4 January 2009

People-centred design in times of frugality

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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

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