Designing for Human Behaviour

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Photo: iStock

Designing for Human Behaviour

There has been a lot of focus in recent years around the value of design based on how people interact naturally with an object, space, building or interface. It has been a very steep growth curve with a plethora of new terminology, soundbites and suggested approaches of problem-solving in line with all the new categories of design. It also seems as if the design in many respects has perhaps finally matured as a profession offering legitimate business contribution and handsome returns on investment provided it is respected, harnessed and integrated correctly with enough understanding of its position within the business problem-solving toolbox.

Yet the term “Design” is often still widely misunderstood and misused. There was a time not so long ago where the wider popular understanding was simply that design was there to make things look pretty, a decoration, art.

“People think that design is styling.

Design is not style.

It's not about giving shape to the shell…

and not giving a damn about the guts.

Good design is a renaissance attitude

that combines technology, cognitive science,

human need and beauty

to produce something that the world

didn't know it was missing.” Paola Antonelli

Design is as much art as it is science. It's complicated. Now that the term is fashionable it's also a badge many like to wear. No one claims to be a chef unless they have passed as one. Cook yes, but never a chef. Yet everyone thinks they know design and will very quickly pass themselves up as one. We have popular apps like Canva and Pinterest to blame for a lot of this misconception.

So what is a Designer …exactly?

Sadly the biggest problem with the general profession of design is the lack of understanding that society has of the role and true function of a designer. Often designers are asked to step in after the brief is defined and asked to step out before the project is completed. This is sadly true for all facets of design whether it is a building, space, a product or an interface. Still too often, the client/owner defines the problem in the beginning and a third party builds it in the end. Designers take up the role in the middle and because of this designers are often seen as assistants to the team or process but not a core part of it, ie something that can easily be interchangeable with another. If it can be removed it's not as critical and if it's not as critical, it's not as respected nor as rewarding. Real meaningful, impactful results however occurs when designers are there in the very beginning to help identify the problem and also at the very end to help build it. A designer’ job should start way before the 1st line is drawn and end way after the last one is. One only needs to look at the case of Johnathan Ive and Apple for that idea to sink in.

“The goal of a designer is to listen,

observe, understand,

sympathize, empathize, synthesize,

and glean insights

that enable him or her

to ‘make the invisible visible.’

Hillman Curtis

In short, a designer, therefore, is someone that solves problems within a set of existing constraints. And this is true for all types of designers whether you are a furniture designer, interior designer, web designer or Architect

So what is Design then?

As we have established above, design is not a stage of a project. It’s the beginning, the middle and the end and some would argue that there is never any end. The exact meaning however of the word design, depends on the context and can also mean a variety of different things. There are many different forms of design, however, every type of design exists to solve problems. In order to solve problems, one must first be able to see it and in order to see it, one must be able to collect all the data around it. That’s when real problem solving and thus real design starts. It's neither art nor science. It's most definitely a careful blend of the 2.

“Design is a solution to a problem.

Art is a question to a problem.”

John Maeda

However unlike art design does not have to be original. Designers are not inventors. They are problem solvers and for every problem, there are often many tried and tested sollutions wether in your category of design or outside of it. It is true that design can often be dressed in a fashion that has wider or less visual appeal. This is as true for furniture, architecture, a space, and object as ist is for a user interface.

So how does one go about problem-solving?

It starts with understanding the problem 1st. Why does the problem exist and is the problem worthy of a solution? Can the problem be solved with an existing set of solutions or does it require an entirely new approach? The answer lies partly in empathy. Being able to immerse oneself deep enough, long enough and sincerely enough into the problem or set of problems so as to understand the true responsibility and opportunity at hand. Furthermore, a problem can only be solved once one starts asking the right questions. New approaches must only be implemented if one is 100% convinced that the existing ones will not do.

Within understanding this then of course one must also be 100% mindful of the fact that the way humans behave can very seldom be altered and that the best design solutions are most often found in designing for how they behave naturally within a certain context. Designing for Human behaviour is therefore almost always better than designing for behavioural change.

What does Designing for Human Behaviour mean?

Let's start with the definition of Human Behaviour. “Human behaviour is a function of the actions and attitudes of people within an environment.” What is an action? An action “is a sensory and cognitive process that is measurable and observable”. What is an attitude? “An attitude is an emotive and intuitive response that requires relationship and story” (Piaget’s theory of cognitive development) . What is the environment? The circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded.

By looking directly at the actions and attitudes of people a correlation can be drawn and patterns can be observed and measured within specific environments. Most of these patterns are informed by culture, ergonomics, economics and the herd effect of others within the same environment. Designing for Human Behaviour, therefore, means Designing for the patterns for which users are accustomed within specific environments.

“It is not enough that we build products that function,

That are understandable and usable,

we also need to build products

that bring joy and excitement,

pleasure and fun, and,

yes, beauty to people’s lives.”


Every time you expose a user to a new innovative groundbreaking or unorthodox pattern whether it be a new type of restaurant or serving food, a new type of office environment or working, a new way of driving or using a new type of computer interface, you stand a chance to lose them, not because people don’t have the capacity to understand them, but because they trust the familiar more than they trust the unknown. In a world of information overload, these cognitive biases are our shortcuts to help us get thru the day and breaking that pattern comes with a very high risk of rejection. There are many examples. Think about 3D TV. After Avatar 3D TV was supposed to transform our living rooms into 3D cinemas and TV manufacturers fell over themselves to embrace this functionality into their sets. It was a complete flop. Smart internet refrigerators that could order food online, Self-balancing scooters like Sedgeway was hardly the game-changer it set out to be.

Of late there is a revisit of the idea of “Automat” restaurants ie the idea post COVID-19 of reducing exposure of people to people and having multiple food products in essence either served by conveyers, robots or available in vending slots. Few people will know that the 1st Automat restaurant opened its doors in Philadelphia in 1888. Horn and Hardart operated out of 150 locations before its eventual decline. The last store closed its doors in 1991. At the core of it, people hardly ever decide on a restaurant based on the food. It's about choosing the entire experience. Restaurants are highly emotional spaces. It’s the only form of design that plays on all the 5 human senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Understanding and framing all those senses will almost always result in highly stimulating and successful environments. Choosing one restaurant over another therefore all comes down to designing for human behaviour

The complexity of Designing for Human Behaviour

So if Designing for Human Behaviour comes down to simply Designing to the patterns for which users are accustomed within specific environments, where is the problem? Sounds simple right? Not so fast. The problem with this equation is first that it’s not a formula. There is no hack. It requires both designer and client to understand the process, legitimise it, allow for the time it needs to take and most importantly of all the cost of getting there. As the old saying goes, a client/owner can have their design Good, Fast or Cheap, but can only ever choose 2. Clients/owners seldom seem to grasp this concept. The second problem is the cognitive bias that exists with both client /owner and designer, called the “The curse of knowledge” i.e. the difficulty in thinking about a problem from the perspective of lessor-informed people.

Finally for the most part there are a tremendous amount of intangibles. Gathering all the information does not necessarily mean that you are now equipped and ready to design a highly popular, highly successful space. Far from it. There is a part to this entire journey that requires some art, some magic and some alchemy at the very end. To make people really care about your design.., do love your design it needs to be beautiful as subjective as that may be. It has to be relatable. The design has to be human and therefore has to elicit emotion no matter how functional or usable it may be.

Beautifully designs get half of their credibility because of their visual appeal. Humans are hardwired to process visual information with 30% of the cortex devoted to visual stimulate enabling the brain to identify visual images in as little as 13 milliseconds. 65% of people are visual learners. Most people, therefore, believe that if it looks good, it is good.

“Usability is not everything.

If usability engineers designed a nightclub,

it would be clean, quiet, brightly lit,

with lots of places to sit down,

plenty of bartenders, menus written in 18-point sans-serif,

and easy-to-find bathrooms.

But nobody would be there.

They would all be down the street at Coyote Ugly ,

pouring beer on each other.” Joel Spolsky

Original Imagery by iStock

Design Partnership Australia

Designing for Human Behaviour

Design Partnership Australia - #designingforhumanbehaviour

Callie Van Der Merwe

Calvin Janse van Vuuren

Roberto Zambri

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