Info iconLetter I in a circle

By continuing to use this site you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our cookie policy

Human-Centered Design Network’s Gerry Scullion on inclusive architecture

When we talk about human-centered design, who are we designing for?


Like the built world, the internet is constructed for the majority. Too often, our online architects fail to take into account differently abled users.

Design can help, to be sure, but it can also hurt – and that’s likely to be the case when the teams we assemble are one-dimensional, exclusive or lack diversity. As a rule, design should first do no harm.

This is the message Gerry Scullion champions with his Human-Centered Design Network, a regular content series dedicated to helping product managers and designers across a spate of disciplines think more altruistically about what they’re putting into the world. Human-centered design, after all, should take everyone into account, not just the standard user.

A self-styled “jack of all trades,” Gerry is looking to change the world on a variety of fronts: as the Principal Service Design Consultant for Humana Design, the CEO of TheAcademy.ie, and even a new human-centered design conference set to launch next year in Dublin. He joined me this week on the podcast for a conversation that ranged from his experiences at Myspace to how to eliminate biases to practical advice for design leaders.

Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. If doctors have to take the Hippocratic Oath, why shouldn’t designers? Truly human-centered design should first do no harm.
  2. Every designer has implicit biases so how do you ensure an inclusive design process?
  3. After introducing a brilliant concept (say, a smart speaker like Alexa), designers shouldn’t rest on their laurels; they should game out the unintended consequences of their dream product and work to mitigate potential misuse.
  4. Most of the time, we design for the average able-bodied user, failing to consider what it looks like to those who sit outside this. What provisions are you making for people who interact differently with screens to you?
  5. There is an ROI on good design. If your users aren’t happy with your service, they’ll move. And make no mistake: this can happen at scale – as it did with Myspace, which died a public death despite having millions of users.

If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


From Myspace to human centered design

Dee: Gerry, it’s a pleasure to have you as a guest on Inside Intercom this week. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Gerry: Well, first and foremost, I’m a designer. I call myself a service designer, which I guess it’s an emerging term in this market, but for the last 14 years I lived in Australia, and I had my own business and consultancy over there. I run The Human-Centered Design Network, which is a global initiative, and I also run a series of podcasts and a network called, This Is HCD. My wife calls me an entrepreneur, but I just call myself a “jack of all trades,” really.

Dee: When you were working in Australia, you had some interesting experiences, I think. You worked at Myspace for a while?

Gerry: I did. Like a cat, I always land on my feet. I used to be into bands, and I used to play in bands, and I was a singer-songwriter and recorded and released albums and stuff. I always used to hide that in my profile, and one day the guys at Myspace got wind of me, and they contacted me, and I ended up working at Myspace International, which is based out of Sydney, for a number of years. Then I went on to become the Head of Design in Australia and New Zealand. It was a fantastic opportunity. I reflect on it now after having lived through the death of a mammoth with great insight. Not many people have lived through that.

“It challenged the convention at the time, and it really brought people together”

Dee: Well, it’s funny that you should say that, because the start of my career was at an indie rock music station, and Myspace was suddenly a place you could actually interact with artists you liked even as a fan, regardless of whether you were working in the industry. It was really something.

Gerry: It was a revolution. I still yearn for it, to be honest. Maybe not the platform, because it used to go down all the time. It was pretty unreliable, but it challenged the convention at the time, and it really brought people together. It was a fantastic period to be involved in, coming from an advertising background. I did industrial design in Ireland, and then I went on to work in ad agencies, which was probably the only career-growth pattern for me at that stage. We used to do campaigns for businesses, and we’d try to sell it back, and you’ve got 20,000 visits this week. Then to suddenly go into Myspace, where I remember I put an ad up, and I checked back a couple of hours later, and we had gotten a couple of million views. It was just mind-blowing, the growth that was happening at that stage.

Dee: But then, the growth started to decline. That must’ve been quite the whirlwind.

Gerry: Yeah, it was crazy. In Australia, we looked after everything outside of America. The UK had their own office. At one stage, it was 950 million active users. It was interesting to go from the town halls, where we would be like: “This month, we’re at 890. The website did go down for a couple of days, but we were hoping it’ll fix it this month.” Then the next month we’d be at 860, and you were like, “Do I need to be a genius here to see that someone’s catching us?” As much as I like to bag on about Facebook, they were scaling at such a rate at that stage that the inevitable was going to happen. And it did.

Dee: Going from Myspace in Australia then, at what point in your career did you become focused then on human-centered design?

Gerry: I’ve always been interested in industrial design. I had a moment of clarity in 2003, a very long time ago, where I realized I was contributing to the mass destruction of the planet by producing products that were the highly disposable at the time: battery packs and stuff that was just protecting a couple of four AA batteries. I was like: “Really? Well, this is just going to go straight in the bin, and that’s going to go into landfill.”

It wasn’t until post-Myspace that I had the opportunity to spread my wings, and I started migrating more into the world of UX at that time: design research and user research. I got an opportunity in 2011 working at Cochlear, which provides solutions for the profoundly deaf. It’s close to what people would call a bionic ear. Using design to transform people’s lives was as an entry point into this next chapter of my life, which I’ve kind of dedicated to human-centered design, which ultimately is what we talk about on The Human-Centered Design Network podcast.

Do no harm

Dee: What does The Human-Centered Design Network do?

Gerry: There are numerous definitions of human-centered design, and there are multiple ways of looking at it. It does have its own ISO standard, so there is an actual standard of a definition out there. But, my understanding of human-centered design is “do no harm.” It’s using design to provide the right solutions, but not at the expense of hurting other people. It depends who you ask and who’s listening to that question, though. It can be perceived as being a framework and a process of ticking boxes, moving from left to right. So it’s more like a verb, whereas I believe human-centered design is a mindset. You could speak to some consultancies, and they say, “Oh, we do human-centered design here,” and they wouldn’t be wrong. But, to me human-centeredness is more of how you are and how you’ll be when you’re on your own and how you do the right thing and how you have to demonstrate those behaviors in a day-to-day basis.

“For me, human-centered design is the brain, and it’s also the soul and the consciousness”

Dee: There’s a quote that I came across by Tobias van Schneider. He did this really interesting Medium piece asking, “Did Hitler have great designers, and could good design be bad?” It’s a really interesting idea, but his quote is, “Can we even say that ethics and design are the same?” Probably not, because design is a practical activity where ethics is more of a system of beliefs. Do you see human-centered design as being that bridge between those two things?

Gerry: Well, no. For me, human-centered design is the brain, and it’s also the soul and the consciousness. The brain makes that decision, but the soul and the consciousness should guide you – they should be the North Star. Design – you’re right – is something that you do, but ethics is something that ultimately allows us to determine the right from wrong.

Dee: When you’re talking about human-centered design, who is that ‘human’?

Gerry: It depends again who’s asking. I don’t mean to seem too aloof in terms of human-centeredness, and I definitely don’t want to come across as that, because human-centered design is definitely accessible. It’s definitely something that can cascade into organizations to help them do the right thing. But to answer your question – who is a human? – it depends on the context of use and who’s actually using that product or service. Who are you designing it for?

“If we’re not looking at who the human is, then there are all these unconscious biases that can come into play”

Dee: There’s a really interesting book I’ve been reading called Invisible Women: Data Bias In A World Designed For Men. It’s by a lady called Caroline Criado-Perez. In it, she looks at how data is biased towards the average white (usually), male and as a result there’s some really, really astounding research she’s done around car design, for example. Because cars have been designed predominantly for men, women are 71% more likely to be injured in the exact same car crash, in the exact same car as a man, and they’re 17% more likely to die. It strikes me that if we’re not looking at who the human is, then there are all these unconscious biases that can come into play.

Gerry: Absolutely. It depends how you look at it, but consciously, designers have been really bad in the past. They are responsible; we are all directly responsible for where we’re at currently in the situation of global turmoil and also what you’ve identified as products and some of those problems there. How you can get around that is having a more inclusive and diverse team with seats at the table. I don’t know where those statistics come from, but having a diverse and inclusive team would have gone some way to helping improve that, but also having a decision system of sorts within the organization to ensure that what they’re doing is the right thing and isn’t going to harm anyone.

Rooting out design bias

Dee: Do you think there’s any way to mitigate against people designing from their own perspective? Because that’s almost human nature, isn’t it?

Gerry: It is, but it shouldn’t be. If you have an inclusive and diverse team, and you have the right processes in place, and you’re speaking to the right people, and you’re asking the right questions, you can really, really improve those outcomes. There’s no doubt about it. The facts are there. It’s trying to bring the businesses on that journey to change, to make sure what they’re doing is the right thing. And that’s the hard part: getting the buy-in at the top to support this type of movement. At the end of the day, we live in a capitalistic world. The bottom line is really what they’re seeing at the end of the month. And it’s really bringing organizations back to what matters and having those serious conversations that make a difference. Otherwise, it’s going to be an uphill struggle.

Dee: A lot of the examples that people give when they’re talking about human-centered design relate to physical products. But what does it actually mean for software design in particular?

“We just assumed that when we use them, this is the cool thing. You can turn your lights on; you can play your music… But you don’t really think about how it could be misused”

Gerry: Software design is – I wouldn’t even say it’s the next realm. We’ve gone through this realm, we’ve answered it, and it’s a huge opportunity to help improve those outcomes. But there’s also a huge risk if you don’t get it right. I was speaking earlier about that case study of informed consent and what that means when you’re designing a product. I had a really interesting conversation with a wonderful designer in Chicago called Eva PenzeyMoog on the podcast recently about how the design of these Internet-of-Things products, can contribution to the proliferation of domestic violence.

It was a really interesting angle because, you know, there are these designers that have created wonderful products like Alexa and other great tools out there. And we just assumed that when we use them, this is the cool thing. You can turn your lights on; you can play your music. “Hey Alexa, how long is it going to take me to get into the city?” But you don’t really think about how it could be misused. Some of the scenarios she’s done excellent research on involve how it can actually be used to gaslight in relationships. By that I mean she has examples from research of where partners maybe turn the heating up through Alexa or through Nest –

Dee: That’s almost literal gaslighting.

Gerry: They turn the heating up on their spouse, and their spouse is like, “Oh, why am I feeling so hot?” And then they have to constantly go and change it. So this game-playing is more accessible to those kind of poor behaviors in relationships. And ethically, you have to ask yourself the question, “How do we stop this?” You can get around that by consciously asking how these products can be misused. Another good example I have is that one of my acquaintances was in town recently, and he emailed through my business email, wanting to know what the good things to do in Dublin. It’s one of my favorite emails to receive. I’m very proud to be from Dublin. And I responded back with a list of pubs and great bars to go to. I was there on Saturday night on the couch, a father of two as I am, watching TV at 9 p.m. And I started to get all these notifications on my phone of opens, and I could see that this guy was out on the town.

Dee: And following your advice.

Gerry: Yeah, following my advice. And I could see that as the night went on, he was opening up more and more and more and more.

Dee: That’s an amusing thing between friends, but in the wrong hands it’s dangerous.

“Informed consent means more than just letting me know that we’re doing it. It’s really asking the questions: why are you doing this?”

Gerry: Absolutely. But there was no informed consent from these bars. He just assumed that there was an email exchange between two people and that I wasn’t getting access to his data in terms of his behaviors. So when I called him up and said, “Hey, you had a good night on Saturday night,” he was like, “How did you know?” And I knew that he had been out until 2 or 3 a.m., and it created this kind of creepiness: is this even appropriate? Why do I feel that I’ve done something wrong? Like, who is at fault here? And it’s the system that’s at fault.

Dee: Yeah. I know Superhuman have gotten a bit of heat recently over the part of their email service that allows you to see read receipts and where the person is.

Gerry: And that’s informed consent. It keeps on coming back to that. Informed consent means more than just, you know, letting me know that we’re doing it. It’s really asking the questions: why are you doing this? What is in it for you as the business? What are you doing with that data? Where is that tardy being sold? And also what does it mean for the future? Another good example in the post-GDPR world is all these clicks that come onto the website when you come on about your cookies. We don’t know what we’re doing with that information. We’re just hitting okay and saying, “Get out of my way, I’m trying to find this content.” You just accept, but you don’t know the impact of what that data is having. Where are they sending that? Where are they selling it?

I saw a really interesting thing about ring.com – and I actually have a Ring doorbell at home as well. I saw recently that Ring are now selling the data back to marketing companies on how they actually should better perform doorstop activities to sell stuff. So that whole world of Ring data with Amazon is another gray area. What are they doing? I haven’t given consent for my data of anyone who walks into my property to ring my doorbell. They haven’t given consent to have their video or their photograph taken by that service. So now I’m left with a quandary. I’m a human-centered designer, and I’ve got a product on my door that is a really gray area. I believe I own the data; Ring believes they own the data. So what are they doing with it? And that’s what I mean: if you don’t have those conversations, and it’s not made clear to the customers, you can’t make that informed decision.

Dee: Well it’s funny, a friend of mine is using a fertility app at the moment and we joked that, “Oh, maybe you’re going to get served ads based on where you are in your cycle.” It had never occurred to her, and we thought it was funny, and it was a gas. And it was fine, but it had never even occurred to her, as you say, with the informed consent that she is giving up probably some of the most personal information that you could give about yourself just for the use of an app. And you know, that’s fine – if that consent is informed.

Gerry: Absolutely.

Designing for disabilities

Dee: And that really brings us to the ethical crux of it. You know, one thing Des and Paul spoke about in last week’s podcast episode was the return to command-line user interfaces. While that’s brilliant for maybe the average user, it possibly has implications for somebody who’s visually or physically impaired. Do you think there is actually an onus on designers to look at that as well?

Gerry: Absolutely. I have a good example: I get to speak to a lot of interesting people on the podcast, and I had a potential conversation with somebody who was quite senior in the design world and was a little bit older than me, maybe, as a nice way of saying it. They went and they purchased a nice USB mic, and they were using a Windows machine, and I was sitting online waiting for them to come on for the podcast, and I could hear: “Oh, I feel so stupid. I’m so stupid.” You know, they’re bringing themselves down. And I kept on having to reaffirm them. I said: “This is not you. This is the system.” The system is exclusive for people who are privileged enough to be able to use these machines, people who use them on a day to day basis.

And I guess I’m starting to suffer from some of this stuff as well. I forget how to do things, and I’m not that old. You can imagine how difficult it can be for somebody who has a disability, someone who’s a little bit more visually impaired or even emotionally impaired. It’s a much more difficult thing. Too often, we just designed for that sweet spot, that piece of people who are competent technically and they’re able to do these things. But we don’t consider what it looks like to those other people who are less fortunate.

“Organizations need to really stand up and behave and re-enact those values. Prove to me that you really care about your customers”

Dee: Do you think, then, that designers should impose a set of ethical values when they’re designing?

Gerry: Well look, it’s really, really common. You go into businesses now and you see these beautiful big posters on the wall. You know, “People first,” and “We value your money, “or “We value your privacy.” I guess I’m a bit more hardened to this stuff, because I ask the question: “Are you? How do you do these things?” Organizations need to really stand up and behave and re-enact those values. Prove to me that you really care about your customers.

Too often they don’t. This is just theater to them. It doesn’t really integrate back into the real world. I want to see the demonstrated behaviors of how you’re actually using my data. I want you to be clear about these things.

Dee: How do we incentivize companies to be more ethical or more human-centered in their design?

Gerry: There is an ROI in design. When I say design, it’s actually strategic design as opposed to just the craft of design. How do you get them to change? It’s very difficult. It really is. Especially when they’re focused on the bottom line. You have to look at the culture of the organization. You have to get deep into that culture of how they’re remunerating and how they’re rewarding. You have to change human behavior and that’s the most difficult thing. Especially when you’re looking at organizations like banks that are baked on 200 years of behaviors that have just been reinforced time and time again. How do you do that? It takes a mind shift.

There’s a reason why the banks are suffering. There’s a reason why all these institutions are starting to get more of a vibration, shall we say. If you look at N26 – if you look at Revolut – the next world and the next generation is not going to stand for that type of behavior. They will just move. And so they should, because they don’t deserve your business.

“This is happening. It’s consumer. We have to get better at this. If you’re not happy with your service, move”

Dee: Do you think that’s a push that’s going to come from the consumer side, or is it going to come from the design side, or is it happening already and it’s coming from both?

Gerry: This is happening. It’s consumer. We have to get better at this. If you’re not happy with your service, move. It’s one of those things. The bottom line has to be affected in order to transform the change. And businesses will sit there and say, “Well look, we’re still making money.” Look at Myspace; look at that example that I spoke about at the early stage. There was a level of arrogance in those days. We were like: “Yeah, well we still have 850 million users. That’s pretty cool. We’re still making money.” It won’t last forever, okay? It has a lifespan. That whole kind of product life cycle is a really good example. Myspace peaked. We believed it would continue to grow. It didn’t. It died a really big death.

Tips for design leaders

Dee: Do you have any advice, then, for people who are leading design teams on how they can go about doing that?

Gerry: So there are a few things. I want to point back to a fantastic episode with Kim Goodwin, who is one of my North Stars, one of my favorite people. You look at design systems and how you can actually design these new tools quicker, better, faster. And too often, there’s a stage that happens before that, and it’s the decision-making system. By that I mean: if you don’t have that decision system in place, you start to look at the viability and the feasibility and the desirability of these new products, and you determine what you should build next and what’s going to drive profit.

That’s fine, but what should be considered in that is the impact on life and the impact of humans but also the impact on the planet, and that bit is often overlooked. Going back to your question about design teams, the design teams need to stand up more and shout and talk about these things with executives and educate them. The executives are too busy to start thinking like this; we need to help them. We need to help them in the journey and make them aware of these things, because deep down, it is possible to change.

“Human behavior is one of the most difficult things to change”

Dee: So is it a case of design teams trying to map out the very worst possible unintended consequences of their actions or their design before making a judgment call?

Gerry: Definitely. That’s one approach you can take. I’ve actually seen some of my peers, when I’ve worked in businesses, where they’ve mocked-up newspaper headings, and they’ve shared them around emails, like data leaks, the impacts that these things could have. And it sends reverberations around us: if that did happen, how would we react? What would happen if we did have a data leak, and what would happen if someone else went to market with this product? How would that change our behavior? Human behavior is one of the most difficult things to change. It really is, and that shock sort of tactic is one way of doing it. I’m not too sure you’ll have a lifespan in doing it too often, though. It certainly questions your ethical –

Dee: Well, the shock value doesn’t last, obviously.

Gerry: Yeah. Every day that you’re the boy who cried wolf. I tend to take the long game more so, in terms of education and taking them on the journey and educating them about the impacts. What does a “standard user” look like? And what does that look like for someone who’s on the periphery of normal, as some teams will call it? How does your service degrade into those experiences and those ecosystems? Most of the time, if you haven’t thought of that, it’s not going to be very good.

Dee: Before we wrap up, Gerry, do you have a favorite designer of any discipline and why?

Gerry: My favorite designer is Dieter Rams, who is a German industrial designer, and I’ve had a love for him. But my favorite designers tend to be the people that are working in the NGOs, actually. The people who don’t have access to designers, the people that are making an impact on a day-to-day basis. Mary Jo McVeigh is someone who I look to in Sydney. She was a traumatic counselor during the Troubles in Belfast, and I was lucky enough to work with her whilst in Australia when I was designing a product for children who’d suffered sexual abuse. The work she does is probably one of the best services I’ve ever seen in absence of a designer. She created a beautiful therapeutic practice for children to come in, and it was in a bungalow, and she created all these tools to help heal and provide a safe haven for children. So I look to people like that less so than the more famous designers out there in the market who have published books.

Dee: That’s lovely. And lastly before we let you go, where can people keep up with your work?

Gerry: You can go to thisishcd.com and listen to some of the podcasts there. My business is Humana in Ireland, and I also run the theacademy.ie, which handles service design and UX training capabilities. We can go internally, and we provide public training as well for people looking to learn more about strategic design.

Dee: And you have plans to launch a conference, as well.

Gerry: Next year, 2020, I’m planning on running the first human-centered design conference in Dublin. Every time I say it, I get a little bit of a shudder up my back. It’s going to be a big thing for me. It’s an undertaking, but it’s something I believe in. It’s going to be on thisishcd.com, so all the information is there.

Dee: And you have an interesting kind of way of thinking about it. I’ve rarely heard a conference promoter, if you will, say they don’t want people to travel to come to their conference.

Gerry: It’s a little bit of a backwards way of looking at it, but again, I’ve had another moment of clarity, shall we say. I had one in 2003 and had another one middle of last year, and I’m encouraging people not to travel outside of a two-hour flight radius due to carbon emissions. So it’s really made for people in Ireland and the UK, initially.

Dee: But presumably, there’ll be tons of content that they can access.

Gerry: The roadmap is definitely bring this conference to other territories. So central Europe, Australia and America.

Dee: Fab. Well, watch this space. Thanks a million for joining us today, Gerry.

Gerry: Thank you so much for having me today. I really appreciate it.

Intercom careers