Walden Pond in autumn
Walden Pond in autumn

As an art student, they teach you to find instruction and inspiration by studying paintings by the masters. However, I find it difficult to be inspired by other designers simply by looking at screens and graphics they have created. For me, design is about thinking and making and testing. Design is this huge intellectual and emotional process that is much greater than the final visible output.

I get inspired more by what designers say & do (and say they do) while going through the design process. I have a memo on my phone where I keep simple quotes from the great thinkers and designers in history to fuel my fire for good design. Today I’d like to share one of my favorite human-centered design quotes from Henry David Thoreau…

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is attributed with being many things: author, philosopher, poet, historian, environmentalist, and occasionally an anarchist (which I disagree with, but find immensely amusing given our current political climate). He is not typically identified as a designer, but he was about as human-centered as they come. He vehemently opposed slavery, corporal punishment, and man’s destructive actions against our environment (and subsequently ourselves).

This particular quote has always struck a chord with me. If I do nothing else as a user experience designer, my job is to help the makers of things see through the eyes of the people who use the things that they make. Much like my work, the actual topic of discussion never matters. I may be working on an e-commerce website, financial services, or solving world hunger and my job remains the same: to help people see.

Many people go to college, learn what there is to be learned in business textbooks, and march through their careers using only that knowledge. For decades, the American business world has focused on making products that they think they can sell by convincing the average person that they need these products. It wasn’t always this way.

Back in the days of artisans and craftsmen, an armorer would create armor for a knight to meet his exact specifications of size, materials, and fighting style. The armorer didn’t keep an inventory of armor to “sell” to whoever walked into the smithy that day. He provided a unique and personalized experience for each of his customers by making sure he understood their needs and designed a proper solution.

We’re now seeing a renaissance of sorts in the field of human-centered design and customer experience where technology facilitates this idea of “mass customization.” Our most elegant designs are now able to be mostly the same for all customers (like the iPhone’s hardware) but fully customized for each person by learning as much as possible about what they need (via account data and app usage).

I’m not sure if my interpretation was intended by Mr. Thoreau when he wrote it, but this is one of those insights that reminds me to be the steward and guardian of my users when designing. What I am working on at any given time is not what matters, only my ability to see the humans on the other side of the equation who might have unique problems to solve or needs to be met.

Article by Craig Graue

I think in big pictures. Nothing is more important to me for the user experience than understanding the full context of what a person is doing at a specific moment in time. Find more of my musings about user experience design at cgraue.com.