Tim Newns, CEO, MIDAS

The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones’. So said the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose thinking was shaped by growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. As economies around the world begin recovering from the great pandemic of 2020-21, it’s a fair bet that Keynes would have approved of the growing interest in human-centered design (HCD), a set of principles capable of producing eureka moments of clarity and insight when designing anything and everything. HCD is a tool for breaking the bonds of conventional thinking and, in Greater Manchester – a placed defined by innovation and disruptive thinking - it’s regarded as a means of building
back better and bolder.


The simple idea is that design is not just driven by technologists, but the experience of the people actually using the product or service. HCD can improve the infinite list of apps and websites, consumer devices, and industrial processes that we all use. It’s as relevant to how you find your way out of a supermarket carpark as it will be to the operating instructions of the coming generation of self-driving cars.


A traditional view of a design process sees an idea go to straight to what it could look like, how it could be made, and what materials would be required. The people the product is designed for are scarcely involved.


By contrast, HCD involves bringing a human perspective in all steps of the process. They contribute to brainstorming and are involved with the designers in aspects of conceptualising, developing, piloting and implementing the solution.


During the pandemic HCD has been used to tackle urgent public health challenges. For youths anywhere in the world, a sense of invincibility or an attitude of ‘this won’t affect me’ is not uncommon and makes getting precautionary measures adopted even more challenging. In San Francisco, for instance, city officials commissioned one project to motivate young people to stay at home and practice social distancing.


They had noticed young people congregating on beaches and in parks, despite a wide-ranging communication campaign to discourage this behaviour. The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (SFDEM) asked IDEO, the global design company, to conduct a three-week design sprint to help them reach younger residents and inspire them to do their part to flatten the curve.


The IDEO team had HCD at the core of their response. They established a panel of 10 young people ranging in age from 16 to 26 to learn from and test ideas. As the designers hypothesized, it quickly became clear that confusing medical terminology, monotone commercials, dull posters, and shame tactics didn’t resonate with youth.


After prototyping, testing, and iterating dozens of concepts with the panel and on TikTok - a popular social media platform among Generation Z and Millennials - they worked out a set of communication principles. These were led by the need for brevity and simplicity. It was noted that young people gravitate towards video and audio, but stop listening after 60 seconds. The second principle was to encourage co-creation and collaboration. Young people wanted to help in their own ways. Activities like “Write your own rule” allowed them to uniquely and individually contribute to a collective effort. IDEO also found that young people lean towards messaging that speaks to a greater connectivity and unity: the sum of us, not just some of us. With these and other principles in mind, the team developed a robust integrated marketing campaign. It featured everything from social media posts and t-shirts to downloadable chalk stencils and radio DJ scripts, complete with hashtags like #dontbeacovidiot.”


The three-week effort demonstrates that even during a crisis, when the impulse is often to react immediately, it’s valuable to listen to people’s needs and preferences to drive meaningful change.


This point would resonate strongly with Vimla Appadoo, the Co-Founder and Chief Culture Officer of Honey Badger, a Manchester-based tech design consultancy.


Vimla was one of the thought provocateurs who spoke at a virtual event, the Future of Human Experiences and Human-Centred Design (HCD), which MIDAS created in partnership with GC Business Growth Hub and FutureEverything. The event focused on how small and medium sized businesses in Greater Manchester can work alongside large corporates and academics in using HCD to maximise the chances of success when bringing anything new to market.


Vimla spoke of the value to be gained from taking the time to make the testing process truly inclusive. Our desire for faster procurement cycles and immediate updates was, she said, leaving disenfranchised groups even further behind. Making ethical choices and moving beyond being a ‘good enough’ approach will enhance the chances of success.
Highlighting an example of racial discrimination in Google’s image-recognition software, she also warned of the biases that can pervade AI software if diversity was not prioritised during product testing.


“We need to bring different ages, backgrounds, and abilities into the conversation for a true representation in the testing process”, she said, “so that when the services are put out there, these issues of inequality are improved and not worsened. Increased effort in the design process lowers the risks of negative impact further down the line and creates a better experience for all. It’s about ethical choices, moving beyond being ‘good enough’ and designing a future that works for everyone.”


The speakers who joined Vimla at the event included Dr Caroline Jay, Head of Research in the School of Engineering and the Digital Futures Human-Centred Design Lead at the University of Manchester. Caroline stressed the ways that human interaction with technology has changed, and how customers are increasingly asking for more intuitive, user-oriented design features. “We’re really getting to the point today where we’re not being held back by technology,” she said. “Obviously things like resources and computational efficiency are still an issue but let’s take something like the jetpack. It was the stuff of comic books 20 years ago, but today it’s being used for mountain rescues in Cumbria. It’s no longer a question of can we design something? – it’s what people want from that design that’s now key.”


Caroline stressed the importance of involving users in the design process before a code is even written. This is an area where automation has been heavily introduced, and she highlighted the issue with using computers to replicate human judgement. “We need to be careful about using AI,” she warned, “as we still don’t really know how a lot of machine-learning algorithms make their decisions.”


We also heard from Phillipa Nazari, Assistant Director Information Governance and Data Protection Officer at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, completed the panel. Phillipa led on how privacy has primacy. Every citizen is entitled to data protection and privacy. In the future tech design, when we are collecting and analysing data, these natural rights need to be recognised and respected. Developers need to explore the human impact of any given algorithm in the design stage.


Alex Nelson, Head of Design at the BBC’s R&D and Future Experiences facility in Salford, completed the panel. Alex has brought human-centred innovation processes to the BBC and is also linked to the SOLID project launched by Professor Tim Berners Lees, inventor of the World Wide Web, which aims to radically change the way Web applications handle data.


He spoke of a future where television programmes are much more interactive and personalised, having elements of gaming. Immersive storytelling will require design and testing to how they can be used to curate new human experiences.


“As a team, we’ve asked ourselves - what if we could bring people together for a synchronised experience?” he said.


Our event was about inspiring collaborations that will bring forward radical new ideas and make the most of the rich diversity of design and digital expertise we have in our region. The panellists would doubtless agree that Greater Manchester is well placed to get ahead of the opportunities HCD presents. As Alan Turing, once said: “Those who can imagine anything, can create the impossible.” Where better than in Manchester?


To find out how your business could innovate using HCD in Manchester contact our specialist team at info@midas.org.uk

Download this blog as a PDF here

GC Business Growth Hub is part financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) 2014-2020, as part of a portfolio of ERDF-funded programmes designed to help ambitious SME businesses achieve growth and increase employment in Greater Manchester. Eligibility criteria apply. ERDF is a fund allocated by the European Union that finances convergence, regional competitiveness and employment and territorial co-operation.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is the managing authority for the European Regional Development Fund Programme, which is one of the funds established by the European Commission to help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support local businesses and create jobs. For more information, visit https://www.gov.uk/erdf-regional-guidance-north-west

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