How to Build Human-Centered Technology

October 24, 2015

4:00 pm

Remember the Ctrl-Alt-Delete Wand? It was a handheld tool from the late 1990s that could reach the Ctrl, Alt, and Delete keys on a standard-size keyboard. Sure, it accomplished a purpose, but did it catch on? No, because it’s a useless tool, requiring more energy than the alternative of accomplishing the task by hand. This Rube Goldberg machine over-complicated a problem people didn’t really have.

To be relevant, technology must have compelling use cases for resolving problems. The most important question to ask when creating a new technology isn’t whether it’s cool, cheap, or flashy — the most important question to ask is, “Can this improve people’s lives?”

Building Human-Centered Technology

Since the invention of the wheel, technology has been about solving problems with tools. We’ve become so inundated with specialized and multipurpose tools that we appear to have lost focus on the main point: human-centered technology.

Here’s how to avoid creating another useless wand and start building a tech tool that humans actually use:

1. Identify the Problem

If a problem isn’t being solved, the technology is a toy — plain and simple. Look at Uber: it enabled the general public to leverage mobile devices as transportation tools. With a company valuation topping $50 billion, many Uber users don’t want to return to a world before mobile-mediated ridesharing.

2. Test and Get Feedback

Anyone can come up with an idea, but no iconic technology is designed and built without plenty of user feedback. Fumbling around with a home’s HVAC controls was tricky and confusing before Nest simplified the interface and connected everything to the Internet. And it isn’t just Nest’s easy-to-use UI that is fueling its rise; the $250 product has also saved homeowners a collective 226 million kilowatt-hours of energy, or about $29 million in terms of U.S. energy costs.

3. Create a Positive Experience

Users are the best marketers because it’s human to want to show off a new toy. Just think back to the first-generation iPhone release in June 2007 — when technology is fun, exciting, and trendy, people want to talk to their friends about it.

Skully picked up where Google Glass dropped the ball by implementing augmented reality technology into motorcycle helmets. While Google Glass hit a wall of stigma, Skully’s modern look (and clearly defined use case) is encouraging wearers to show off the high-tech toy.

4. Encourage User-Generated Content

Wearables are starting to hit their stride because they’re so customizable. People can choose how to integrate them into their own looks and styles. Google is piloting a project to seamlessly embed touchscreens into fabric, and athletic gear manufacturer Under Armour is developing clothes that can track movements and biorhythms.

We’re in a time of drones, robots, 3D printers, and even a $9 microcomputer on Kickstarter. Sure, these tools are fun and exciting, but for them to reach the level of ubiquity of iPhones and PCs, these technologies must be more than user-friendly or cheap. They must demonstrate the propensity to solve problems intuitively, cleverly, and with a human-centered approach.

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Tony Scherba is the president and a founding partner of Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. Tony has been building software since his teen years, and he has led development on high-profile projects for global brands such as Google, Britney Spears, JBL, MIT and Linkin Park. Tony and the Yeti team work to develop game-changing products through innovation, workshopping, and rapid prototyping.