Designing well-conceived human interactions


Ideal empathic interaction between a traveller and an officer at passport control when arriving at the airport.

The creation of artefacts has been part of designers’ daily work for many moons. Most classes and courses focused on teaching the skills for doing this kind of work, and practitioners have mastered the use of related technology and software. Lately, design has broadened its horizons, playing an increasingly key role in helping make the world a better place.  As a result, designers are solving problems that go beyond the traditional approach (e.g. creation of artefacts), and more and more companies and organisations are betting on designers to help them improve the quality of their services and experiences for their users and customers.

This role of design demands different approaches, capabilities and skills, as designers are creating solutions that have human interactions at their core. To solve this type of problems, designers need to deal with the orchestration of many moving parts: e.g. decide the type of information that would be more relevant and useful for that particular situation, design simpler artefacts (e.g. tickets, forms, posters), envision people’s journey and (e.g. steps, interactions with people or devices), identify possible pain points, determine information points. Designers cannot work alone in these cases. In order to create successful solutions, designers should team up with other professionals.

The execution of these solutions plays a particularly important place in the process. Having people and human interactions as such essential parts of a process, makes it harder to predict or control behaviour in all situations. Designers, taking this into account, should create execution guidelines (e.g. specific training for personnel) to increase the possibilities that all components would be executed as planned.

This is the ideal scenario of how these types of problems should be tackled. However, this is not always the case. Although “empathy, humility, compassion, conscience” are highlighted as key ingredients of good design (Jessica Helfand), there is a huge disconnection between theory and practice. While designers spend more time than before getting to know their intended-audiences, these insights are not always used to inform the process. What is more, designers are often detached of their solutions once these are delivered to their clients. Designers have no control on how solutions are being executed. And, too often, even when solutions are visually well-designed, they do not result on positive experiences.

Why good design fails?

Good design could fail for many reasons, but, to me, a major contributing factor to success is how the intended-audience perceives an overall experience. If each component part of an experience is individually well-designed (e.g. information well presented, clear to understand, appropriate use of colour), but the way that all components interact with each other and are executed is not appropriate (e.g. inefficient time management, impolite behaviours, unfriendly faces, poor communication), consequently, what people would remember is a negative feeling and not how well-designed the forms they had to complete were. Execution is as important as usability and performance. Execution shows how empathic a design solution can be.

Here three examples where good design gets buried under poor overall execution:

  • Starting a new job. The first day of a new job tends to be stressful. All seems new and unfamiliar, even finding the closer toilettes or identifying the best coffee shop near by can be challenging. The difference between a well- and a poorly- conceived experience is huge. In the former case, you go through these first days of adaptation feeling supported, and knowing who you could reach out when you have questions. On the first day (or before), you are given some sort of welcome pack with maps, useful numbers and names, and key dates. In the latter case, all these things are absent. You are left alone to figure out the different steps you need to sort out and to get familiar with the new environment. The organisation or company may have the most effective wayfinding system and nicely designed icons, but new employees won’t be able to appreciate them until they have dealt with higher priorities which, most likely, won’t be indicated in a map.
  • Going through passport control at airports. In many countries, big efforts and campaigns have been put in place to welcome travellers with the friendliest faces of the country. As soon as you get off the plane, large banners or screens show magnificent views and smiling people. After that point, interactions with people at airports almost send a very different message (Probably these interactions with real people make the contrast with those smiling faces more noticeable). There are a few steps between getting off a plane and leaving the airport: checking passport, collecting luggage, walking through the door, meeting with relatives, finding public transport. While in some cases, arriving to a new country feels like a walk in the part, in others, all these steps can be very challenging. If this experience would be well-designed across all countries (and all entry points of a country), travellers should not be wondering whether they could openly ask questions or they would be interrogated even when their paperwork is in order.
  • Going to a hospital. Yes, even today, 2016, walking into a hospital can vary from being a surprisingly excellent experience to an awful bad one. Overall, navigation inside hospitals seems to have improved (or at least more attention is put on it), although it also greatly varies from one place to another: some hospitals have clear wayfinding systems and others are still a maze. There are other aspects of this experience that influence our opinion about hospitals: e.g. waiting times, quality of appointments, interactions with hospital personnel, access to information. We all can understand that a doctor is running late with their appointments or could have an emergency call for surgery, but when this becomes a pattern, and patients have to systematically wait more than 40 minutes something is not working properly. Patients and family are often left in the dark without knowing why there is a delay, and if they try to find answers, their questions aren’t well-received, to the extent that people don’t want to ask questions to avoid experiencing an uncomfortable moment. This is a clear example of lack of empathy.

Experiences to remember: The power of smiles

If you have ever gone to Wholefoods or Pret A Manger Coffee either in the UK or the US, you will have a better sense of what a well-conceived human interaction experience looks like. In both cases, each part of the experience is very well-thought and carefully executed. In their websites and in the stores, customers are welcomed with a smile and corresponding ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’. People working there seem to be always happy to help you even with the most bizarre order or when the place cannot be more crowded (I have tested and witnessed both of these situations personally!). Aisles are properly marked, and food is well-presented. In the case of Wholefoods, the whole experience and the quality of products make up for the higher prices. Quality does not necessarily equal higher prices though, as Pret A Manger has quite affordable prices for a similar experience.

If design plays a key role in making the world a better place, designers need to start getting more actively involved in the design of experiences. Designers’ job doesn’t end with the delivery of a solution, they should ensure that they are providing the right guidance and recommendations on how to empathise with other people; i.e. hot to give a positive experience. Recommendations do not have to be rocket science; in some cases, they are simple reminders of common sense and empathic behaviour.

Only when an empathic approach is fully adopted and placed at the core of design practice and human interactions, the number of well-conceived experiences will increase. We should always make sure our solutions are executed as if we would be the recipients of that experience. This is empathic design, and a step towards making the world a better place.

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