When individual experience isn’t enough — what shared spaces teach us about the challenge and opportunity for user experience

Hans Monderman's squareabout in Drachten (original photo from Fietsberaad - https://flic.kr/p/7sZfta)

There is a problem with user experience. But if we’re smart, it’s also an opportunity to become more relevant, and solve some of society’s biggest problems.

Right now, user experience as a discipline has a tendency to focus on individuals. Our methods tend to focus on how a design helps a person do a thing. The clue is in the name, user experience — the experience of a user.

We may map out a customer journey. And that journey map may contain different types of people — personas. But these are still thought of as distinct individual characters in the journey. We think a lot about how a design interacts with those people.

But seldom do we analyse the interactions between people going through that journey. More to the point, we tend not to consider communities or societies, and how our designs impact them at a macro level.

How a poor experience for individuals can be better for society

Hans Monderman 2006

To illustrate this, consider the example of the urban designer Hans Monderman. He was an advocate of shared spaces such as this squareabout. This is a traffic intersection in the Netherlands that minimises the number of road markings and signs.

The idea sounds absurd at first. But the facts speak for themselves. These shared space designs have decreased the number of accidents, and the seriousness of the accidents that remain.

But if you ask any individual how they feel about his intersections, they report feeling less safe. Individual people don’t like it.

At the individual level, using one of Hans Monderman’s road designs is a poor user experience. Following traditional user experience approaches would not lead us to his ideas. In fact, a traditional user experience approach would probably repel us from his ideas. Yet, the improvements in safety figures demonstrate that his designs are actually better for society.

Making individuals feel safe encourages them to act dangerously

Hans Monderman understood that the reason drivers like road signs is because it makes them feel safer. And when drivers feel safer, they actually drive more dangerously.

As the ThinkBicycling blog put it: “The relationship between the increased perception of danger, and the reduction in accidents recorded, may be significant.”

Put yet another way, “Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.”

Because road markings and signs make people feel safe, they disengage their brains. People stop looking out for each other. They become selfish individuals navigating a system for their own ends only.

In other words, if you maximise a design for an aggregate of individuals, you actually risk making the community experience worse.

When roads are turned into shared spaces, people begin to consider each other again. In 2004, he told Wired:

Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.

People don’t like looking out for each other, because it involves effort. But it makes us all safer, and it brings us closer together.

Why we add things, and why that’s a problem

Hans Monderman’s solution is counter-intuitive, because it’s human nature to add things. This is because we traditionally measure not outcomes, but outputs — or worse still, inputs. We feel like we are making progress when we add things, even if it has negative consequences.

But good design is as much about removing the right things, as Hans Monderman noted:

The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.

Tom Vanderbilt, writing for the Wilson Quarterly, recalled a trip with Hans Monderman where he elaborated further:

As I drove with Monderman through the northern Dutch province of Friesland several years ago, he repeatedly pointed out offending traffic signs. “Do you really think that no one would perceive there is a bridge over there?” he might ask, about a sign warning that a bridge was ahead. “Why explain it?” He would follow with a characteristic maxim: “When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots.”

What if your design is having the wrong effect?

What if you have designed a system that appears to be good for individuals, but is actually bad for the community as a whole? How would you know?

For years, Facebook was convinced that increased engagement with its news feed must have meant that it was doing a good thing. Only slowly, over a long period of time, did the negative consequences for society start to become clear. By then it was too late.

Some tech firms like Google and Apple are beginning to think about digital wellbeing. But these solutions are still narrowly focused on encouraging individual users to switch off. They aren’t yet focusing on improving society, and undoing some of those negative consequences that technology has begun to create.

How do we start thinking about and designing for communities?

Part of the reason we focus on individuals is probably because individuals are so much easier to research and measure than entire communities. These problems are compounded by the fact that we are tempted to seek quick wins that are easy to measure, rather than focusing on long term improvements.

Even when we think about larger communities, it still tends to be as an aggregate of all those individuals. There is not enough deep thought into how our designs affect communities as a whole.

In a world focused on “an increasingly short-sighted here and now”, we need to consider a bigger here, a longer now and a wider we.

Where are the big ideas about how design can positively impact not just individuals, but society as a whole? They don’t seem to be coming from the traditional user experience toolkit — yet.

The questions user experience needs to answer

The example of the squareabout raises questions about what user experience is, as Michael Thomas put it:

Who is the user of the traffic intersection—a person, a community, or something else? What is the relevant method of perception (and whose perception is it)?

A designer tasked with designing better iconography for a road sign, or for a better driver assistance system, would entirely miss Monderman’s solution of eliminating signage. In fact, a review of user-articulated experience qualifiers could lead one in the exact opposite direction, toward increasing signage and formalized way-marking purportedly to increase perceptions of safety. Is Monderman ignoring users?…

The problem is not merely that positive interface experiences might not add up into a positive holistic experience; but also that they may in fact be parasitic.

To have a truly positive impact on society, user experience needs to tackle these questions in a more meaningful way. We should make sure we use our skills to improve communities and societies, not just individuals’ experiences. Otherwise, there’s a chance we’re just making things worse.

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