Designing for a big world. And for individual people.

SEPTEMBER 5, 2017 // By Daniel Meyers

Designers — just like engineers, marketers, policymakers, and anyone else who serves a broad audience — are constantly confronted by just how big humanity is. We share the world with billions of people, and there’s no way any one of us can have the perspective to see the right path, no matter how smart we are.

More and more, this means looking to data and analysis to tell us how to proceed, and this is by and large a good thing. I consider myself to be solidly pro-fact, and like a lot of designers that deal with big audiences and global clients, I’ve found Big Data (or whatever they’re calling it these days) invaluable in revealing the big picture that surrounds our every project. But I also realize that data has limits.

Segmentation, for example, is self-evidently useful. So is behavioral analysis. But subjects and segments aren’t people. I’m a person. You’re a person. And in the end, my job is to find a way to reach you with a story, a fact, or a feeling that will change your behavior. To do that, I need to look beyond the facts and figures, and see you. It’s the designer’s equivalent to the old adage that “all politics are local”: knowing what the big trend is doesn’t do you much good if you can’t translate it into something that resonates one-on-one.

So, if we’re all people…what do we know about people? And how does this influence the design decisions we make? More specifically, since digital experiences are such a huge part of what we (and perhaps you) create these days, what does our understanding of human abilities and needs demand, as we decide what digital elements to include in a particular experience?

There are as many answers to this question as there are people, of course, but a few considerations are especially worthy of attention right now, because they’re that important, and that frequently ignored.

We are bundles of sensors.

Image via 

Image via 

Digital experiences, especially in branded environments, have been completely dominated over the past decade by just two senses: sight and hearing. But the notion that we humans are limited to five senses is pretty outdated…like, 19th century outdated. The latest scientific opinion is that we have as many as 22 totally distinct senses, and the list is growing. Equilibrioception (balance), Proprioception (knowing the location of your extremities without seeing them) and Thermoception (hot and cold), are just a few of the more obvious ones that designers routinely ignore.

At a minimum, designers should also consider the tangible aspects of any digital experience they deploy. What does it feel like to interact with a device or with content? Is it hot or cold? Is it smooth, rough, light, heavy? These things matter in the realm of impact. Designers are missing huge opportunities to engage audiences by ignoring the subtlety of human sensation (I’m looking at you, VR).

We’re adaptable.

The idea that we always need to make information, experiences, and interfaces “intuitive” is limiting, and in some cases silly and dangerous. Humans are insanely adaptable. I didn’t try to pinch-zoom my big old CRT television to get a closer look at the fall of the Berlin wall in ’89, but babies know how to do that now. Literal babies. We adapt.

That observation, while not exactly earth-shattering, kind of misses the point — our job as designers is to provoke. Our objective is to make change, by create experiences which are meaningfully differentiated from their context. To paraphrase Diana Vreeland: we don’t reflect culture, we make it. In many instances, digital experiences can, and should, push the limits of users in order to create the desired impact. Rather than trying to make things easier, we should to try to make them better.

We’re suggestible.

Maybe you’ve heard the legend of the Lumière brothers 1896 film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat: that it struck terror in audiences who feared they’d be mowed down by a moving image. Whether the film actually scared people so badly that they ran screaming from the theater at that first showing is still up for debate, but it’s good shorthand for a well-understood fact: that unfamiliar media experiences can overwhelm our senses (all 22 of them).

For the designers who create new media experiences, great power brings great responsibility. So when we’re designing in a way that intentionally manipulates perception — which is what most experience design is these days — we must also care about the humans we’re designing for. This means letting audiences retain some control over their own experiences, and letting them opt in, rather than just opt out.

Moreover, if we’re intentionally challenging and provoking users, we need to provide them with the resources to understand what’s happening. Surprise is great and immersive experiences are wonderful, but consumers should never be treated as unwitting test subjects.


We’re motivated by emotion.

Emotion is the conduit through which we connect people to content. It’s not enough to simply present something to your audience; a good designer makes them want to engage. Emotional appeals are a big part of how we create value for clients, and how we contribute to culture. But digital tools — the software and hardware that’s available today — have just as much potential to deaden emotion as to heighten it.

Rather than taking a Shock and Awe approach to every “immersive” user experience, we need to rediscover the concept of subtlety. The peak of a great narrative arc feels significant only in contrast to the valleys around it, and that’s true of brand experiences as well. A song that tries to be intense by staying loud from beginning to end just ends up being monotonous; in the same way, a digital experience with no spaces or quiet moments is exhausting, not compelling.

Save the blinky strobe lights for robots — human beings have evolved to respond to a wider range of stimuli.

Which means…

When clients hire creative professionals, it’s for our ability to create real, lasting connections between people, which have real, measurable effects on business. This doesn’t happen as a result of the application of formula, and it certainly doesn’t happen programmatically (not yet, anyway — but that’s a topic for a later article). It happens because we actually care about the people who experience what we make. We use digital tools when it’s the right thing to do, and we do it in a way that considers the context and the audience.

Often, our clients challenge us to create impact specifically through novel technologies and interactions. And while we relish the opportunity to work in new platforms, we rarely ask why we’re doing so. Is it novelty for its own sake, or is it truly the best way to create that interaction? To us and our clients, it’s clear that we’re designing a digital experience. But from the audience’s perspective, what we’re really doing is influencing emotion, perception and behavior.

That’s why selecting the right tool is so important: if you’re convinced that an experience requires digital elements, it’s easy to get sidetracked into an exploration of technologies, and forget that your ultimate responsibility is to the human beings who will experience your work. It’s easy to forget that we’re making things for people, not abstractions.