Renewal with human-driven design?

Kaasinen Eija

Technical solutions should fit for human lives and promote well-being. This requires thorough understanding of user values, needs and preferences as well as user involvement in design activities. Even if the importance of user viewpoint in the design is widely accepted, human well-being, values and actual needs are too seldom the driving forces of development.

In-depth empathic insight to users and their lives

Usability-focused approaches tend to focus on already agreed technology solutions by identifying and fixing main problems in use. This is of course important but I think that human viewpoint could and should influence also what will be designed, not only how the design is implemented. To increase the impact of human-driven design, it should be more future-oriented – targeting to radical rather than incremental changes.

It is often claimed that users are fixed on familiar solutions and they cannot help in creating radically new solutions: “asking the horsemen, cars would never have been invented”. Human-driven design does not mean gathering wish lists from users and giving the responsibility of creating new ideas to users. Human-driven design requires designers engaging with users and their life in rich ways: stepping to the user’s shoes with empathy.

Human viewpoint in radical renewals

In addition to empathy, scientific knowledge of people’s values, capabilities and ways to act is needed. When empathy and scientific knowledge of people is combined with understanding of technology trends, societal trends and business trends, we have the right ingredients to create radically new systems and services. In the FIMECC UXUS Programme we have gained evidence of this in developing new operational concepts to different work environments. In-depth empathic understanding of the users’ work has helped to design concepts that renew the work tasks improving both productivity and attractiveness of the work.

Future visions are still too often technology-driven: the focus is on seeking sensible usage for new technologies rather than figuring out how people’s everyday lives and work could benefit and change with new technological solutions. The technology visions often present people with “plastic smiles”: happy families whose life is optimally efficient and supervised with intelligent technology. Children and grandparents are in minor roles, most often present only via video connections. I think I am not the only one who has difficulties in seeing this as my future life.

Robots set challenges for human-driven visions

As technology is increasingly involved in our lives, human viewpoint should be strengthened in the design. By now intelligent technology has mostly been embedded in separate devices such as smart phones and computers.

When intelligent technology starts to be part of autonomous vehicles (such as Google driverless car) as well as walking, wheeling and flying robots, we really need to think how these should be designed so that they benefit people  and that people can and will adopt them to their living and working environments. Current robot visions of human-like companions should be complemented with more human-driven visions that are based on understanding what kind of human-robot interaction would be accepted and beneficial to people and what kinds of roles we want to give to robots in our society.

User role: from victim to contributor

The role of people as technology users is changing from victims to be protected to active contributors who want to shape technology to their own needs. This should be made possible so that future systems and services support “design-in-use”, i.e. finalising the design when people create and share fluent usage practises and shape the technology accordingly.

Solving big societal challenges such as aging population, climate change and need for sustainable development requires developing parallel human practises and technical enablers. The potential of all users as innovators and co-designers should be utilised in developing the solutions.

VTT’s Design for life innovation programme aims to strengthen human viewpoint in technology research and development. We intend to increase the influence of human-driven design by making it more future oriented.


Eija Kaasinen

Principal Scientist

Design for life innovation programme manager