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Is human-centered design causing us suffering?

The other day, I came across a photo on LinkedIn of a shower, the title: Amazing User Experience. The shower, had a glass door designed with a hole cut out of it. The idea, is that you could reach in and turn on your shower before stepping inside, thus resulting in warm running water when you’re ready to enter.

OP: IBeBobbyBoulders 

Seems like a lovely concept, but my gut reaction was one of shock, dismay and disappointment.

Where one might see extreme convenience, the ultimate luxury and pleasure, I saw the potential for great suffering and waste.

A few years ago, I came down with a respiratory infection. I had been to many doctors, tried the usual allopathic prescriptives, then moved along to more holistic modalities to support my healing. There were the weekly acupuncture sessions and the nightly neti pots. My evenings spent with my head over a pot that spouted hot steam into my face, the perpetual scent of Eau De Vicks Vaporub and the birdsong of my hacking lingering in the air. Yet, nothing seemed to help.

During my usual crescendo of coughing into the wee hours of the night, I decided to consult my old confidant Dr. Google… again. I came across a man named Wim Hoff. The ‘Ice Man as he’s known, preaches the gospel of cold showers and their ability to enhance your immune system. I was willing to try anything.

My experience with cold showers up until that point was virtually nonexistent. They were, in my mind, synonymous with bad showers, painful showers, stressful showers. But that very reaction; that aversion, told me that there must be something deeper at play. “Are cold showers inherently bad or is that simply how I perceive them to be?” “What has lead me to perceive them this way?” “Is anything inherently good or bad?” Things got existential quick.

One thing I knew for sure, (besides the fact that I was desperate to stop coughing) was that temperature had a power over me. Too cold and I was running for the covers, too hot and I was running to the thermostat to air condition away my discomfort. Yes, cold water is uncomfortable (as many other physical sensations are) and perhaps, for the duration of the shower, warm water held a sensation that I preferred and had become attached to, but still, did that make warm water inherently good and cold water bad?

I decided to get out of the realm of the theoretical and test is for myself. The next day, I took my first cold shower.

Each time I took a cold shower I repeated to myself, “this water is cold, it’s not good or bad it is just cold” and tried to witness the temperature without resisting it. It was nearly impossible. But after 2 weeks of tears and expletives, one day I stepped in; I felt the usual sting and pain from the icey drops but I let go. Not liking or disliking, but just accepting that it is simply cold. That day, I did not suffer. I did not judge and I did not cough! It was not a bad cold shower, it was just a cold shower. That was the moment that I regained my power. Temperature no longer controlled me, I had control over my suffering and my response in the face of extreme temperature. That was a powerful moment.

So what does this have to do with human-centered product design?

In his article titled Human centered design considered harmful, designer Jussi Pasanen likens human-centered design to anthropocentrism.

Anthropocentrism is the belief that human beings are the most important entity in the universe.

The issue, as he points out is that the “anthropocentric world view is about dominion and having extra-human life and the rest of the planet reduced to mere resources, to be exploited by man at will. This belief underpins the ongoing destruction of the living planet we see all around the world today.”

While there’s little denying the stains of commercialism and how technology has contributed to the degradation of the natural order, it’s also fair to say that everything we do as humans, even the most well meaning and selfless acts can be unwittingly responsible for harm. So what’s the solution? Perhaps the irony is that it will take applying more technology to solve these natural world problems? Perhaps, it means pulling away from technology and looking to the past for queues on how to reconnect to a more analog existence. But despite anything that we attempt to do to reverse or prevent the momentum of the current state of things, I always ask myself these questions…what are the internal factors that got us here? What is it within me that is perpetuating this? In ruminating on these questions I came to wonder…

Is human-centered design unknowingly handicapping us and contributing to our own suffering?

When I say suffering, I’m making a distinction between the experience of what it is to suffer (our perception) of pain and what it is to feel the physical or emotional pain itself.

Eastern practices like mindfulness and meditation show us that there is a difference between suffering and pain. Pain (both emotional and physical) is an inevitable part of being alive, but suffering is a choice; a mental state in which we identify with and/or judge our pain and become attached to our narrative about it. This is the subtle distinction that mindfulness can help illuminate and why I write about and promote mindful design and interaction practice in tech and in my digital product design teaching.

Particularly, where it concerns the process of design thinking and user empathy. If we don’t practice developing discernment and the capacity to observe something the way that it is without our judgments attached to them, then we are trapped directly identifying everything as good or bad, we are left with our biases, our prejudices, our stereotypes and our old narratives which may not serve us anymore; we are not able to connect and empathize with others because we cannot see things clearly. We are left suffering for or causing suffering because of our self-inflicted limitations and short-sightedness unless we are able to cultivate the space to relate to ourselves and others in a different way.

So perhaps the answer actually lies in redefining what human-centered means. Considering more than just ourselves in the process, looking at things from a broader perspective and acknowledging that making things easier or more convenient doesn’t necessarily make them better and could in fact be causing more harm than good.

A few months ago, the hot water in our building was shut off for 2 1/2 days. By the end of the first day people were angry, by the end of the second day the seemingly decent, level-headed neighbors that I knew had turned practically savage. I watched the comments and curses being hurled at our building managers through group emails and the community Slack channel. I could see the narratives that people were constructing. “Why hasn’t management fixed this yet?!” “Management is always doing this, it’s completely unacceptable to be out of hot water for this long!” “I have called them 45 times and still no solution!!” “My rent costs this much, I demand that they reduce my rent!!!” “I’m sick I can’t take a cold shower, it would kill me!!!!” This was normally my story too. True, it was physically unpleasant. True, we did not know when the hot water would return, but what I did know is that the building managers were kind, empathetic people and that they were working diligently on a problem that must be difficult to fix. I could either buy into this story and cause myself added mental suffering by complaining, spending hours making phone calls and being in a foul mood, or I could witness the thoughts, unattached to the story and find a solution until the problem past. I could choose to be present. Had I not voluntarily exposed myself to the discomfort of taking cold showers prior, the latter would have certainly been harder and I would most likely have been one of the angry natives.

This kind of thinking and alternative reaction takes a lot of practice and commitment; to expose ourselves to that which we judge, which we dislike, which is harder for us to do; that is not always an easy task. But one thing that helps me practice is reminding myself that our aversion to inconvenience actually sensitizes us to stress. It reinforces to the subconscious mind that we can’t take this, that it’s too painful to endure.

Exposing ourselves to stressors; with the right intention and attitude, increases our capacity to accept that which we can’t change and to observe things without the pull of immediate reaction. It desensitizes us to stress.

Exposing ourselves to stressors; with the right intention and attitude, increases our capacity to accept that which we can’t change and to observe things without the pull of immediate reaction. It desensitizes us to stress.

Comedian Pete Holmes did a hilarious bit about Waze app that illustrates this perfectly as it relates to digital product design - "Waze is not the way of the soul. I do not need to save 5 minutes careening through gated communities! The last time I used Waze I ran over a skateboard, I shouldn't have been there! There should be a medium setting, now it's either off or Indiana Jones. It's like no help whatsoever or you're rushing a kidney to the Obama family. Surrender, get on the freeway, long, slow, straight, good! Be alone with your thoughts, listen to a podcast, call a friend, keep a friendship alive! You can come to work 5 minutes early, sweating panicked from making all the suicide lefts onto 4 oncoming lanes. I'll be 3 minutes late and tell everyone what I learned on This American Life. It's a better way to live!"

As product and UI/UX designers, perhaps it’s time to expand our definition of human-centered design and start thinking about our products in a different way.

What if Waze had a chill out option, one that mapped out a scenic route and started playing relaxing music, or if Google maps had meditation prompts whenever you come up to that red line of traffic? “There is a 15 min delay on your route, sit back relax and breath deeply, inhale….exhale…” What if we as designers attempted to create product features that would help make this type of thinking and behavior more normalized?

David Perell discusses this in his Essay 'The Microwave Economy' where he says

"America has become a Microwave Economy. We’ve overwhelmingly used our wealth to make the world cheaper instead of more beautiful, more functional instead of more meaningful."

"The tradeoffs of making the world more efficient are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken".

Imagine if we encouraged cold showers instead of comfortable ones. How much water would we save? How much time would we save? How much better could it make our immune systems? How much more of our inner ability to cope with stressors might we unlock?

Considering the root cause of our own suffering and how our actions might be contributing to that suffering and to that of the world around us, doesn’t have to mean halting technological progress or putting ourselves in harms way, but maybe we could all do well to be more mindful and start by building little things into our daily lives and our designs that contribute to a world that’s better rather than just convenient.

Surrender and remain - Pete Holmes