Creating Graceful Online Experiences Requires Human-Centered Thinking

By Caresse Giles

Technology, at its core, is inherently graceful. The central purpose of technology is to solve problems and to improve the human experience. Conversely, technology, at its best, is inherently neutral. It is autonomous, free of judgement and relies only on the way in which it is implemented. Tools have been used throughout history both to create and to destroy, often in a delicate balance. The ethics of technology has been debated and discussed for decades but today, society is particularly engaged in the discussion. Generations globally are experiencing the consequences of unethical technology first-hand and it is ever-more important to consider, “How can technology fit more gracefully in our daily lives?”

As digital practitioners, our aspiration is to design and build experiences that are graceful. As professionals, we have an obligation to design experiences that are better than the status quo. To build experiences with the user’s needs in mind. To build things that help rather than hurt.

The internet is vast, but our digital experiences are monopolized by a few big platforms; you know who they are. These platforms set the standard for internet users’ expectations around how they experience the web. They exist to make money and it’s in their best interest to persuade users to 1. spend time on their platforms and 2. click links. Those two factors (among others), often referred to as “engagement”, are their metrics for success and it is how they increase their bottom line. This is how their users end up becoming a means to an end. This is where the balance between helping or hurting users becomes ambiguous. And this is where decision makers lose sight of the real humans on the other end of their technology.

Enter the ethical design practitioner. User experience professionals believe in reducing barriers for their users. They believe in building seamless experiences that quickly solve user’s problems and in respecting users’ privacy and time. Teams with a user-centered focus  aim to improve the lives of end users by listening, understanding, empathizing, and learning. They try to ask clients and stakeholders the right questions to ensure their ideas have their customer’s best interest in mind. And they attempt to convince decision makers that there is real bottom-line-value in human-centered design.

This work, project by project, is important. A great deal of progress has been made in the last decade. More teams use agile methodologies, usability testing, and user-centered design than ever before. Stakeholders are becoming savvy enough to ask for it and development teams are getting better at it.

Widespread adoption of user-centered design does not guarantee graceful, human-centered design and decision making. All of the three above methods encourage technology teams to consider the user’s needs in decision making but there is still the risk of losing sight of the humanity of users. People become “users” and the users can still become a means to an end with these methods employed. Furthermore, decision makers must expect the adoption of human-centered and ethical design practices both internally at their organizations and within their hired vendors. It can be extremely difficult to fully adopt these methodologies on technology teams if the broader organization does not support and understand them.

The big platforms that monopolize the internet teach us to expect the status quo. They stop us from being bold and creating web experiences that expand our horizons. The status quo bias is powerful and it is preventing us from making the internet what it can be. Designers, developers, decision makers, and stakeholders alike can take part in changing user expectations and in building better digital ecosystems that enhance people’s lives.

But first, we must shift the focus away from simply improving the user-experience to improving people’s life experience. When we first think about others and bringing ease to their lives, we are far more likely to build a more graceful online world.