Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful

I recently came across Donald Norman’s latest essay “Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful”. In it, he challenges us to criticize the “human-centered” design paradigm, and offers an “activity-centered” design program as an alternative:

Human-Centered Design has become such a dominant theme in design that it is now accepted by interface and application designers automatically, without thought, let alone criticism. That’s a dangerous state — when things are treated as accepted wisdom. The purpose of this essay is to provoke thought, discussion, and reconsideration of some of the fundamental principles of Human-Centered Design. These principles, I suggest, can be helpful, misleading, or wrong. At times, they might even be harmful. Activity-Centered Design is superior.

It’s a provocative essay, and I certainly agree that “All fields have fundamental presuppositions. Sometimes it is worthwhile to re-examine them, to consider the pros and cons and see whether they might be modified or even replaced.” Yet, it remains difficult for me to leave the “human” aspect of “human-centered design” behind, especially in relation to my recent focus on the value and ethical dimensions of technical design.

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