Person standing in crowded train station. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash

An explanation about Human Factors and how these are a path to Empathy and being human-centred in design and organisational change activity. A perspective that side-steps a Design Thinking conversation to get to the essence of being human-centred.

[Note: This is the second in a series of design-themed posts by Questo.]

Imagine it’s 9:30 pm at night and it’s been a long day; I’ve been in a training course with a bunch of strangers since 9:00 am; I’m physically tired; I’m socially extroverted out; I’m cognitively drained; AND I’m busting to go to the toilet. NOW consider how I will use the hotel door card to get access to my room (and most importantly the toilet) on the 8th floor.

  • I might flash it quickly in my impatience – too quickly for it to work.
  • I might swipe it slowly in my tiredness – too slow for it to work.
  • I might drop it while I fumble with all the things I’m carrying from the course – and need to bend down to pick it up and do something for all the stuff I’m carrying to get my hands free.
  • What tolerance do I have to keep trying not knowing what speed will make it work, or whether in fact it’s programmed wrong, and I need to go back down to reception to get it fixed?
  • How good will my bladder behave in keeping fluid in if I need to bend over?
  • What might my sensitivities be to putting bags, books and coat and scarves on the floor to get my hands free? (This is inappropriate in some cultures.)

Especially if you have never experienced this situation personally, would you know how to take an empathetic perspective of me, my context and my needs? What advice or solution are you itching to give me to resolve my pain?

Let’s start with the notion of Human Factors

It seems to be that when anything needs a humanistic consideration in organisations right now, the approach to grab is ‘Human Centred Design’ that is “we should do HCD” or “we need to learn and do Design Thinking”.

I’m going to suggest that all that might be needed is a humanistic lens. A humanistic lens is part of HCD but HCD or DT also comes with the methods, approaches, techniques that various cohorts seem to crave and be drawn to – and distracted by. Let’s ‘Simply Be Human’ and ‘Simply factor in being Human’ to our organisational decisions.

The ‘human’ in HCD is not simply a singular person with specific desires, nor a cohort of people in a role like ‘user’, ‘customer’ or ’employee’. It’s the qualities and attributes that define what it is to be human.

Often a perspective – such as ‘Human Centred Design’ – has arisen in our consciousness because of the need to provide a counterpoint to another prevailing perspective. One such counter perspective is ‘Machine Centred Design’. No, this is not about the design of machines; nor design by machines; nor design with machines. Rather it was a perspective that Don Norman (Cognitive Scientist) proposed was unwittingly becoming the default way to perceive humans in an age of advancing technology.

In his book, Things that Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine (1993), Norman presented a table to compare human-centred with machine-centred orientation:

The machine-centred view of people is rather negative and undesirable. The human-centred view of people is more creative and kind. I’m on Team Human!

The comparison is a powerful reminder that humans have qualities that present challenges when designing, making and deploying something. In being human-centred these qualities are not ignored or denied, rather they can be catalysts for creative solutions that are more likely to fit people – and thus be adopted and used.

To follow a HCD philosophy is to know what makes humans human, and uniquely so, in contrast to machines and to animals. Humans are irrational complex creatures with intention, motivation, sentience, feelings and agency. To make your (design) activity human-centred, is to sign up to the messiness and complexity that is the reality of the human condition, and not to try and turn humans into machine-like entities. [Suggested action: Start noticing how many times humans, singular and plural, are referred to in mechanistic terms for their attributes and actions.]

It is very human to want to reduce messiness and complexity, to order and simplicity. We can feel comfortable with that state. We can feel confident we can logically address issues achieving a successful outcome. One way to reduce messiness and complex behaviour is to find patterns. And who better than ‘self’ as a set of mental models and patterns to make sense of what we are observing and experiencing. This is rather ego-centric of us, and grounds our decision-making in a belief that all-other-humans-are-just-like-me so I will make/design something using myself as the master pattern. As George Bernard Shaw said: Don’t do unto others as you would have done unto you – their tastes may not be the same!

To do human-centred design is more than being empathetic to a (single) human. It’s to attend to different aspects of what is means to be human for all humans – with our similarities and our differences.

In the book, The Human Factor, (2003) Kim Vicente provides a helpful framework to explore five different facets of ‘human-ness’.

Five facets of the Human Factor

Physical – humans see, hear, touch, taste, walk, run, sleep, eat, procreate, exercise, birth, break, scar, die – all things that come from our physical reality, our anatomy and physiology

Psychological – humans love, befriend, inspire, create, destroy, work, remember, learn, grieve, desire, judge, commit – all things that come from our mental, cognitive, perceptual and emotional realities

Team – humans co-operate, meet, share, play, move, shop, commune, debate (e.g. family, train gang, concert goers – etiquette, heuristics) – things from come from our social reality in small temporary or permanent groupings

Organisational – humans join, co-ordinate, enact, produce, serve (e.g. institutions – processes, policies, posses) – things that come from our social and functional realities when we organise as groups for a collective purpose/mission

Societal* – humans believe, vote, align, assemble (e.g. faith, government, tribes, nations – protocols, laws) – things that come from our social and cultural realities when we belong to broader groupings that bound our choices and actions across a life-time

* Vicente called this ‘Political’, I’ve chosen to use ‘Societal’ to avoid the narrow distinction of Political as being just about politics.

There are substantial bodies of knowledge from multiple disciplines that are a source of Design Principles and Heuristics for each of these Factors to use in guiding design decisions. Practitioners (both OCM and Design) would do well to curate existing knowledge, and utilise this to understand and address matters that arise from these five factors. Two examples:

  • Accessibility is a Design Principle for Physical Human Factor. Heuristics for such are about things like the size and colour of typeface, address a physical issue about eyesight, particularly non-perfect eyesight.
  • Usability is a Design Principle for Psychological Human Factor. Heuristics for such are about things like Memorability, Learnability, Recovery from Error, and User Satisfaction.

So back to the story I started with, can you pick the parts of my ‘hotel-card-door-full-bladder’ experience that might be understood through the lens of these five factors? No clues from me – I’ll leave you with the opportunity to practice recognising Human Factors at play in a given situation.

Focusing now on Empathy

While I am human, I am not representative of all humans. And other humans are not representative of me.

Of course, I make sense about humans and humanity through the lenses of my body, my experiences, my worldview, my stories, my culture, and my privilege. To understand others, I need to understand where my Self ends and Others (single and plural) start. My sense of reality is not their reality; their sense of reality is not my reality. To be empathetic, I should not assume the realities of others. It is better than I inquire, ask, listen, be open, be observant and discover their perspective on the world in general, and on a specific situation in which I may be asking them to participate in changing.

One assumption I am safe to make is: The other person is right in what They believe and understand regarding why They are right; because everyone acts in alignment with their internal stories and beliefs. If their behaviour is to change, the internal stories usually need to change first. If I am acting as an agent of change, I need to understand their stories with as them as the main character, not me as the audience.

I believe it is possible to care and not have empathy. This would be caring from an ego-centred point of view, rather than an other-centred point of view. (It also is possible to have empathy and not care. This the territory that enables con artists, sociopaths and other deceitful deviance.)

I think real empathy – the kind needed as a design sensibility – is the gritty uncomfortable kind. I don’t mean tough love. I mean staying connected to another person’s story, in conversation with them exactly when you do not have any experience of what they are experiencing; when you absolutely can’t relate to their feelings; and when you feel uncomfortable and negatively affected by what they are telling you. This kind of empathy is labour, and the heavy lifting part of being in relationships with humans – particularly those you serve. It can be risky. It can also get to the meaningful reality of how you can best serve the human/s you came to serve. [Suggested action: Have good self-care practices to ensure your own wellbeing and to avoid being an amplifier of others negativity.]

To design is essentially to make or create something that is fit-for-purpose. In order to do this, I need to understand a) the Person/s who has the Purpose; and b) What their Purpose is from their Perspective. And then c) to be in service to them in making sensible design choices to Fit to that.

I can also bring humanity to the table (Human Factor: Societal) by thinking not just about the Person/s in front of me. To be single-person or single-group centred risks perpetuating Privilege – and for many of us, this is 1st-world early 21st-century privilege. The world needs solutions that are good for humanity as a whole, who exist now and who are yet to exist, i.e. future generations. Imagining the reality and desires of people you don’t know and have no way of knowing, really stretches an empathetic sensibility – yet we need more of this.

And for a OCM context

I’m not a ‘Designer’. As an OCM practitioner, I have chosen to adopt a human-centred-design philosophy and I cultivate design sensibilities. The design sensibilities to help me translate the HCD philosophy into better decisions about the shape of the OC activity (i.e. change and learning experiences) I create and facilitate. It also flavours the service I give to the humans in my spheres of influence and control.

My design choices are informed by the empathetic perspective gained about the people for whom I design. It’s also informed by the knowledge of very smart people who’ve already done research in various aspects of the five levels of The Human Factor.

My challenge to OCM practitioners, is two-fold:
1. Cultivate mindset, skills and methods to acquire empathetic knowledge of the humans you serve, mindful they may not always be visible to you.
2. Get and maintain knowledge about humans from multiple disciplines across the range of human factors and use this to better influence your practice. Use The Human Factor Framework to guide and curate your knowledge.


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