy of “run fast and break things” in which the goal of maximizing results for the individuals (and by extension shareholders) in the short term ends up costing society as a whole (It might also be said this approach could extend to many marketing departments as well).

Brands have a dilemma.

Mounting pressure to ‘do the right thing’ introduces a subjective judgement on how we define ‘the right thing’. Just last week in my piece about becoming an ethical brand, I cited an example of Patagonia’s bold claim that President Trump stole public lands in his decision to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah. A spirited conversation on LinkedIn followed wherein many commenters wondered whether I cited the Patagonia example as a tale of good or bad ethical decisions. A fair question when you look deeper.

Whether you agree with the President’s decision or not, in truth, he did not “steal” anything. Patagonia viewed the decision subjectively, which is likely how many of their customers felt, but not all. In doing so, they advanced a belief about which they are passionate, but painted a picture that was not factually accurate. Their competitor, REI, took a more objective approach to the situation, stating, “Despite the loss of millions of acres of protected lands this week, REI will continue to advocate for the places we all love.” Patagonia went for a maximum contrast message, and it’s the kind of drama that gets eyeballs (and polarizes.) REI’s approach was not to polarize but rather use the event to reinforce core brand values that did not exclude. But REI didn’t make many headlines.

Which approach was better? That’s up to you.

To evolve from human-centered to humanity-centered design, Girling and Palaveeva offer three steps:

  1. Don’t just ask “How might we?” Ask, “At what cost?” We’ve already started to see brands emphasize mindfulness as a form of driving preference. But as new innovations are introduced into the world, brands must continue to have the long-view of what the cost to people will be. Automation scares many as menial and repeatable tasks will likely be targeted for machines and algorithms. What programs and communications can that challenge be met with, in a way that gives everyone a chance to be lifted and not left behind. Before automating your next marketing campaign, ask if live human interactions might better cement customer connections versus dozens of emails that will never be opened and retargeting that chases customers around the web for months after they visit one of your pages.
  2. Short-termism must die. This is one of my core hopes and the hardest to implement. Nearly every brand leader whose opinion I respect has written pieces about the folly of chasing the latest shiny thing. Transformation is not a chapter, it’s an epic that happens over time. While agile methodologies are great for fast prototyping, these processes should not replace strategic thinking and vision. Quite often, they have.
  3. Build on best practices but capture the flag. Corporate social responsibility and shared value are already approaches with significant mindshare. What’s needed though is more follow through. I highlighted the inclusive design practice from Microsoft as a stellar example in a previous article on gender, and stand by using it as a model for leadership in this area. Other brands without the financial and human capital Microsoft has invested to develop full-on practices should build on the work others have done. This is how we elevate our discipline.

A major cultural shift is rocking the planet in this age of acceleration. More than ever, brands need to invest in ethnographic research and understand the impact they have on people’s interests, biases and motivations as they answer a very tough question: Are we creating the kind of world we all want to live in?

The Blake Project Can Help: Please email us for more about how we help brands create bigger futures through brand innovation.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education

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