4 January 2009

People-centred design in times of frugality

Be the first to share

What are the profound socio-cultural changes currently taking place and are people-centred designers well equipped to help companies and institutions address this new context?

The current economic recession is turning out to be very severe (The Guardian evokes the spectre of a 1930s-style depression), with rich countries being the biggest losers, and this slowly unfolding reality will drastically transform our societies and our lifestyles, our values and our choices.

In a recent article on the cultural shift currently taking place in the US, Paul Harris paints a dire picture. But he also starts defining the values that define our new world: a rejection of luxury and excess replaced by a new sense of frugalism (which doesn’t necessarily mean quality), a renewed attention on the lives of ordinary people, a greater focus on community and an end to individualism as the dominant cultural, social and economic idea.

“America,” he says, “now is more frugal, less consumerist and more community-minded. But it is also poorer, angry and afraid.”

Reflecting on this from a European perspective, where communities are traditionally stronger, as is the role of government and the public sphere, I can see the following seven clusters of values taking shape:

  • A shift in the price/value balance when buying products or services. An entirely different logic comes into play now. When people are tight with money, they want their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) to be addressed in the cheapest possible way, whereas other higher level acquisitions are only done when the vendor can guarantee security, durability and long-term value. This applies also to corporate purchases. The throw-away culture is grinding to a halt;
  • A shift in needs: what seemed liked needs just half a year ago, are no longer perceived as such. There is a back to basics and a no frills culture, but it is not yet clear what that might imply on a larger scale, as things are evolving quicly and little research exists;
  • A renewed focus on people’s physical community: your neighbourhood, town, core friends and family – the people who are always there and can help you out if needed. You look for company when you are in trouble;
  • When people are spending more times in their physical communities, their demands for good infrastructure, housing, city planning, transit and energy are bound to increase, and these will need to be met by various Public Works-like public programmes;
  • But it’s not just the hardware that matters. There will also be an increased demand on public institutions to deliver good services. The excesses of politicians and public servants are no longer tolerated during times of scarcity. People will demand effective policy making, good public administration, and little waste of their tax money. Many politicians, too steeped in their world of political games, have not yet understood this. Friction is bound to occur. Social and service design are bound to increase (read this article by Alice Rawsthorn);
  • Increased demand on companies: companies will have to listen more and help people achieve their goals. Modesty and long term commitment are more important than ever (which is surprisingly similar to the discourse one can hear in emerging markets);
  • A fundamental questioning of the growth paradigm: the paradigm of everlasting growth in a limited ecosystem has proven to be a fallacy. Most people – who see their real incomes decline and an environment in increasing disrepair – are not hard to convince of this. What this will imply, remains to be determined and invented, but changes are bound to be dramatic. The Slow Food movement provides one possible way of looking at the future, but also they will need to become less elitist and more down-to-earth.

Understanding this new context, these new (or old) values and needs, and helping companies and institutions to create products and services that address them, is the job of people who do people-centred design.

Each of the seven clusters above provide opportunities for down to earth companies who care about the people that buy what they create, and to public institutions that have a serious commitment to their constituents.

We, people-centred designers, will need to reinvent our trade. We will have to create a sharp vision, a fresh methodology, a bare bones consultancy model, and a clear value proposition within this new context.

We often pride ourselves on understanding the needs and contexts of people and helping companies to design products and services around them. This approach is now more needed that ever, but needs and contexts have changed tremendously. Can we deliver on this new challenge?

Probably not all of us, but our basic paradigm is strong and more relevant than ever.

More predictions:
Michael Bierut
Rachel Hinman
Brandon Schauer
Lee Shupp
Bruce Sterling

Be the first to share
3 October 2015
Building a design-driven culture
It’s not enough to just sell a product or service—companies must truly engage with their customers. McKinsey & Company outlines four elements of a design-driven culture, necessary to embed experience design in an organization. Really understanding …
3 October 2015
Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.
MIT Professor Sherry Turkle has been studying the psychology of online connectivity for more than 30 years. For the past five, I’ve had a special focus: What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world …
29 September 2015
[Experientia book] Ethnography on elderly health and wellness
As we age, we increasingly depend on public services and the community for support. Well-designed public services can greatly affect the lives of the elderly and their experiences of healthcare. Experientia collaborated with DesignSingapore Council …
27 September 2015
Privacy is UX
UX strategist and researcher Alex Schmidt argues that in a world full of security breaches, snooping, and third-party data aggregators, you should know where your users’ data goes. In this article, she explains why it’s …
26 September 2015
[Book] The first-ever ethnographic study of the global reinsurance industry
Making a Market for Acts of God: The Practice of Risk Trading in the Global Reinsurance Industry By Paula Jarzabkowski, Rebecca Bednarek, and Paul Spee Oxford Scholarship Online April 2015 Abstract Reinsurance is financial market trading in the risk of …
24 September 2015
[Free eBook] Understanding the Connected Home
Understanding the Connected Home: Thoughts on living in tomorrow's connected home By Peter Bihr and Michelle Thorne Berlin, September 2015 Available on GitBook We know that connectivity increasingly makes its way into our living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. Into …
24 September 2015
Is it time to forget Big Data and focus on real people?
Big data opens up whole world of insight for designers, but only if we focus on the actual users behind the numbers, writes Maya Nix, the Marketing Content Producer for ClickTale, in this UX Magazine …
24 September 2015
Using business anthropology for strategic cost reduction
When business anthropologists work with the C-suite of large companies, the clients or employers tend to be the chief marketing officer (for consumer research), the chief strategy officer (for strategy work anchored in an outside-in …

We are an international experience design consultancy helping companies and organisations to innovate their products, services and processes by putting people and their experiences first.

29 September 2015
[Experientia book] Ethnography on elderly health and wellness

As we age, we increasingly depend on public services and the community for support. Well-designed public services can greatly affect the lives of the elderly and their experiences of healthcare. Experientia collaborated with DesignSingapore Council on understanding how the elderly interact with public services and how we can look towards improving their lives with design. […]

2 July 2015
Getting citizens involved in protecting fragile energy environments

A new project funded under the FP7 European Commission framework is getting citizens involved in testing new tools for reducing energy consumption during peak loads, in the hope that its pilot program will set the new state of the art for protecting locations with fragile electricity supplies. One of France’s most fragile regions The Provence-Alpes-Côte […]

5 May 2015
Experientia designer Dohun YuLuck Jang 유록 in Design 4 Disaster

Design 4 Disaster features an engaging illustrated safety manual for ship passengers, a personal project by Experientia designer Dohun YuLuck Jang 유록. After the Korean ferry accident last year, Yuluck (who is Korean) wanted to find a way to make safety manuals more interesting to read. He spent one year designing an interactive safety guide […]

16 March 2015
Better Health and Wellbeing: Giving the elderly in Singapore sparkling golden years

Invitation: sharing session, Singapore, 30 March 2015   What are the hopes and fears of the elderly in Singapore? How can designers offer solutions that support the elderly in managing their health and wellness? What can healthcare professionals do to help them keep active? What role can technology play in the elderly’s daily lives? Design consultants […]

1 January 2015
Happy Playful New Year
21 December 2014
Experientia’s Twitter feed live

Experientia has now its own Twitter feed. Four months of Putting People First posts and other links have already been uploaded. If you followed Experientia on Twitter through the feed of its CEO, Mark Vanderbeeken, make sure to now also follow the company (but don’t unfollow Mark, who will keep on tweeting away). And while […]

See all articles