‘Think like a human, design for real people’

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Think like a human, Russell Beard of Square Banana urges product developers. Empathy is the key skill you need when you’re creating new products that work for ‘real people’

Are you designing for real people, or one of the long list of ‘consumer groups’?

At Square Banana, the product design consultancy that I founded, we often find ourselves having to explain to new and potential clients what exactly it is that we do.

And despite all the processes, techniques, technologies and buzzwords flying around in the world of new product development, we inevitably end up boiling down our response to one simple premise: we design for humans.

We work, after all, with a range of clients, large and small, on a huge variety of projects. Whether it’s packaging for chocolate bars or fresh coffee, or designs for complex military or healthcare equipment, there’s very little commonality to the projects we undertake.


But regardless of that, we inevitably find ourselves embroiled in early conversations with clients around ‘user needs’. Now, some clients barely give this issue a second thought, treating the end user as a nuisance — a necessary nuisance, but a nuisance all the same.

Other clients have more words for users than the Eskimos have for snow: users, consumers, shoppers, customers, clients, purchasers, gatekeepers, permission granters, enablers. You name it, the list keeps on truckin’.

Particularly with larger corporations, there’s a vocabulary associated with ‘consumer insight’ that makes the process sound like observing an alien race from a safe distance.

Take, for example, this statement: “Sixty-four percent of gatekeepers felt that they might feel inclined to purchase Product X if they were short on time, on the go and under pressure to cook dinner.”

While I completely understand the need to categorise people in this way — after all, a microscopically small shift in purchasing dynamic can have huge implications for production and profitability — there is in play here a forensic level of clinical distance that leaves me feeling that these people, these ‘end users’, are not being treated like the fallible, unpredictable human beings that we all are.

They’re simply reduced to a purchasing demographic, categorised by its disposable income and lack of time.

Human behaviour

Now I understand the need for this kind of analysis, but there is a part of my brain that refuses to believe people fall into such neat ‘categories’.

As was clearly demonstrated in the UK’s recent general election, most attempts to second-guess public behaviour are pretty much futile.

All humans have their individual foibles, idiosyncrasies, subtleties, quirks, habits, preferences, desires, secrets, failings, admirations and egos. We are all different, even if, somewhere in some corporate headquarters, we have been deemed to occupy the same category on a spreadsheet as others we consider to be barely like us.

This is why, whenever Square Banana works with a client on a project, we proudly identify ourselves as ‘consumer guardians’ early on in the partnership. We’re the guys who represent those people who sit at the end of the buying chain.

We steadfastly hold firm to this idea, even though it often results in arguments over the need to retain certain features and more ‘human’ elements, which might otherwise be sacrificed in the cold, analytical light of the company boardroom.

Yes, we also ensure that the project is designed to a specific budget, a specific timescale and to specific production parameters but, to us, it’s imperative that the customer without a say in the product development process — the person, ironically, who will ultimately choose to purchase this item or be responsible for using it — is considered and, as far as possible, understood.

It’s surprising how many projects that start out with good intentions and robust research end up losing sight of this simple vision.

There are, of course, many tried and tested ways to understand customers, but we find that good, solid thinking, based on sound, human understanding sees us through. It’s about creating a robust story that works. A story that holds true, regardless of complexity or technology.

If you can metaphorically ‘break’ a proposed product in the planning stages, simply by acting as human beings inevitably do, you can ensure that you cater for many eventualities as you take the product forwards. And then, you have a fighting chance of creating something that might actually work for ‘real people’.

So here’s my advice: think like a human, not like a marketing executive or a corporate accountant. Above all, remember that it will be another human being that ultimately interacts with the fruits of your hard labour.

Empathy is the one key skill to being a good product designer, and whilst it may not help you sketch, 3D model, engineer or implement, that skill will ultimately ensure that, as you meander through these tasks, the underlying story remains true and solid.

Russell Beard urges designers to design products that work for ‘real people’

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