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Tools of Engagement
Alex Steffen, 15 Jul 09

Most of the time, when designers have been asked to create products, spaces and services with the user in mind, the result has been designs that prioritize coolness and convenience above all other values, says Robert Fabricant in fan excellent post over on Core 77.

But what if the 'users' themselves are the problem? What if users represent not a coherent set of needs but a messy mix of desires and influences? What, ultimately, is the role of the designer in sorting through these desires to determine which should drive our design decisions? And what frameworks, other than intuition, should we use to make these judgments?

There are no easy answers to these questions. They call our attention to the increasingly difficult task of maintaining the myth of the neutral designer whose role can be purely defined as one of 'supporting' existing needs. This shift in perspective is being driven, in part, by the popularization of Behavioral Economics through books like Nudge and Predictably Irrational]. These books are troubling to read. They remind us that often the most influential aspects of an experience are overlooked in a traditional UCD process, such as the order of the options in a web form, or whether a cup of coffee is warm or cold. They highlight a set of principles that do not jibe with our design education, with the 'Universal Principles of Design'. For example, there are principles from the social sciences, like Social Proof, exemplified by the smiley face on a utility bill which has been shown in studies to motivate people to reduce energy consumption by 20%. This does not come out of the traditional design playbook.

Given how much of all of our decision-making is in fact over-written with branding, marketing, pseudo-journalistic information and just plain bad thinking -- and how pernicious the result has been in our communities, leaving us with collapsing suburban sprawl, privatized public goods, mountains of debt and less satisfying lives -- the idea that design needs to open itself up to both a more democratizing approach and also a deeper responsibility to the outcomes of its work is a needed one, its seems to me.

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