To Design For Use, Design For Culture

I give shape to digital places. I have crafted systems that people have used to check their email, rent a movie, apply for car insurance, trade stocks, keep up with their hobbies, buy clothes, and gather medical information. In each of these cases a team of experts came together to build an understanding of the people that would use these systems. We practiced, in one form or another, user centered design.

At first these methodologies relied on observed behavior or self reported preferences. Starting at the turn of the 21st century influences from cultural anthropology and the cognitive sciences began to creep in to our discipline. Cognitive science gave us a solid understanding of user behavior, but it led us to the adoption of rules with little to no context. Anthropology supplied methods and approaches for the conduct of field research, but left out the key ingredient that would have built on the rules we learned from cognitive science – cultural context.

The brain does not develop or work in isolation. Patterns of behavior do not form outside a system of values and norms. Our perceptions and value judgements are created at the intersection of human cognition and shared value systems. Every human brain has the same fundamental structure, biochemical composition, and methods of operation, but the way we orient to our observations and make decisions about our actions is shaped by our culture.

To understand the users of the digital systems we create, we must understand the cultural context within which that user – that person – exists. Our values, perceptions, judgements, likes, dislikes, taboos, and desires find their origin in the cultural milieu in which we were raised. Our users will react to our designs through cognitive processing, but it is their culture that will shape the results and drive their behavior. The success of our work depends on designing systems that fit naturally within their cultural context.

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