Last year I attended the UXSA conference in South Africa where I got to hear from two masterful speakers who both expressed similar ideas that really struck a chord with me; Nabeel Petersen and Don Norman.
First was Nabeel Petersen, Nabeel comes from an anthropology background and facilitates participatory collaboration to help garner community involvement in projects around South Africa. He currently has a fellowship with The Wellcome Trust where he’s working to develop co-design processes that will help make science more accessible. He uses street-art as a medium to facilitate these collaborations and bring the community into the design process.
There is so often a disconnect between the solutions people actually need and the solution that gets designed for them. In practice, solutions are typically put forward by business stakeholders and UX designers are left to figure out the best way to implement them. But when do we actually involve people in determining what they actually need? I’m reminded of the Play pump story, where a merry-go-round was used to replace water pumps in rural African communities with the idea that kids would play and simultaneously pump water. On the surface, it seemed like a great idea but there were a few issues with this solution in practice. One of the key issues is that the women of the community ended up having to push the merry-go-round to pump water, which was more tedious than a normal water pump.
During his Q & A Don Norman was asked questions about his Nielson Norman group certifications and teachings. At one point he became obviously frustrated by these questions (although he handled them with such tact) and expressed regret because he felt that people had taken his experience and knowledge as the only source of truth without thinking creatively within their own context. For Don Norman, design thinking means applying its concepts within a specific context, design solutions should very definitely involve the people who will be affected by the outcome. He stressed that what he’d learned in an American context wouldn’t necessarily work within a South African one. Design thinking should be dynamic and different approaches will work in different contexts, Don Norman felt that the exciting part was getting to see how people in different cultures were able to creatively solve their problems.
In my time as a UX designer, I’ve come to think of myself as more of a facilitator, I’ve come to understand that it’s up to us to facilitate the best solution given the context by involving our end-users in determining their needs in the first place. This may not yet be a commonplace practice but I’m definitely encouraged to keep championing this idea. So it was incredibly encouraging to hear such brilliant speakers validate this notion and to know that they’re out there facilitating the world into a better place.